Sunday, October 3, 2010

Guarding Good Treasure

A sermon on the 25th anniversary of Bill Carter's ordination as a Minister of Word and Sacrament
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Ordinary 27 / World Communion Sunday
October 3, 2010
William G. Carter

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. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

“Guard the good treasure entrusted to you.” Good advice to all of us, especially when it has to do with faith. It’s clear from the context that faith is the “good treasure.” And for the leaders of the early church who sent around this letter, faith signifies two things.

First, faith is a matter of the head: it is a body of knowledge, a list of the truths that Christian people have witnessed. Jesus has appeared to the world, born in human likeness. Through his death, he abolished death. Through his resurrection, he opened the door to ongoing life with God. We can live in eternal life with an eternal God, now and continuing. These are key points in the creed, and Christian people put such things into their heads.

And faith is also a matter of the heart. We trust in the God that we know something about. The Gospel can impart a lot of information, all the benefit of a trusting heart. Faith gives us an informed trust in the God we learn about from Jesus. We trust in resurrection because Jesus has been raised. We trust that we have a purpose, because we see the purpose that God has for the world in Christ Jesus.

That’s what the Savior is called in Second Timothy: “Christ Jesus.” Five times in this passage, he is “Christ Jesus,” or “Messiah Jesus.” Before he appeared, people could believe in God. They knew Somebody was out there, somewhere, but in a world of earthquakes, hurricanes, and cancer cells, they weren’t sure what kind of God existed. They could claim to be “spiritual, but not religious.” They knew the world seemed infused with some kind of Holy Power without being specific. They could sniff trace amounts of God in the atmosphere. But now, Christ Jesus has come. See him forgive sins, speak truth, and feed the hungry, and we see what God wants to get done. Crucify Christ Jesus for doing the right things, and God brings him back alive.

That is our Christian faith. It takes a while to learn, live it, and let sink into our bones. It offers, in the opening words of this letter, “the offer of life.” This is an ongoing offer, from one generation to the next. Christ Jesus is the hope of the world. He has been so, and will ever be the hope of the world. That is why the church teaches. That is why Christian Education is so important, because we teach Christian faith from one generation to another.

But it is a risky enterprise, and doesn’t always happen as thoroughly as we would like. Kendra Creasy Dean, an education professor at Princeton Seminary, recently oversaw a religious survey of 3,300 teenagers. The results upset her stomach. 75% of the kids said they were Christian, but less than half of them thought that was important. Most couldn’t talk coherently about what they believed.

Many of the kids surveyed said that all God wanted from them was “to feel good and to do good.” Kenda Dean calls it “moralistic therapeutic deism.” It’s a self-serving, self-centered, overly simplistic counterfeit to Christianity. It’s a religion of “Me-first,” a worship of what feels good. It has with little to do with the real Christ Jesus who offers himself for the saving of the whole world. Dr. Dean says it’s no wonder that kids drop out of many churches. To draw on the title of her recent book, they are “Almost Christian.”

The hardest question she asks is this: “So where do you think today’s teenagers are picking up this kind of watered-down, low-cal Christianity?” They are picking it up from watered-down churches and low-cal parents.

What impresses me most about this opening text from Second Timothy is that it speaks of Christian faith as if something is at stake. An older Christian writes to a younger Christian and says, “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you heard from me.” Don’t dilute it. Don’t settle for something less. Tell the whole truth about Christ Jesus. People need to know everything about him, so they can know in their hearts how he is saving their lives. Something really important is at stake.

The faith must be shared from one generation to the next. Faith is always one generation away from extinction. Paul knows this, and he celebrates how this has been working out in young Timothy. “I have seen your faith,” he says, “because it lived first in your grandmother Lois, and then it lived in your mother Eunice. Now, I am certain it lives in you.”

I remember that World Communion Sunday morning twenty-five years ago, October 6. I kneeled on the floor of my home congregation in Owego, New York, and the elders and pastors of the faith put their hands on my shoulders and ordained me as a minister. They were praying that the same faith that they lived and taught would flourish in me. Margaret Carter and Isabella Stewart were there, my two grandmothers, one of the few times I can remember them in the same room at the same time – the moment was that important, and they were there.

Elizabeth Ann and Glenn Carter, my two parents, were there – it was the congregation where each served multiple terms as an elder, where I took communion for the first time, where we were taken to Sunday School every week, where I was confirmed as a member, where my youth group counted me a regular member, where I was previously ordained as a teenage deacon; and to get right to it, the church where I learned the Good News about Christ Jesus and first believed it.

I don’t remember many of the details about that day. I don’t remember who else was there. I don’t remember what hymns we sang or where anybody sat. But I do remember the clear impression that something really important was going on. Ever since, I have tried my best to keep living out that prayer-filled moment as best I can. The Christian faith of my grandparents and parents, the saving trust that Christ Jesus is redeeming God’s world, was commissioning me to share that faith with my own generation and all the generations that come after me.

The living memory of that moment leads me to say simply this: what we are doing in this house of God matters. It matters that we pray and sing, that we give and serve. It matters that we break the bread and lift the cup, and declare that Christ Jesus is the Savior of the whole world. This matters more than anything else in life and death. And this is exactly why all of us are here this morning.

“God has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.” Believe it in your head, trust it in your heart.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

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