During this season of Lent, on this Ember Friday, we continue the theme of Ember Days and especially that of Lent.
“What should I give up for Lent?” That’s the question we often hear. This can become a mere formality, as with any part of the spiritual life, and it can even become flippant. When I lived on Long Island, surrounded by Irish and Italian Roman Catholics (and a few Jews), we token Protestants heard about the dreaded torture every Wednesday afternoon, a mysterious, cruel, and unusual punishment inflicted upon junior high children known as “cat-a-kism.”
We also heard about giving up things for Lent. I think I remember some people at the lunch table talking about giving up smoking and bubblegum.
But what should we give up during Lent, since this is a time of penitence and abstinence, and an intense season of fasting? The answer this year is the same as every year: we should give up ourselves. This is the true fast of Lent; this is the true fast of our lives. Every other fast in this life is so that we may stop depending on ourselves and give up ourselves to the Lord, weaning ourselves from our terrible addiction to self.
This morning, God is asking you to give up yourself to Him in a particular way: by giving up yourself to hearing and living by His Word, and not your words.
St. Paul speaks once again of the need for St. Timothy to be a faithful minister of Jesus Christ. In particular, Paul is concerned that Timothy, who acted as an early bishop over churches, instruct the brethren. Those who Timothy teaches are to be nourished by him in the words of faith and in the good doctrine or teaching (verse 6), which Paul has passed on to Timothy but which Timothy must now pass on to the churches under his oversight.
Paul so urgently wants Timothy to protect the teaching of the apostles regarding Jesus Christ that he charges Timothy again in verse 11 to command and teach these things. In case Timothy or we missed the point, Paul says, “Give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine” (verse 12), he commands Timothy. One more time, in verse 16, Paul exhorts Timothy to take heed to the doctrine (teaching.)
Has Timothy been unfaithful in his teaching? Is he just dense? Why does Paul insist on repeating himself so many times, as if Timothy just doesn’t get it? It’s not that Timothy is hard of hearing or hard of heart. Paul repeats himself so forcefully because he cares so passionately about the Word of God, the apostolic teaching that Jesus Christ Himself had entrusted to Paul and that Paul now entrusts to Timothy.
Think of it as a mother of a young child who has raised the precious child that God gave her and then is told by God to give that child to another to continue the job of raising it. Wouldn’t that mother, even if she knew the person involved, go to extra lengths to make sure the child would be raised properly? And the gospel of Jesus Christ, just like his churches, is His “baby.”
Notice that the way in which Timothy is to guard the Christian faith is not through his teaching only, at least not only by teaching the apostolic faith through words. Paul warns Timothy that how he lives his life has everything to do with how the faith is passed down to the next generation. In verse 6, when Paul reminds Timothy to be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine, he also commends Timothy because he has carefully followed them. Timothy is a faithful teacher of the apostolic faith not only because he has preserved the words of the teaching but also because he has been a faithful follower of those words, a doer of them.
The same Paul who repeatedly tells Timothy to faithfully pass on the apostolic teaching also repeatedly tells him to “be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (verse 12). Timothy teaches the churches under his oversight not only by the words of his mouth but also by the works of his hands. What good would it have done if Timothy were an impeccable teacher of the Word in his words, but were a corrupt teacher of the Word by His deeds? In doing so, he would have led many astray.Remember how most of the book of James, and many parts of Paul’s letters, consistently teach that our words cannot be separated from our deeds? The same is doubly true for those to whom God has entrusted the teaching and leadership (the two go together in the Church, for the Word is that powerful!) of the Church. The teaching is done both by what we teach with our lips and how we teach with our lives.
But what about today? The apostles are long dead, and Timothy has been dead almost as long. Through 2000 years the Church has been given the task to guard the apostolic faith and faithfully pass it down. And so we still have bishops and church leaders to do this.
But where does that leave most of you? With the exception that you may not be the official, ordained teacher or guardian of the Word in the Church, you too have been given the sacred deposit of the apostolic teaching. Many of you hold it each day in your hands (in fact all of you, if you are reading these meditations every day.)
You have the same sacred obligation to guard the Word of God with both your lips and your lives, as did Paul or Timothy. Paul is saying to you, “be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished in the words of faith and of the good doctrine which you have carefully followed” (verse 6.) God, through Paul, says to you, “be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (verse 12.)
God is speaking to each of us when he says, “Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all” (verse 15.) And He is commanding you to “Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you” (verse 16.)
God is just as insistent with you as Paul was with Timothy that you give yourself to God by giving yourself to His Word. God has entrusted to you His words of life: are you teaching them and living by them?
I don’t know about you, but when God tells me to give myself to these things and that by being faithful to God and His Word by what I teach and how I live that I will save both myself and those who hear me – I listen! God’s salvation comes to men not only through His Son and His Word, but also by His Son and His Word, as they come through us. This truth is so exciting that it both chills me to think of how serious my obligation is and also inflames me with zeal to be about God’s business!
It is fascinating and thrilling to see the things that people give themselves to in this life. Every 4 years, I meditate on the discipline and dedication that Olympians must have in order to make it to the Olympics. In fact, they have sacrificed their entire lives for several years just to get to the Olympics, often with little hope of any medal. I think of those who have carefully dedicated themselves to making music and devote their lives to traveling around constantly and to spending long hours practicing.
I see these things and I wonder if we as Christians have the same dedication in the things God commands us to give ourselves to. Bodily exercise and music profit a little (they really are very good things!), but godliness is profitable for all things and has promise for the life that now is and that which is to come (verse 8.)
You have each been given a gift: the gift of Jesus Christ who dwells in you by His Holy Spirit. You have been given the gift of the Word of God, buried under leather covers. Do not neglect these gifts, but give yourselves to them, for in giving yourself both to speak and to do God’s Word, you are giving yourself as a pleasing sacrifice to God.
And it is when God’s people give themselves to Christ and His Word, that souls are saved, especially our own.
Prayer: Father, I thank You for Your faithful ministers who have gone before me, faithful stewards of Your mysteries such as Sts. Paul and Timothy. I pray that You would stir up in me the gifts of the Holy Spirit which You have given me to be a faithful minister in Your kingdom. Inspire in me a zeal for Your Word and for Your people, and help me to take heed to what is most important in my life. Amen.
Points for Meditation:
- Meditate on the people in your life who are influenced by your teaching and your life. What have you been communicating to them about God and His Word?
- To what degree can you say that you have given yourself to God and His Word? If you have not given yourself as fully as you like, examine the reasons why you fall short. Resolve to find one practical way to give yourself more fully.
Resolution: I resolve to find one practical way in which I can more fully give myself to God’s Word, either in word or deed.
© 2016 Fr. Charles Erlandson