Saturday, October 9, 2010

Sermon: The Word of God is Not Chained

2 Timothy 2:8-15

8 Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, 9for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. 10Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. 11The saying is sure:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
12 if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.
14 Remind them of this, and warn them before God* that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. 15Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.

One of the hard things for us to do in reading a passage like today’s is to connect to the reality that the author was writing to. The church in the time of this letter to Timothy was facing persecution the likes of which most of us will never see, and so it’s difficult for us to get a real sense of what it was like to hear this letter read aloud in church. It’s socially acceptable for us to come to church. None of us had to sneak out of our homes to avoid detection by the police or the military to get here…or if you did, perhaps we need to talk after the service. None of us is facing arrest for being here. None of us has to worry about losing our job because we are here this morning. We get to worship in the light of day, wearing our Sunday finery, and come to church openly, and leave church openly. There are no negative social or public consequences for us being here.
The opposite was true for much of the church’s first centuries. Worship gatherings were banned, Christians were forced to choose between faithfulness to their church or their lives and livelihoods. When refusing to renounce their faith meant a death sentence, worship attendance became an act of defiance and an act of faith in God. When we read this letter to Timothy, it helps to have some sense of the danger his Christian community was in…and the importance of knowing the scriptures, the stories, and the teachings about Jesus Christ, so that they might be able to hold on to their faith and their faithfulness. Even when they did not have access to the written documents of their faith, they could still know God’s Word, and for this reason, the author of this epistle says “the word of God is not chained.”
I’m not sure whether it’s a blessing or a curse that we can all own our own Bibles. Okay, that’s not true. It’s definitely a blessing that the Bible is so widely available, and that we can each read it for ourselves, in our own language, in a version that’s easy to understand and doesn’t require an advanced degree…unless that’s how we choose to read it, in an older translation or another language. But when the Bible did not exist in book form as we know it, Christians gathered for extensive readings from the apostles’ letters and the gospels…and they learned to hide the words in their hearts, just as the Jewish scriptures commanded.
One of the ways they “hid the word in their hearts” was in song. Verses 11-12 of today’s passage have a rhythm to them that suggests that they were part of an early Christian hymn. “The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; 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—for he cannot deny himself.”
This is not the only piece of the New Testament that seems to quote an early hymn. Not too long ago, Pastor Eric preached on the 2nd chapter of Philippians, which contains a portion of another hymn: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

In the case of this Philippians passage, you can hear very clearly that this is a kind of creedal statement. Like the creeds we use as Affirmations of Faith, they are basic statements of what we believe to be important about God. The Apostles’ Creed, which we will say/have said today (at 11) is considered to be a statement of beliefs that are essential to the faith, and even churches which say that they are non-creedal can usually agree to the content of this creed. But I digress.
In church, we encourage one another to memorize elements of our scripture and worship that are important to us. The Lord’s Prayer is one of these; we print the words in the bulletin each week for the comfort of those who have not memorized it, and also for the comfort of those of us who, having known this prayer for so long, occasionally get lost in the familiarity of it, but most of us don’t need the paper. We learn the Lord’s Prayer through repetition, through practice in Sunday Schools and youth groups, and it becomes a part of us. Our LOGOS children are learning it in worship skills, and with it, a little about what it means to us, as an affirmation of our faith that God is holy, that God cares for us and supplies our needs, and that we are called to discipleship by God’s goodness.
Now is the time for my confession: I don’t memorize scripture well. It’s not unusual in Bible study for me to be able to paraphrase a passage but not to recite it word for word. And I can generally tell you roughly where a verse I cite comes from, but not always give you chapter and verse. Those of you who grew up with “sword drills” or Bible memorization contests may think badly of me for that. But the reality is that I’ve never been much for memorizing anything. I can drive somewhere a dozen times and still need to have directions. I can read and study scripture for years, and I have, and still not be able to recall the exact wording of a favorite passage on demand, and I can prepare the same fudge pie over and over again and I still have to look at the recipe. It is what it is.
Now, one thing I can memorize is music. My mind is full of bits and pieces of songs, and I can sing sections of probably thousands of pieces of music, most of which I’ve heard on the radio and don’t necessarily feed my spirit or seem to be appropriate for the pulpit. But hundreds of those pieces of music are hymns and Christian songs as well. Somehow, our brains are wired so that we store music in a different way than other words we learn, and I am able to access that information more easily. It is hidden in my heart in a different way from all that scripture I can talk about, and so I can recall those songs word for word. Rather than being confined to the hymnal, the Word of God that is taught and sung in our hymns is not chained.
The Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed have some music, some rhythm to them too, and so I have managed to memorize them and made them a part of me. If something terrible were to happen—like the persecution the early Christians who were the original recipients of 2 Timothy faced, or the imprisonment of American soldiers in Vietnam—I would not lose everything I know about my faith. I would not have to rely on my experiences alone to tell me that God loves me, which might have been a hard message to get through in such terrible times. I could share my faith with others with the prayer, the creed, and the hymns I had memorized, and could connect my faith to the faith of countless others in sharing them. In sharing the piece of hymn that is in our passage today, the author was encouraging early Christians, and by extension all of us, to make the word of God found in the Bible, along with the teachings of the church by Christ and the Holy Spirit, live in our hearts. The word of God is not chained.
It has become a part of our Christian culture to call the Bible the word of God. There’s even a translation that calls itself the God’s Word version. But we do God’s Word a disservice when we confine it to words on paper, limit the Word of God to the print in a book. The words in our Bible are the Word of God, but they are not all that the word of God is. The word of God is not chained to ink and paper and binding glue.
The Bible itself tells us this. Not only do we have the witness of the author of 2 Timothy that although he may be in chains in prison, the word of God is not, we also have John 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Word made flesh was Jesus Christ, and we believe that in the Resurrection, he lives on in us. Jesus promised us the Holy Spirit, which would remain with us as God’s continued presence in our lives, guiding us and helping us understand what God’s living Word would have us do. The word of God is not chained, because the Word of God is not limited; not by ink and paper, not by the recollection of a single person, not by our experiences alone, not by restricting it to some people but not all. And to keep us all from getting confused (and that means me, too), I’m going to use some signs here to help me distinguish between the written word of God and the living Word that is Jesus Christ.
The Word of God is not chained, but is free for all people. And they hear the Word of God, come to meet the Word in the form of Jesus Christ, in part through the words we use. After that little snatch of hymn, the author of today’s passage reminds his audience to “avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening.” The primary way those who do not know Christ come to learn about him is from us: those who do know him. They learn from our words, but mostly from our actions, how our behavior demonstrates that we truly believe what we say. “Do as I say, not as I do,” might work for parents on occasion, but it never works as a means to help someone come to know Christ.
What the writer of 2 Timothy is cautioning his people against is an endless wrangling over what the Word of God means, rather than spending time being shaped by it. He is warning them not to get distracted by what I might call “theologizing”: as opposed to doing theology, which is in essence, thinking about God and God’s interactions with people, theologizing is obscuring the Word of God by focusing on minutia and denying the full power of the Word. By extension, he is warning us not to let arguing about what exactly the written word of God says distract us from doing the work of God the living Word calls us to do.
I am not denying the authority of the written word of God, but I am insisting that the Word of God does not end there. My husband likes to say that Jesus Christ was a professional rule-breaker: he healed on the Sabbath, ate with tax collectors and sinners, spoke with women and foreigners and treated them as important to God. But the reality is that Jesus transcended some of the rules in the word of God as contained in the scriptures he knew. He made things a lot messier for us by teaching in parables and requiring us to do the work of applying them to our lives and situations. Just as one example, Jesus’ teaching about God’s love for each human being and how to treat one another with dignity and compassion as well as accountability led us, eventually, to conclude that slavery, an acceptable practice in the Bible which is God’s word, is not acceptable to us, a people who love and serve the living Word of God. We no longer believe that slavery is a practice acceptable to God. The Word of God has taught us something that the written word does not say, because the Word of God is not chained.
This is perhaps better news to us than we might realize. To a persecuted church, to say that the word of God is not chained means that God’s grace is not dependent on one person, who could be imprisoned or killed. It is not dependent on one congregation, which can be scattered and broken up. It is not dependent on words in a book that can be outlawed and burned. It is not dependent on circumstances to prove that God is good because life is good. Instead, the Word is set free when it is known and shared by many, who hide God’s word in their hearts and strive to be the Body of Christ, incarnating the Word of God. The Word of God has power to speak good news into the worst news: poverty, sickness, enslavement, imprisonment, brokenness.
The Word of God lives on in the people of God, who embody that Word as we read it, learn it, teach it, and make it a part of us. The Word of God is not chained when we, who claim the name Christian, embody Christ and his teachings and struggle to do the best we can to live up to that Word that has meant grace and salvation for us. And so we are called to live a life that reveals the Word of God to others, that demonstrates by our words and actions that God’s word is not chained, that reaffirms our faith that even in the deepest darkness, the Light and love of God in Christ cannot be extinguished. Even death on a cross cannot separate us from God’s love. The Word of God is not chained: not by the circumstances we find ourselves in, not by the worst men and women can do to one another, not by any limits we try to put on the grace of God in Christ. The word of God is free: free to change our lives, free to change how we see others, free to share and free to live.
If that’s not good news, I don’t know what is.

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