Sunday, 23 October 2011

On the gospel and suffering for the gospel

2 Timothy 2:1-7
2 Timothy 2:1-7

A prayer: 'Father God, help us to think about this passage with our mind and heart, and give us, we pray, that which you promise: true understanding. Amen'

Paul, in prison for his faith and facing imminent execution, writes to Timothy, his apprentice.

He gives Timothy this final charge. But it is not just to Timothy. It is to any minister of the gospel. It is to the church.

The Church has been entrusted with a message. It is a message about Jesus Christ (we read it in v8: that the Galilean carpenter was the eternal son of God, that he died and rose again; that he is Saviour and Lord); and it is that in Jesus we preach repentance from sins for forgiveness, new life, justice, hope and peace.

Paul, in these 2 little letters, urges Timothy to guard this message, to preach this message and – here – to pass on this message.

It is an open message: 'What you heard from me in the presence of many witnesses'. Nothing is hidden (cf the gnostics; secret clubs with secret knowledge); and it is plain.
And just like a runner with the baton in a relay race, so Paul has handed the message to Timothy, so Timothy is to entrust the message to the next generation.

This message can be declared in prose, poetry, parable. It can be whispered, spoken, acted, sung, danced, shouted. It doesn't matter. What matters is that it is THE message of Jesus Christ that is passed on.

And Paul warns Timothy that this gospel task involves suffering.

Paul knew all about suffering. He is in prison facing execution.
Why? What awful crime has he committed? Theft, murder; has he incited rebellion against the Roman authorities?
Far from it. Paul is in prison because he persists in proclaiming the message that Jesus is the Christ, God's anointed ruler.

And so, in v9, he talks of suffering for the gospel.

If we look at this sociologically, Paul suffers because he proclaims that Jesus is Lord – and that, of course, is a challenge to anyone or anything else which claims ultimate allegiance of our life – whether a political authority, a person or a custom.
But if we look at this theologically, he suffers because the world is hostile to God, and it wihosted its anyone who comes in the name of God.

So Paul prepares Timothy for the suffering which lies ahead. It is part of being a Christian. 2 Tim 3:12 tells us that if we wish to live a godly life we will be persecuted. It is part of the work of preaching the message of Jesus.

But Paul points out that suffering for something is not unique to the Christian. He reminds Timothy of three people who suffer in different ways
1. The soldier
Prepared to put up with astonishing hardship, to face physical pain for the sake of the war of the commanding officer. The soldier is focussed on his task. He does not get entangled in civilian affairs: it is pointed out that those who are about to go over the trenches do not complain about the taste of the coffee, or the fact that the beds are hard. They want to know whether they can trust their c/o, [whether their weapons will work, whether they know what they've got to do] and whether they will live or die.

Of course we live in the world: there is a time for making the living conditions, the trenches, a bit more attractive or more comfortable. But – taking the example a bit further -we are not to forget that this is a trench. It is not home. As Christian believers we live in enemy occupied territory, and our task is to both suffer like soldiers and to fight for our commanding officer who desires its liberation.
2. The athlete
Elsewhere Paul uses the example of the athlete as the person who disciplines their body, and who perseveres to the end.
Here he talks of the athlete as someone who suffers because he competes according to the rules. In other words Paul is saying here that we will suffer because we seek to live according to divine rules and not human rules.

And that means that we fight with weapons of truth, love and service and self-sacrifice.
So, for example, when we are reviled, we do not revile back. We bless our enemies, and we do good to those who persecute us
The only offensive weapon that we have is the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. We do not fight by taking up the sword. We fight by preaching Jesus. We fight by spending time in prayer.

3. The hardworking farmer.
They suffer because they get up early in the morning, work physically hard, and go to bed late at night.
And this is a call to anyone who would be a minister of the gospel: to work hard.

But in using these three examples of people who suffer in order to stiffen Timothy's backbone, Paul is also encouraging him:
The soldier suffers to please his commanding officer. It is relational. How much more should we be prepared to suffer for our Lord and Saviour.

The athlete suffers in order to win the prize. How much more should we suffer to earn the prize, the 'well done good and faithful servant' of our master; the prize of eternal life.

The farmer suffers in order to share in the harvest. How much more should we suffer for the joy of seeing men and women come to know God, of becoming citizens of heaven, of sharing in forgiveness and the holy spirit and of the hope of heaven.

Finally, there is a danger that we try to do all this in our own strength, and so one final thought from the passage.
In verse 1 Paul writes, 'Be strong in the grace that is yours in Christ Jesus'. In other words God has already given you the strength to do this. You're not being asked to grit your teeth and go for it – like going to the dentist. We have one beside us, who has already strengthened us. We turn to him for strength.



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