24 Pentecost Year C Episcopal Church at Yale
The Rev. Armando Ghinaglia October 20, 2019
Continue in what you have learned…
Today I want to start us out, somewhat unusually, with our reading from 2 Timothy. If you’re inclined to, feel free to follow along as we walk through it.
“As for you,” Paul writes to Timothy, “continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
“Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed.”
As students, it is easy to fall into thinking about faith as if it were a set of propositional truths—really, really important propositional truths—but propositional truths all the same. But see how Paul describes what it is that Timothy has “learned” and “firmly believed.” He doesn’t tell Timothy merely to “remember” or “practice” or “rehearse” what he has learned or what he believes. The imperative “continue” isn’t the same as telling someone to practice law, or asking a friend to rehearse a piece of music, or instructing a student to remember the extended Pythagorean theorem.
The Greek here is μένω. The more accurate rendition here is to “persevere,” to “dwell,” to “abide.” We find it in the Old Testament when the prophet Isaiah writes, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” And we find it throughout the New Testament, as Paul writes, even to the end, “faith, hope, and love abide.” And again, in the gospel of John, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” Abide in what you have learned and firmly believed, writes Saint Paul. The relationship between Timothy and what he has learned is no relationship between subject and object, between master and tool. What Timothy has learned is no cudgel he may wield against others. It’s no lathe or fancy device over which Timothy has control. Abide or remain in this thing, says Paul. This learning is a path for Timothy’s feet, a shelter above his head. Paul might as well signal to Timothy, “you did not build this thing, and—as far as possible in a world where all things are made for the glory of God—this thing was built for you.”
And that’s exactly what Paul goes on to do. “Continue” in this, he adds, “knowing from whom you learned it.”
At this point, I want to make clear that I know I’m hiding the ball from you. “What is it that Timothy has learned and firmly believed?” you might ask. And we’ll get there.
For now let’s just call it faith. But I want to linger on these two verses because they build up to what that faith is—they are the keys, not only to Paul’s understanding of Scripture, but also to our readings from Genesis and the gospel today, even if we don’t get around to them.
Back to the verse, “from whom” did Timothy learn faith?
You may have realized that we’ve been reading through 2 Timothy sequentially over the past few weeks. And a few weeks ago, we started out with the opening of the letter and with a wonderful affirmation of the way that faith gets passed down from generation to generation. As Paul writes Timothy, “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.” What a wonderful line. Just think about it.
At Yale, we’re in a place that loves to intellectualize everything it can get its hands on, and I’m no stranger to that impulse either. But this learning that Timothy has absolutely isn’t a major or program of study or concentration. This learning has no dedicated faculty or lecturers or TA’s. Unlike philosophy or economics or the humanities, it has no analytical/continental divide, no Keynesian/Austrian split, no insurmountable cultural, linguistic, or racial difference. This isn’t about degrees of separation from obscure Hungarian mathematicians or who your doctoral adviser is.
Instead, this faith, writes Paul, “lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” And if Paul is sure it lives in him now, how else could it unless Lois and Eunice passed it on to him? Unless they were the witnesses of the apostolic teaching? From whom did Timothy learn it first? From Eunice and Lois—his mother and his grandmother.
Of course, Timothy could have learned it from Bishop John or Deacon Stephen just as well, and Paul could have instead mentioned them. But the point isn’t that the church leadership has nothing to do with it. It’s that Eunice and Lois, whose only titles here are the natural ones that family engenders, were more than capable of teaching Timothy the faith. And not only did they teach him the faith, they taught it to him with such righteousness that Paul encourages Timothy to think about them when he thinks about what it means to remain in the faith.
“Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it… Abide in the faith, remembering how you learned it from your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice.”
And, Paul goes on in the next verse, “knowing how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
Here, we have two sets of teachers, each as important as the other. First, we have the people in Timothy’s lives, people whose very beings, if not their words, communicated to him what it means to live by faith in this world. Second, we have holy Scripture itself. And Timothy has known both sets of teachers, says Paul, “from childhood.” What is it they teach? “Salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
Maybe it’s easy enough for us to see how the Scriptures might instruct us for that salvation through that faith in Christ. Paul goes on to write that “all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” For some people, that phrase is marred by its watchword for an over-zealous and overly rigid emphasis on biblical prooftexts. And that’s fair. Even as St. Gregory of Nazianzus writes that “we ought to think of God even more often than we draw our breath,” he warns that he would “hinder . . . the talking about God . . . when unseasonable,” and hinder “teaching” when it lacks “moderation.”
But if we look at the text itself, we might yet find it a useful guide in learning how we turn away from sin and move toward God. “All Scripture is inspired by God,” writes Paul, surely meaning the Old Testament. But there’s no reason why we should reject the Church’s claim that the same is true for the New, for the books that every church eventually came to accept as the canonical scriptures.
And that inspiration means that we look for the Holy Spirit, for God himself, speaking to us through its pages, not content with dissecting it and figuring out what’s good and bad, old and new, human or divine, but focusing on what Scripture clearly teaches about us our duties to God and to others.
To that end, we look to Scripture, Paul writes, “for teaching.” See what that teaching looks like. “Reproof,” “correction,” and “training in righteousness.” The sequence matters. Reproof turns us away from the error of our ways and allows us to repent and turn to God. Correction allows us to stand upright again, just as Paul tells the man to stand and walk. And training in righteousness allows us to “walk in holiness and righteousness before God all the days of our life.” That is what Scripture is good for. Not for beating people over the head with pretexts and platitudes. But for turning away from sin, standing up and fixing our eyes on God, and moving toward God through Christ who is himself the righteousness of God.
But then what about Lois and Eunice? Why does Paul bring them up in this context? If you have the Bible as a textbook and the clergy as its teachers, why does Paul remind Timothy, in the middle of the difficulties around him, to remember the faith of his mother and his grandmother?
If you look around at the rest of the passage, you’ll see Timothy beset by all kinds of difficulties and struggles. As a priest I heard tell recently, if Paul is saying to “endure suffering” and “be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable,” the time isn’t favorable. It’s not clear what Timothy is dealing with, but we know what Paul is looking forward to: “I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Paul is about to die in Rome.
And what’s striking is that Lois and Eunice are exemplars of this faith he has kept. What prayers did they raise up, what fastings did they undertake, to commend themselves to Saint Paul in this way? What dedication did they show to the poor, to the hungry, to the oppressed? What gifts, other than a faithful heart, did they share with the church and the world? What words or songs did they employ to make such an impression on Paul that he remembers them in his last letter in this world? Is he thinking of them and the other saints when he thinks about the “crown of righteousness” that Jesus Christ, the “righteous judge, will give,” not only him but also “to all who have longed for his appearing”?
Whatever it was, it almost certainly looked something like what we find in our other readings today. Jacob wrestles with the man all night long while he flees from persecution and refuses to let go until he is blessed. He is renamed Israel, for he has striven with God and with humans and has prevailed. So, too, have the saints wrestled in the nighttime of this world, surrounded by suffering, and they have prevailed. The widow keeps coming to the unjust judge day after day, and she ultimately prevails. Her entreaties have reached the ears of the one who did not want to hear and overcomes his reluctance. Even more, then, will the prayers of the saints—like the prayers of Lois and Eunice and Timothy and Paul—reach God’s ears.
As the Scriptures say elsewhere, the saints have “set [their] minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for [they] have died, and [their] life is hidden with Christ in God,” so that “when Christ who is [their] life is revealed, then [they] also will be revealed with him in glory.”
Paul has seen Lois and Eunice’s lives and knows that they have trusted in God with all their hearts. They, too, have fought the fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.
And witnessing their example, Paul recites with them—and with us—the words of the Holy Scriptures, “I lift up my eyes to the hills,” for “my help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” Even as he makes his way to Rome to die.
The faith that empowered Jacob to contend with God and humans, that empowered the widow to seek justice from the unjust judge; the faith that empowered Paul, and Timothy, and Lois, and Eunice, and countless others to “be sober,” to “endure suffering,” to “do the work of an evangelist” and “carry out [their] ministry fully”—that faith lives in you, just as it lived in them. Nurture it by reading and meditating on the Scriptures. Practice it in your lives by attending to those around you who need your help. Look up to the faithful in every generation who have done the same.
“As for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”