Oct. 13, 2019
2 Timothy 2:8-15
I had a New Testament professor in seminary who often gave these very rousing and inspired lectures during class. On multiple occasions class ended with standing ovations. I had never seen such a thing. The professor wasn’t new at his job; in fact, he had been at YDS for quite a long time. His list of publications and professional accolades was extensive, and in as much as NT professors can become famous, he was! All of this is to say that if anyone were to feel a bit bogged down and inconvenienced by the task of teaching an entry level, broad sweeping, course on scripture you might think it would be this guy. Someone asked him about this once, and though the content of the lectures escapes me, his reply does not. He said, “When I prepare a lecture on scripture I think first about the miracle of the bible that I am holding. I think about the sacred truths proclaimed within it, the God behind it, and the privilege of teaching from it.”
Those are good thoughts for us all to keep in mind, but especially for us preachers who take on the weekly task of drawing out the Good News from the passages we’ve been given. Sometimes, there is the temptation to see it as our weekly nut to crack rather than the opportunity to share in a grace that reaches though the centuries of real, lived history into the very love and beauty of an eternal God.
Second Timothy offers us a nice reminder of this real, lived history and shows us that before it was scripture for the church to interpret it was a letter from a person of faith to another person of faith, both of whom were supported and challenged by real people and real issues, which there is just no way we can fully understand. First there’s all these names: actual founders of an ancient church that’s grown into the Church that now includes us. There’s Prisca and Aquila, Onesiphorus, Erastus, Trophimus, Eubulus, Linus, Claudia, Pudens and others. There are troublemakers too. There are Hymenaeus and Philetus, both of whom have swerved from the truth and proclaimed a false message. There’s also Alexander the coppersmith – I love that we know his profession – who did Paul much harm and whom Paul warns Timothy about. There are other details too. Paul is writing from prison, likely old and possibly dying, asking for Timothy to come and visit him. By the way, he says, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus. Bring the books too, and most importantly, the parchments.”
This letter to Timothy, maybe more than any other text, gives us a peak into the personal side of the scriptures and reminds us that all these texts from the bible are part of a long, holy history and a divine agenda that is being worked out though lives as real and particular as our own. There’s context we can surmise and context we cannot possibly know. Clearly Paul is encouraging his young mentee, Timothy, to stay strong and true in the faith. Clearly there are those who would corrupt or silence the message they both proclaim. Some are announcing that the resurrection has already happened – we know this from Paul’s own words. Some are engaged in a dispute, the details of which we can’t really tell.
There’s a saying that Paul quotes and it would seem that it has something to do with an argument that we don’t really understand. “If we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful.” It’s the middle line that is problematic. If we deny him, he’ll deny us. Certainly, this conflicts with what Paul says elsewhere, and it’s not even entirely in keeping with the line that follows about remaining faithful. Unfortunately, it just isn’t clear what Paul intends or how he is interpreting the saying because we don’t know enough about the context. What’s a bit more clear, however, is what Paul wants Timothy to do about it. “Avoid wrangling over words.” “Avoid profane chatter.” Instead, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by God, a worker who has no need to be ashamed.”
“Present yourself to God as one approved by God.” That’s the key line. Live as though the victory has been won, the Good News accomplished, your salvation already begun. Forgive others, forgive yourself, and step without fear into what God has in store. Shed what holds you back and cling to the really real reality of grace that defines your life.
With this as our message, our gospel passage is perfectly paired because that’s exactly what the Samaritan leper does. Did you notice that he doesn’t follow Jesus’ instructions? The 10 lepers call out to Jesus for help and he sends them off to present themselves to the priests. While on their way they are healed, and instead of continuing on to the priests this one leper turns back. He throws himself at Jesus’ feet and he offers thanks and praise.
There’s a kind of freedom in this leper’s response. He’s free to do the more important thing. Free to see the priests later. Free to let the grace of what’s happened change the direction of his life. But, the important question for us is: what exactly has happened? For that I want to read a bit from Debbie Thomas’ latest “Journey with Jesus” reflection. She shares about a childhood trip to her family’s home in India.
“One morning, as my father was standing in line to buy tickets at a village train station, my little brother pointed to two figures hunched in a corner. “What’s wrong with them?” he asked.
By then we’d been in India for several weeks, and I was accustomed to seeing the abject poor. Exhausted women with too-thin babies on their hips. Men who were blind or lame. Pot-bellied children who stared at my Western clothes. My brother and I spent a lot of our time asking my parents for spare change to share.
But these two figures at the train station were different. Their faces were distorted, their fingers were half-missing, and their feet were scary, mottled stumps. Though I had coins ready in my fists, I was too afraid to approach them.
We asked our father a second time what exactly we were looking at. “They’re sick,” my father answered after a quick, pitying glance in the direction of the two figures. “They have leprosy.”
The train station was very crowded that day. I remember it swarming with travelers, vendors, squatters, and beggars. But those two individuals huddled in the shadows were alone in a way I’d never seen before. Their aloneness was otherworldly. It was as if some invisible barrier, solid as granite, separated them from the rest of humanity, rendering them wholly untouchable. Yes, their wasted limbs and marred faces frightened me. But what frightened me much more was their isolation, their utter and complete non-belonging.
The lepers in this week’s Gospel story also live in the shadows. They subsist in a no-man’s-land, “a region between.” According to the customs of the day, they live in seclusion, keep their distance from passersby, sport torn clothes and disheveled hair, and announce their own contagion in loud, humiliating cries: “Unclean! Unclean!”
So when Jesus heals their leprosy he doesn’t merely cure their bodies; he restores their identities. He enables their safe return to all that makes us fully human — family, community, companionship, and intimacy. In healing their withered skin and numbed limbs, he releases them to feel again — to embrace and be embraced, to worship in community, to reclaim all the social and spiritual ties their disease steals from them. In other words, Jesus enters a no-man’s-land — a land of no belonging — and hands out ten unblemished passports. He invites ten exiles home.”
So, it’s not just a physical healing that Jesus gives. It is the restoration wholeness, personhood, and a sense of place in God’s world. This is the gift that grace offers us all, and it is this Samaritan leper who teaches us how to respond to grace.
To live our lives in response to grace is really what it means to be a Christian. It is, as Paul says, “to present ourselves to God as one approved by God, a worker who has no need to be ashamed,” and no reason not to embrace the remarkable calling to join hands with the holy one in embracing the world.