A sermon preached by the Reverend Dr Trevor Jamison for
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields
October 2nd 2022
For Christians living in Western Europe, the early twenty-first century, is a difficult time, not that things were straightforward for Christians like the Apostle Paul and his younger fellow church leader, Timothy.
‘Paul, and apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise that is in Christ Jesus, to Timothy, my beloved child’ (1:1, 2) – that how the letter begins. Paul we know a lot about, or think we do, but who was Timothy, and why might Paul write to him?
Timothy was a much younger companion of Paul, who had been his frequent travelling companion and close friends. He was from Lystra, a town in present-day Turkey. Probably, Paul met him when he came there one of his missionary journeys. (If you were at last week’s evening service at Saint Columba’s you may remember that Paul and Barnabas were at first mistaken for gods when they arrived in Lystra, then run out of town.)
Now, several years and a lot of shared missionary work under the bridge, Timothy is a church leader, somewhere in a settled location, possibly in Ephesus. Paul cannot be with Timothy in person in order to advise and support him. We discover that he’s in prison somewhere else, probably in Rome. And since telephone, internet and Zoom are not available, he communicates by letter. And this letter is about Christian faith. That’s not surprising. What else would you expect it to be about after all? But in this first chapter of the letter it’s about coming to faith and holding on to faith and that should speak to us today.
How did Timothy come to faith? Well, meeting with Paul when the apostle came to Timothy’s home town, Lystra, probably had something to do with that! This letter, though, suggests a more complex picture, one in which others played a major part in the process of Timothy coming to faith. Let’s hear it for Lois and Eunice. Paul writes, ‘I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.’ (1:5)
The faith Timothy now held lived first in his grandmother, Lois, and his mother, Eunice; the older generations succeeded in passing on the faith they held to the youngest generation. Now that’s a process most of us will recognise because the majority of church goers in our setting were introduced to the Christian faith by the older generation or older generations in our own families, often supported by significant other figures from their generations. And for that we are, I hope, profoundly grateful.
That also draws to our attention a major problem that we face today – that this process of passing on the faith from generation to generation has largely, though not entirely, broken down. Very often today, the children of believers do not take on the faith of their parents, despite those parents’ best efforts. Indeed, in today’s churches, grandparents are often the ones bringing young children to church, being the Lois rather than the Eunice in this situation, now making their second attempt to engage the younger generation with faith.
It follows then, that as fewer and fewer children come to faith they will not bring their children to church. This creates a generation – now a couple of generations or more – who have no contact with church, no experience of a lived Christian faith. We who are Christians, and who love the Church, find this both distressing and overwhelming. The main tactic of the Church has been to provide children with the content of our faith. Then we encourage them to continue on the life of the church as adults, having confirmed that faith, or we produce “cunning plans” to encourage people to come back to church.
These are good things to continue to do, but if we rely upon them alone as our way of sharing the gospel with others, so as to lead them to join in with us on that journey along the Christian way, we will be disappointed. People will not be coming back to church because they have never been there in the first place. So, what should we do about that? Tonight I want to suggest four things.
First, acknowledge the lack of success, but don’t be ashamed about it. We tend to read the biblical stories about the early Church as though it was one enormous success story, despite the fact that the Book of Acts and the letters of Paul and others tell a different tale. In this letter, for example, Timothy is told, ‘do not be ashamed, then, about the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel.’ (1:8) Paul wouldn’t have said that if some people weren’t ashamed about the lack of success at this point. Not everyone was convinced by the gospel message. Some were so unconvinced that Paul had been arrested and imprisoned over it.
Second, then, let’s celebrate and affirm all the faithful people who have done their bit in trying to pass on to the next generations the good news of the love of God that’s there to be discovered and experienced through knowing Jesus Christ. It’s not been easy, especially in this era where social forces, processes and changes, which are beyond our control, have made this era one that’s cool towards religious faith. Church people have been keeping going in very trying circumstances. If Paul were around today I’m sure that he would be as grateful to God for the efforts made in our time as he was for the faith of the young Timothy.
Third, given our reduced circumstances as a church, let’s put our weight behind the things in church life that do seem to engage the attention and participation of people we wouldn’t normally see on a Sunday morning or evening at a church service. The first thing that comes to mind here is Messy Church, where we seem to get people taking part who don’t otherwise make an appearance in the life of the church. The nest thing that comes into my mind, then, is that we need to think about other ways in, or projects through which we could engage effectively with people in sharing faith, both as beliefs and actions.
Fourth, though, when engaging with others, we need to make sure not to water down Christian beliefs in order to get more people ‘in through the door.’ It’s good to have events where lots of people turn up, but what will be content of the event? Paul is very concerned that what people hear about, and what they experience, is centred on ‘the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.’ (1:10) You might think that’s rather strong – and it is! – but if we present some watered-down version of that will anyone think it worth joining in with anyway? Instead let’s offer what Paul here calls ‘the good treasure of the gospel,’ something that valuable and precious.
So, holding on to faith when few people are coming to faith is not easy. Let’s recognise that sharing the gospel is challenge, but then it always has been. Let’s give thanks for those who faithfully have shared the gospel with the younger generations, even when the response has not been encouraging. Let’s put our efforts where we see some response taking place. And let’s make sure to share the full gospel of God’s love for us, made known in Jesus Christ. This is the treasure worth discovering, worth sharing, worth believing in any and every generation.