Oct. 2, 2022
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Today’s sermon is a bit of a bible study, or at least it begins that way. The picture on the cover of your bulletin shows a fragment of ancient Greek writing and looks very much like what you would see if you were reading the earliest biblical manuscripts of the newer testament. (The librarian at the Beineke library at Yale wasn’t permitted to bring out the piece of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that they have, so she showed us this one.)
I would like to invite you to look at it with me and make some observations.
First, what do you notice about the size of the characters? (They are all the same size; there’s no capitalization, which might make it a little challenging to read.)
What about punctuation? (There is none, which makes it a little more difficult to read and interpret.)
What do you notice about spacing? (Again, there is none. No spacing between thoughts and sentences. No indents for new paragraphs. Certainly, no chapter and verse numbers.)
Is there anything else you notice?
There’s also no prepositions! No on’s, or in’s, or of’s, or under’s.
That, of course, makes a big difference in how certain passages are to be understood, and it’s at the heart of an essential concept within Christian faith.
In doing a quick Google search I came across a web post subtitled: “A selected timeline of important contributions to the pistis christou debate since 1983.”[i] The debate picked up steam in the late 80’s and into the 90’s and according to the article continued until 2009 – at least, that’s the date of the last contribution, which is probably an indication that the post that I was reading was written in 2009. In other words, I’m sure the debate continues.
“Pistis Christou” means literally “faith Christ.” And, the debate is all about which preposition to use. Prior to the early 80’s there wasn’t much scholarly discussion. The preposition was assumed. “Pistis Christou” meant “faith in Christ.” But, then it dawned on people, given context, grammar and other clues that that interpretive choice wasn’t always so clear. Another very reasonable option was “faith of Christ.” In fact, in the bibles that I use there’s a notation next to every “faith in Christ” that refers me to a footnote that offers the alternative.
Sam K. Williams is the author of the second contribution in the list of important contributions from the website. He was also my professor in college who introduced the debate to a group of us who were doing an in-depth dive into the book of Galatians. There, Paul is writing to one of the congregations that he had founded – a group of gentile converts to Christian faith – who later decided outside of Paul’s influence, that they really needed to adhere to certain Jewish practices (possibly keeping kosher) in order to be properly Christian. Now, Paul is unhappy about it because for him it comes down to being nothing less than a matter of the very nature of salvation. Do we earn salvation by adhering to specific rules, or is salvation a matter of faith and grace? So, in Galatians 2:16 Paul writes, “we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but though ‘pistis Christou.’”
And, now the question is: what exactly does pistis Christou mean? If we say it means, “faith in Christ,” then Paul is telling us that we are “justified,” or “made righteous,” by our belief in Jesus. On the other hand, if he is saying that we are saved through the “faith of Christ,” the faith isn’t our own act, but rather, Christ’s act. It’s his faith that saves us, and not our own. And that, my friends, is a significant difference. Is faith in a way a “work” that we must do in order to be saved? Or, is faith something that Christ does (or has) that works on our behalf?
I’ll let you think for yourself about the answer to that question. I remember my professor, Sam Williams, expressing some dismay that though his article had become an influential voice in the debate, his solution wasn’t much picked up on. Sam’s thought was that Paul’s suggestion is that it is our faith in the faith of Christ that saves us. If I understood him correctly, which is a big IF because it’s been a long time since college, our faith is something like the unwrapping of a gift that is Christ’s faith. Our faith enables us to experience what it is that Christ’s faith effects. Our faith doesn’t make our salvation happen; rather, it makes it real to us. (But again, I can’t say for sure that that’s what Sam meant.)
All of this comes to mind this morning because of the very brief line of scripture from the Gospel of Luke that began our service. In it Jesus tells his disciples that if they have faith even the size of a mustard seed they would be able to move mountains. It flows like this: talking to his followers he says, if another follower sins against you you must rebuke them, and if they repent you must forgive them. And if they sin against you and then repent seven times a day you must forgive them. Presumably, in response to these instructions the disciples say, “Increase our faith!” In other words, “We’re going to need more faith if we’re going to be able to do all that.” And, that’s when Jesus gives the mustard seed line.
As I see it, you can interpret the passage a couple of ways. You can say, a mustard seed is very small. Surely we have at least that much faith. He must be saying that we have all the faith that we need to do really remarkable things.
Or, as I’m struck by it, the passage says that faith isn’t a quantifiable thing the way other things are. We hear this line by Jesus and we say, certainly, in my better moments I have what I think is faith. But, I know that my little faith can do nothing so monumental as move mountains. My faith, human faith, is fickle and fleeting; it is inconsistent at best. Ultimately, it is unknowing when compared to the infinite eternal benevolence toward which we direct our faith. What’s our faith compared to the “beyondness” of God? But, while my faith is small, Christ’s faith is eternal. Christ’s faith is God’s faith made flesh. Christ’s faith abides humanity’s sins and offers forgiveness. Christ’s faith knows the world’s disbelief yet believes nonetheless. Christ’s faith suffers rejection and death only to continue through it, to live on beyond it, to offer itself for us and to us.
Christianity is a decidedly strange and unsettling kind of religion in that way. It’s not about fulfilling requirements or following rules. It is not primarily about human activity, which is what makes it so confounding. You could be at it for a lifetime and still feel like a beginner, like someone who doesn’t really know what they know. But, that’s really not so off base when we accept that Christian faith is first and foremost about God’s ongoing activity. It is captured in the sacrament that we celebrate this morning and that the Church has always centered its life around: it’s the giving of God’s self to us and within us so that we might be more than just “us.” It’s a sharing in God’s Spirit so that our spirits might know life that is greater than our own…
In a way things are crumbling around the authors of our other two passages today. The Psalmist laments Babylon’s destruction of Jerusalem. The city is sacked, the temple destroyed. The people of God have lost their home, their spiritual center, their sense of self and place in God’s world. Imagine the devastation of Fort Meyers, but done not by a hurricane but by another people whose intent was their destruction. Thus, we get the psalm’s chilling final line from a voice that cannot imagine forgiveness or a possible way forward.
Second Timothy is the voice of an imprisoned Paul whose career and life are coming to an end. It’s not nearly as mournful, yet it reflects the recognition of a man’s mortality and his reliance upon a grace greater than himself as he’s left with passing along the torch of his ministry to another follower.
To me both passages point to the hope of a “pistis Christou” that is the faith of Christ. They remind me that before God we are all ultimately laid bare as merely human. They remind me that we cannot save ourselves, and they remind me of the good news that we need not save ourselves. We are invited to let go of those fruitless efforts because, no doubt, whatever human notions of salvation we own pale in comparison to God’s reality of it. Instead, of learning to live, we are invited to receive God’s life. Instead of being strong we are invited to receive our strength in God. Instead of loving the world we are invited to let God’s love love through us.
It’s strange how this sounds both easy and hard to me. It’s easy because there’s not a single heroic thing that we must do. It is hard though because to rely on another, even when that other is God, means giving way in ways that invite uncertainty and risk. But again, the good news is that we never go it alone. We have each other with whom to practice our proximity to God. We have worship, and prayer, and service to our neighbors by which we stay close to God. And, most of all, we have a God who loves us and holds enough faith for us all.