Sermon for 16 Oct 2016. Trinity 21
2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5
[Peter and Barbara were marking their golden wedding by renewing their marriage vows.]
A lot of people fear that the art of letter writing is dead. If, like me, you have embraced modern technology and correspond with typed letters, email, Facebook Messenger or other online methods, then sitting with a real pen and paper is quite a daunting experience. My handwriting was never good, and over the years it seems to have deteriorated to the point where even I can’t read things I’ve written in a rush. So, Peter and Barbara, I hope you’re impressed how neat my writing was on the card I sent you. I wrote it very slowly!
The Bible contains quite a lot of letters. Most of them are in the New Testament, and the majority are credited to St Paul, including the second letter to Timothy that we heard read earlier. The section we heard captures what seem to be a kind of farewell address from Paul to his young companion and he packs lots of points in.
My daughter, Ellie, is now at University in London, and she’s phoned and also sent messages about what a great time she’s having. It prompted me to remember phoning home from University in the early 80s. First you needed some coins, then you queued up to use a payphone, and then as the money was running out, you quickly said everything you needed to say before it cut you off. This part of the letter feels like that – it reads like someone rattling off a lot of points before the time runs out. And it may well reflect Paul’s final thoughts before his execution in Rome in the late 60s AD. The next sentence after the bit we have printed, it says “the time of my departure has come”.
So, if you only had a brief time to say what you needed to say, what would you want to include? It’s a good question to reflect on.
Timothy was a young side-kick to Paul. His mother was a Jew, but his father was Greek. And in verses 14 & 15, the first thing he is reminded of is to hold on to the wisdom and teaching that had been handed down to him. Those sacred writings – scripture – would only be what we call the Old Testament, which had been collected together and even translated into Greek by this time.
Next week is Bible Sunday, but we have something different coming up then. It’s really helpful that this reading came up this week. What does Paul say to Timothy about Scripture.
The first thing he says is that it is inspired. (v16) In the original language, it says god-breathed. Some religious traditions have sacred writings that are regarded as having been dictated by God. The Quran has to be correct in every detail when printed, and in Arabic for that reason. The book of Mormon is believed by Mormons to have been delivered on gold pages by an angel.
Christians have never seen the Bible in that way. It isn’t a dictated set of instructions, although as verses 16 and 17 state, it is believed to be useful for guiding and correcting. Much of the Bible is story or poetry, but within that unique and special story, people have found inspiration and faith.
It’s quite remarkable that through the history of the church, people have found faith just by reading the Bible. St Augustine and Martin Luther were converted whilst reading verses from the letter to the Romans, and John Wesley’s heart was strangely warmed, as he put it, by reading what Martin Luther wrote about Romans – it even worked second-hand!
It’s one reason that the Gideon organisation still try to ensure Bibles are placed in hotels, hospitals and other public places. They believe that God can still speak into people’s lives today through the words of this ancient and sometimes difficult book, because our faith is that it is inspired.
Second, he says it’s useful.
I have quite a lot of useful things in my house and garage. For example, I have a soldering iron. My dad gave it to me – he spent a lot of his working life, working for a telecoms company, using a soldering iron. He still uses one a lot at the age of 88, which causes me a degree of anxiety, as you can imagine. Whenever I visit him, there is always an old radio that someone has asked him to fix, as he will know what to do. He probably has the valves in his shed, and he’s handy with a soldering iron. My soldering iron is useful; it’s just that I never use it.
However, I do have a mini vacuum cleaner that’s rechargeable. It’s absolutely brilliant for chasing round after all the fluff that our dog, Dino, leaves around the house. I find little bundles, like tumbleweed around the place, and this gadget sucks it all up. That’s useful – and I use it.
The scriptures – the Bible – is the essential tool for the Christian life, says Paul. It’s what you use to shape and correct your life; to line it up to God’s way.
Now when we think of the Bible correcting or challenging people, we might have an awful vision of people with big Bibles, placards and condemning words. That’s not what Paul means. He debated, he had conversations, he wrote letters, he argued, he preached. In every circumstance, his toolkit was his memory of the scriptures and his knowledge of the story of Jesus. It was his anchor, his reference book and his guide.
We all have useful things we don’t use; Paul’s plea is that Bible isn’t one of them
But following on from that, thirdly, it is the place we find Jesus.
Verse 15 on the first page, our faith is in Jesus Christ. If you listen to some Christians, they sound like their faith is in the Bible. But that’s wrong – it’s in a person. Christians are people who are committed to following Jesus, not a set of statements, a constitution, a flag or a book. And our lifelong task is to work out what is means to be faithful followers as we face the many and varied challenges of this life.
The key to doing that is to spend time with the story of Jesus. For Paul, that would have meant listening to people who were eye-witnesses, and Paul himself wrote a bit down – especially the story of the last supper. It may be that he heard or even read early versions of what would become a gospel – it’s not possible to say. But he clearly knew the story.
And knowing your story is important. There’s a series on the First World War just started on BBC4. It’s good because it doesn’t just focus on the western front – it goes into what was going on in Austria and Serbia and inside Germany, which helps to explain how things happened. And those events probably affected all of our families. My grandmother’s first husband was killed in the trenches, and at least one other relative was gassed. My grandad was out there from Jan 1916. It was only because of the war that he met my gran, who was a widow, and they got married. I still remember standing in the Pozières cemetery looking at the memorial to my gran’s first husband and reflecting on that very strange thought that if he hadn’t died, there would be no memorial and I wouldn’t exist. There’s the big story of the war, and yet in the middle of it is part of my family’s story and my story. It’s part of who I am.
In the same way, those who are followers of Jesus are shaped by the story of Jesus. His story is our story. That’s why we have a gospel reading at every communion service. We reacquaint ourselves with the person we follow, and the story that has shaped us. And we hear more of that story in the communion prayer itself. We’re reminded of the story before we share in communion, which are the symbols and sign of the climax of the story – the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s part of who we are.
So reading, reflecting, discussing, sharing, learning and wrestling with the story of the Bible is essential to us all, otherwise we don’t know who we are, where we came from, or where we are going. Most of all, we need to know who we are following.
So the Bible is inspired, not dictated, which means it speaks for itself and changes lives.
The Bible is useful – sometimes bewildering, but correcting, challenging and informing us.
But most of all, the Bible is our family story – a story of struggle, rebellion, forgiveness, reconciliation and most of all, the story of Jesus, the one we are called to follow.
Mike Peatman, Rector of Morecambe Parish Church