open book on a table

“A Spiritual Gift”

A sermon drawn from 2 Timothy 1:1-14

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It’s been getting colder in recent weeks – people have probably noticed that – colder in the evenings and colder in the mornings …

And some of us may even have noticed a faint smell of wood smoke in the air here or there … where I live, I can’t tell whether this is because someone has had a bonfire, or because someone may have fired up their wood stove a little early …

Which I mention because one of the first things Paul says to Timothy here in this letter – in this very warm, personal appeal he makes as he launches into his advice for ministry – one of the first things Paul says to Timothy is that he wants him to “rekindle” the gift he has from God.

And that image of “rekindling” literally calls to mind what we have to do with fire, like a fire in a wood stove that burned down late in the evening, and was carefully banked to keep some of the coals alive through the night, and then needs to be brought back to life in the chill of the morning by laying some more sticks of kindling on it, to catch fire on those coals, and maybe fanned a little, and then laying on a new log or two, as the fuel for the coming day.

This whole process isn’t something that went out with the pioneers, either – admittedly, most folks in southern Indiana heat their homes with gas or electricity these days, but enough people have wood stoves that this activity of rekindling a fire that has burned low is recurrent personal experience for … maybe some of us here, or any way, for our neighbors.

And it is exactly what Paul seems to be telling Timothy to do with this gift of God within him. And the very word itself, in Greek, reminds us that we really do think of fire as alive – the word in Greek is a compound word that includes the word for “life” or “living thing” and the word for “fire,” so it sounds literally like “make the fire alive again.”

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Hopefully, that image of fire makes us think of the Holy Spirit.

Because fire is one of the four natural elements – along with wind, or air, and water – that we particularly associate with the Holy Spirit, sort of the way we particularly associate the fourth natural element, of earth, with humanity. We might notice that earth is an element that can be quite inert on its own, and it needs the enlivening movement of … something else … of the Spirit … to do everything it’s capable of doing.

But of course, as soon as we think of the Holy Spirit – and if we get the idea that Paul is reminding Timothy that he carries within him the gift of God, which is the Holy Spirit – then someone will say, but … all Christians have the gift of the Holy Spirit! Christians have the gift of the Holy Spirit in baptism, Christians have the gift of the Holy Spirit in our communion with the Triune God in the Lord’s Supper, Christians have the gift of the Holy Spirit in the witness of the Holy Spirit that helps us understand scripture when we read it, and have that gift in the worship and fellowship of the body of Christ, that animates this body of believers for ministry in the world, and have it in all kinds of special ways in their individual spiritual gifts … in fact, hopefully more than one or two people will say that, hopefully everyone will say that … will say, hey, ALL Christians have that same Spirit …

I don’t want to take anything away from ordained ministry, or from that laying on of hands that Paul mentions – something we still do, too – by saying all Christians have that same gift of the Holy Spirit. But we know, I hope, that ordained ministry is about doing specific work in or around the church, and not about having some different spirit, or more of the Holy Spirit, but about what function or work people are asked to do, and it’s about how some functions do require everyone to know that yes, this person has been called and recognized to do that work – sometimes we, and the workers themselves, need to see that and literally feel that …

Although if this congregation is anything like some of the other Presbyterian congregations I’ve met, whenever anyone IS ordained for the first time, say as an elder or a deacon, and whenever “ordained elders” are invited to join in with the laying on of hands, mostly the whole congregation joins in that event …

The main point here, though, is that when Paul tells Timothy he wants to remind him to make the fire alive again in the gift of God he has within him through the laying on of hands, we’re inclined to think he’s probably talking about a gift for a particular kind of work, not the gift of a different kind of spirit.

So when he says “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” he’s not talking about a spirit that is only for him and Timothy and a few others, but about THE Spirit that is the core spiritual gift to all Christians, the Holy Spirit, who makes bringing alive every other particular gift in a person’s life possible.

And Paul wants Timothy to rekindle that particular gift … we think, maybe, from some of the other things we know about Paul and Timothy, maybe that particular gift was for teaching, or for reaching out and organizing people in the early church to spread the word about Jesus Christ, which was new news in those times … wants Timothy to rekindle that particular gift, which might indeed be a dangerous one under the circumstances, since exercising a similar gift has landed Paul in prison at the time he’s writing this letter, but Paul still wants Timothy to rekindle that particular gift, with the fire of the spirit all we Christians have, that Holy Spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

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Admittedly, that sentence sounds a little bit like we’re playing that children’s game, “which one of these is not like the others.” Because we probably hear the words power and love as Holy Spirit kind of words, words with movement in them … the Greek word for “power” here is literally where we get our English word “dynamic” from, it’s about having the ability to do things, even miraculous things; and the “love” here is the famous agape kind of love, that reaches out to secure the well-being of others regardless of conditions, so, it’s expansive …

but we might think of self-discipline as a lot more … about holding people back from doing things, more about … not eating that last donut, or not driving over the speed limit … more about limiting than about lighting a fire and fanning it into life and making something happen.

But in fact … that word in Greek is an interesting word, that at its root has something to do with balance and with guidance – balance we’d need if we were in a sport, like skiing, or skateboarding, or surfing, where that balance would be the difference between delight and disaster

So, for example, if there are two extremes, say, impulsiveness and paralysis when it comes to making a decision, or carelessness vs. perfectionism when it comes to doing a project, self-discipline is the ability to steer skillfully between those extremes, to think about what’s the best course of action without never getting started, to move ahead without rushing in before thinking, to get things done without serious errors, but to let good enough be good enough, etc.

Self-discipline is that kind of practical, wise, ability to use good judgment, to take prudent risks without being reckless but in the knowledge that there are no guarantees in life, to speak the truth in love – that is, not unkindly or brutally, but honestly even when there is something uncomfortable or even painful to communicate … etc. Those are all examples of the spiritual quality of self-discipline that Paul means here, something more like “the ability to take action in a way that’s guided by wisdom and reason.”

Granted, that ability to take action in a way that’s guided by wisdom and reason probably does include not taking the last donut and does include not exceeding the speed limit, especially on wet, windy roads, but it encompasses much, much more.

So, that spirit, of power and of love and of self-discipline is God’s original and universal gift of Godself to the church, to all Christians, is that Spirit who keeps nudging us and who ultimately in every case empowers us to make alive the fire of every other specific talent and gift and possibility we have within us.

So what Paul seems to be saying here, to Timothy, is … you’ve got a gift, and you’ve got the power to do something with that gift, and you’ve got faith in God that this work and this message matters, you need to let that spirit move you to wake up, to make that gift alive, to let it shine, …

And don’t worry about the possible drawbacks.

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Because there may be some. In those days, the drawbacks were that the Christian message was more than unpopular, it was officially discouraged, sometimes violently – because people in high places thought it was actively subversive of good social order, it was too countercultural, it was going to convince people not to support the Roman imperial structure. And that is aside from the ways it critiqued the dominant culture of its day, a culture that was based on being a top dog, lording it over as many under dogs as a man could. A culture that valued power, privilege, and prestige above everything else …

Which, come to think of it … may not be that different from our own time after all.

In the face of a culture like that, the message of Jesus Christ – a ruler who gave up power to rescue unpromising humanity; a messiah who died on a cross, crucified by imperial soldiers, looking like a failure; a liberation from sin and death that involves dying with Christ, in order to rise with Christ – that message wasn’t designed to appeal to the average first century mind, conditioned to think “might makes right” and “nice guys finish last.”

And yet … it did call to more and more people in that first century world, because it called them with the power to overturn and transform that mind – called them by the same spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline that made alive the body of Christ, then, and keeps making it alive, now.

And still calls to people that way. We don’t face the same kind of obstacles to the spread of the gospel message in the 21st century that Christians did in the 1st century, but there is still a lot of violence in the world – one of the reasons that today, World Communion Sunday, has been designated the Peacemaking and Global Witness special offering Sunday for the Presbyterian church. Because there is still a desperate need for the work of Peacemaking and global witness. And peacemakers are often the opposite of popular with the people who disrupt peace, who fuel the conditions that drive people from their homes and across borders – like between Ukraine and other parts of Europe, or internally from more dangerous to less dangerous areas of Ukraine. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is actively providing humanitarian aid to the more than 15 million refugees and “internally displaced persons” in the region, through partners like St. Egidio (an ecumenical organization based in Ukraine) and the International Orthodox Christian Charities, and the ACT Alliance which coordinates the work of a lot of Christian groups, like the Hungarian Reformed Church, the Lutherans, the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren … reminding us again of what World Communion Sunday is all about.

The spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline active in bringing some peace to refugees from Ukraine is the same spirit that makes alive disaster assistance in the wake of flooding in Pakistan, and Hurricane Fiona in the Caribbean, and now just in the last few days in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian. When we are tempted to say to ourselves, well, what can we do, we are too small, or too old, or too isolated, or too young, or too unskilled, … that spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline can bring to our minds and hearts the specific concrete things that we can do that would be helpful; it can put us in touch with the larger church, that can mobilize resources in that spirit of power that “can do” what needs to be done, acting on that spirit of love that reaches out with regard for the well-being of others, regardless of conditions; and that takes action guided by wisdom and reason.

In the case of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, for instance, that includes relying on something called “Survivor and Community-Led Response,” which means finding out from the people and communities themselves what they need, and then getting them that … the opposite of doing something splashy that makes us “feel good” … for instance, something as unglamorous as getting an “internally displaced persons center” in Hungary a washer and dryer, so the people who’d walked there from Ukraine could wash their clothes before taking the next steps on their trek …

Similar principles will undoubtedly guide the response to Hurricane Ian.

Paul’s reminder to Timothy is a reminder to us, too – to rekindle the gift that is within us; to make what we have effective, and to promote life beyond ourselves, in the power and the love and the wise action of the Holy Spirit.

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Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; Holy Spirit, stained glass at Paroisse Saint-Etienne-du-Mont Montagne Sainte-Geneviève at ParisGuilhem Vellut from Paris, France, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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