A guest post by Jono Ryan.
What do you believe to be true? About the meaning of your life? About the meaning of death? About the existence of God, and the relationship of this God to our fragile world? What do we believe to be true? For most of the generations that have preceded us in faith, questions and statements of belief were of great importance—worth dying for, or even worth killing for. On occasion, we may wonder whether our Christian forebears took these questions too seriously, but it seems that in our day, we have gone to the other extreme. For within the church these days, the question of “what it is that we believe” can seem an arbitrary and ambivalent one.
About ten years ago, a British indie rock band named the ‘Manic Street Preachers’ released an album entitled: “This is my truth. Tell me yours.” The album title wasn’t so much provocative as it was ironic, and captures well our engagement with questions of truth within the church. Sometimes I think we approach the question of “what we believe” like the pick-n-mix section of the supermarket: we wander along the aisle with our bag and little scoop, maybe passing over this passage of scripture, and that teaching of Jesus but taking a little of that one, and a little of this one until we find a personal, customized blend that meets our appetite for the day. The world is created by God? One scoop. This God is good and loving? Two scoops. This God was revealed in Jesus Christ? Half a scoop? Jesus Christ was crucified, and resurrected on the third day? Christ will one day return, bringing creation to completion? Perhaps I’ll pass on those ones … but I’ve found something that works for me. The question of what is true is based upon what we find intellectually plausible, or emotionally appealing—whatever works for us. This is my truth. Tell me yours.
This album title may capture well our attitude to truth, but I think it’s fair to say, however, that the apostle Paul doesn’t have the Manics on his iPod as he is writing to Timothy here. We recall from last week that this is a pastoral letter: Paul is writing to encourage Timothy, to challenge and to coach him in his personal life of discipleship and ministry. And central to this pastoral care is the question of belief—of what it is that Timothy believes, and what he subsequently teaches to others. It’s clear that Paul is taking quite a different tack here. The word of truth, Paul insists, must be “rightly explained.” And he claims that to “swerve from the truth,” as some church leaders like Hymenaeus and Philetus have, will instead produce gangrenous effects throughout the community, a rotting away of the body of Christ. It seems that Paul cannot say, “this is my truth, tell me yours,” for the truth of which Paul speaks is clearly something more than pick’n’mix personal preference; this is a truth grounded in something more substantial; it stands firm.
At this point, we might be inclined to simply dismiss Paul as being a closed-minded conservative, but let’s not forget that, while once he was certainly a narrow-minded dogmatic, since being confronted by Christ on the Damascus Road, his whole belief system has been blown apart. In Christ, he has discovered a truth that required his understanding to be rebuilt, piece by piece, as he learnt anew what it means to live rightly before God. And as part of this renewing of Paul’s mind, Paul has been challenging others to broaden their horizons, Jews and Christians alike.
But for all this broadening of horizons, here Paul is directing Timothy to the centre, to the fundamental truths so central to Christian identity. It would be easy for us to think that, in giving this teaching, Paul is saying “here is the truth,” “here is the correct statement”, as if the truth was something that could be learned by rote. But this would suggest that “the truth” was simply a matter of words—precisely what Paul is opposed to, when he warns us to “avoid wrangling over words, which does no good, but only ruins those who are listening.” Words and statements of belief are important—indeed, Paul has devoted much of his life to them—but in the Christian tradition, truth is a person, not a statement. “I am the way, I am the truth, and I am the life,” Jesus said. To be a Christian is to confess firstly that in Jesus Christ, God is revealed; that in Jesus Christ, we see what is truly true: about God, ourselves, and about the world God has created. For Christians, the truth or falsity of anything else we might say or do is revealed in relation to Jesus Christ.
Perhaps we can appreciate then, why Paul urges Timothy to “Remember Jesus Christ.” Paul would not undergo suffering for a doctrinal statement. He wouldn’t become a prisoner for a good idea. But for the person of Jesus Christ, for the truth Paul has encountered in Jesus Christ, he will willingly undergo hardship, even the injustice of being locked away for his faith.
The teaching Paul gives then, directs Timothy towards the person, the truth of Jesus Christ. In doing so, he quotes a statement of faith—“this saying is sure” he says. But like any statement of faith, it is sure, not because of its theological rigour, but because of its faithfulness in directing us toward Jesus Christ, the one in whom we can be sure. And this is certainly true of the saying Paul quotes, for in every phrase, we are linked up with Jesus Christ:
“If we have died with Christ, 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 saying is an important encouragement for Timothy’s own life of discipleship. However, this “word of truth” is also of vital importance for those around him too: this word of truth must be “rightly explained” to others, Paul urges, for those whose teaching has “swerved from the truth” has upset the faith of many in Timothy’s community. Paul’s concern is not to get everyone to conform, to tow the party line, but rather a pastoral one, because he can see that this misleading teaching has “upset the faith” of many, and is becoming like gangrene, eating away at the body of Christ. We need only consider the effect of the “health and wealth” gospel, or the way the gospel has been used to oppress women, to be reminded of the negative impact of untruthful teaching in the church. Drawing this community back to the truth of Christ, then, is not so much an exercise in doctrine as it is an important exercise of pastoral care, something we see in each of these four lines Paul quotes from this “sure saying”.
Firstly, “If we have died with Christ, we will also live with Christ.” Pastorally, there may be those who think that the Christian life is solely about sacrifice and dying to self, leading them to the point of despair. Alternatively, there may be those who are all about “new life in Christ,” but have no idea that following Christ will always be a costly decision. Here, then, we are reminded of the central truth of our Christian identity: that in baptism, our lives are woven into the life of Jesus Christ, the one who suffered death, and was resurrected to new life. For some of us, there is a challenge here: “if we have died with Christ, we will also live with Christ.” For in following Jesus, all of us are required to shoulder a cross, to be willing to die to our own ambition and self-interest. But there is also a great encouragement, for these moments of dying to self-interest, and of physical death itself, are all bound up in the cross of Christ, and if we have participated in this death, how much more will we participate in this life of Christ. Whatever it may have cost us, we have much to be hopeful for.
Second line: “If we endure, we will also reign with Christ.” Pastorally, perhaps Timothy or others around him were finding the Christian life too hard, discouraged by opposition or distractions. Or perhaps also there were those who didn’t find it hard enough—who assumed that the Christian life was one of ease and comfort. Paul reminds him, “If we endure, we will also reign with Christ.” We know from the gospels that Jesus, the King of kings, did not receive much by way of royal treatment. Rather, in embracing the frailty of human life, Christ’s journey was a difficult one, requiring endurance, even to the point of death. However, it was by walking this path that the power and authority of Christ was displayed. For us, perseverance is required in the Christian journey. It is a long road, and it will sometimes be difficult, but we are encouraged to persevere, because “if we endure, we also will reign with Christ”.
Third line: “If we deny Christ, Christ will also deny us.” This might trouble us, but the pastoral relevance of this teaching becomes clearer when we consider the trouble that the likes of Hymenaeus and Philetus are stirring up with their dodgy teaching. The truth of Christ we are reminded of here is that, despite our attempts to create a huggy sort of Jesus, Jesus did not shy away from confronting his opponents. “Whoever denies me before others,” he said, “I also will deny before my Father in heaven.” It is a matter of some consequence whether we decide to seek the truth, or swerve from the truth, and particularly when, like Hymenaeus and Philetus, we have been charged with responsibility and leadership for others in the faith. Those who are outspoken in their opposition to the lordship of Christ will be confronted.
We need to weigh this warning, however, against the closing line, which breaks with the pattern of the first three lines. For until now, these lines have started with our actions, and moved to their consequence. But here: “If we are faithless, Christ remains faithful—for Christ cannot deny himself.” Pastorally, this is an urgently needed truth for Timothy and his peers. For do not all of us struggle to be faithful to God? What if we don’t have enough faith? What if we stuff up, and make mistakes? This “sure saying” culminates in an important encouragement: that Christ is the faithful one—that while we will ebb and flow, it is the very character of God to be faithful and trustworthy. Ultimately, our relationship with God is not grounded in our flaky attempts at faith, but in Christ’s enduring faithfulness. This closing line reminds us, then, that the truth Paul is directing us toward is not simply a slogan to memorise, or words to wrangle over. The truth that Paul urges Timothy toward is the truth of God’s character, the truth of what God has done in Jesus Christ.
A pick’n’mix truth that is simply the sum of our appetites and personal preferences has no ability to change and transform us, to call us on to anything new. Such a truth simply reinforces these chains that bind us. But as Paul reminds us, even though he himself is in chains, the word of God is not chained. As we read in John’s gospel, when we encounter Jesus, we encounter the truth, and this truth will set us free. Encountering the truth of Jesus Christ has significant consequences for our life, and the life we share together. For this is a truth that is life-changing, life-demanding, and life-giving, a truth Paul challenges Timothy to take seriously, and a truth that demands our attention also. Amen.