The First reading we heard this morning was an extract from St. Paul`s First letter to Timothy (1 Timothy 6.6-19) and my reaction on seeing that it was set for today was considerable pleasure. I had a think about why I find these two letters which Paul wrote to his young apprentice so attractive… and I suspect it`s because like Timothy I`ve been very fortunate to have several really good mentors.
`ve been grateful to have known several people who have taken me `under their wing` as we say and have guided and encouraged me over the years. So when I read these letters I can hear voices from my very fortunate past saying the same kind of things as Paul…. And offering the same kind of practical and wise advice and counsel.
Now, the first thing which stands out for me in this particular extract is there in verse eleven. Paul has given quite a strong description of what it`s like when folk get captivated by the lure of wealth and then he simply says, “But as for you Man of God”. Paul is about to commend to Timothy a very different way of conducting himself…. but first he reminds Timothy of who he is. He calls Timothy “Man of God”.
This is a title which has all sorts of resonances in the Old Testament… which won`t have been lost on young Timothy but essentially Paul is bestowing on him a huge honour. It`s as if he`s saying that just like the great heroes of the faith, “You Timothy are also a servant of the King!”. So this expression is designed to make Timothy put his shoulders` back and begin to act accordingly.
Here we have Paul showing huge pastoral wisdom… and as we read this passage it`s designed to have the same effect on us. We`re asked to put our shoulders back and think “This means ME…. I too am a servant of the King”.
Far too often I hear people say “I think I`m a Christian” or “I`m not sure if I`m a Christian “ or “I`m not a very good Christian” If that`s you, then Paul wants you to listen carefully. You see the fatal flaw in all of these expressions is that we think it`s all about US.
But when Paul calls Timothy “Man of God” this is not a title which Timothy has earned or really has any choice in; it`s one he was given and one that has consequently called him to a particular way of life….
And the same is true of US. As we read this passage we are meant to hear the same thing said to us; “But as for you man or woman of God”. hat`s who you are…. So pull your shoulders back…. Remember who you are…..YOU are a servant of the King.
The other thing that`s going on here of course, is that it`s not just a matter of how clever Paul is at motivating people. His genius as a mentor is that he isn`t possessive. One man who was a huge influence on me was a Roma Catholic priest… I vividly recall him saying “I`m not out to make you a Catholic… but I`ll make you a better Anglican!”
In calling Timothy “Man of God” Paul isn`t claiming Timothy as his own; he isn`t attempting to control or manipulate him…. Paul is quite deliberately stepping to one side and making it clear that the relationship that actually matters here is between Timothy and the Lord.
This is Paul`s real wisdom. This is the key thing which any and every Pastor, Teacher, Vicar, Spiritual Director and any of us who seek to care in Christ`s name simply have to learn: it is not about US. Our task, our calling is to try to create a space or make it possible for people not so much to engage with US as with the Lord.
So for example, try to remember that next time you`re fretting about what to say to someone who`s grieving. It`s not about YOU and what you can or can`tt do or say for them…. It`s about them and the Lord…. The question is always, “How will you point them to HIM?”
Now, I`m basically focussing this morning on that one verse, verse eleven…. And I`d like us to notice the two particular things Paul goes on to ask Timothy to do. He uses two words “shun” and “pursue”. Paul is telling Timothy (and US) that if we`re going to live up to our calling there are both positive and negative things to think about.
Firstly, that word: ”Shun” is quite strong and categorical isn`t it? But Paul isn`t messing about. Many of us have been brought up with a bit of a phobia about the “Thou shalt nots” of religion but what Paul is doing (and it makes eminent good sense) is telling Timothy that faith in Christ involves making choices.
Just as Jesus said “You cannot serve God and Mammon….” (Matthew 6.24) Paul is saying “You have to shun…. You have to simply separate yourself from the entrapment which results from attempting to find security in your possessions”. Life in Christ`s new age involves making good choices based on a clear awareness that some things are just not good for us; some things as the old prayer puts it, “Assault and hurt the soul”. (Collect for Second Sunday in Lent).
I mean, there are comparisons here with our physical health. If I discover that I`m not sleeping I`ll choose to `Shun` coffee last thing at night. The key thing is knowing the effect that caffeine has… identifying the symptoms; making the connection and choosing accordingly. It`s not rocket science!
Well, the same is true of our spiritual health…. So for example, how good are we, I wonder at being as clear sighted about the effects upon us of things such as noise as opposed to quiet? What`s the effect of mixing with people who are inclined to gossip all the time?….. or as I`m always saying adopting Rupert Murdoch`s view of the world rather than that of Jesus Christ?
Paul is saying that since you are in the service of the King you must learn to choose accordingly…… Some things are just not good for us. His bottom line is that discipleship (a Christ-shaped life) is not accidental….
And so secondly, moving from the negative to the positive Paul invites Timothy to actively “pursue” certain patterns of living which will reflect his new identity.
It`s worth noting again the extreme language which Paul uses. “Pursue” here means to “Aggressively chase after”. Now this isn`t the same as that rather cramping and depressing religious `earnestness` which I know is such a turn off to people. But there are parallels with our physical health here as well.
I mean, if we get the word that we`re likely to have a serious medical condition then we “aggressively chase after” every possible avenue of treatment don`t we? We search the internet… we`re making doctor`s appointments… we`re wondering if we can `go private` and all the rest. In other words, when the chips are down we want to know what will make for a healthy physical life … because we believe it matters.
But, think about it. I suspect that the reason we don`t pursue or aggressively chase after the medicine of the Gospel … the patterns and habits that will expose us to the transforming work of God and the things that will feed the spirit is because we don`t think they matter quite as much…… As Stanley Hauerwas says… we`d rather put our trust in the Health professionals in the hope that we might get out of life alive……! It`s what we might call `functional atheism`.
So, Paul gives a list of things to pursue…. Which you may like to ponder. The first of them is `righteousness`. We could spend a long time on that word but I`ve heard it defined as “Giving both to people and to God their due”. It`s the virtue that you find in the lives of those who like Timothy know WHO they are… they are “men and women of God”. And they take seriously the call to choose. They are learning how to shun things harmful to the soul and to aggressively pursue the things that make for life.
Today Paul is OUR mentor and guide. This verse is for you and me. “But as for you, man (woman) of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness” (1 Timothy 6.11).