The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s194e07 Sunday 27 7/10/2007
'a spirit of power and love and self discipline' 2 Tim 1.7
Any promise of power is attractive, yet the author of this letter does not stop there. It is not just a spirit of power, but also of love and self discipline, and both of these imply some self-giving, some self-sacrifice, some powerlessness.
The love that I am thinking of has not got a lot to do with 'speaking the truth in love' (Ephesians 4.15) when it is interpreted as 'reluctantly' telling someone else off (as it often is), forgetting the injunction: 'Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.' (Luke 6.37,38.)
More likely love has more to do with the injunction: 'But we urge you, beloved .. to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders .. (1 Thessalonians 4.10-12)
And it is self discipline that is commended to us, not disciplining of other people.
It is interesting in my work (and I am sure that many, many pastors would say the same) that it is when we relate as an ordinary human being with someone else that startling things happen. The time when I think I am the most useful is not when I'm dishing out gratuitous advise, but when I identify with the particular trials, or joys, that someone else is experiencing. I have often heard patients about to be discharged at the local psychiatric hospital take the opportunity to thank their fellow patients - attributing much of their healing to them. Just being with someone else who is going through the same things as we are is enormously encouraging and healing. Hospitals, healing and hospitality are all intertwined. Marriage, when it is a true and mutual partnership, rather than one dominating the other, is again the arena of the miraculous.
One of my favourite quotations is from Harper Lee's famous book, "To Kill a Mockingbird". After Atticus had failed to gain an acquittal for Tom Robinson, the negro accused falsely of raping the white Mayella Ewell, the end of the courtroom drama is described through the eyes of Attitus's daughter Scout (Jean Louise was her "real" name used by the Reverend Sykes), as they watch from the balcony: "Then he (Atticus) left the court-room, but not by his usual exit. He must have wanted to go home the short way, because he walked quickly down the middle aisle towards the south exit. I followed the top of his head as he made his way to the door. He did not look up. Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus's lonely walk down the aisle. 'Miss Jean Louise?' I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes's voice was as distant as Judge Taylor's: 'Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passin'." (p233) Throughout the trial, indeed throughout his life, Atticus exemplified the text for today: 'a spirit of power and love and self discipline', even if only in fictional terms.
Right throughout this reading there is placed, side by side, expressions of powerlessness and powerfulness. Being a prisoner and suffering for the gospel goes hand in hand with relying on the power of God.
The whole culture of terrorism is based on the right, if not the duty, of the 'elect' to inflict suffering on the 'infidel', whether the elect are 'christian' or whatever. This might be a spirit of power, but it has got little to do with love or self discipline. If St Paul can say: 'If I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing' (1 Corinthians 13.3) then handing over someone else's body (as one does in terrorism) would gain even less than nothing!
In our gospel reading for today we are told that our faith is about forgiving others, and as I often say we are apt to interpret the words of scripture personally that I must forgive another person when they ask forgiveness of me for a personal wrong. But is forgiveness just personal? How forgiving is Christianity towards other expressions of faith? These words are set in the context of causing someone else to stumble, and the request to increase the faith of the disciples. And the words at the end of the gospel reading 'we have only done what we ought to have done' are really only intelligible, to me at least, when we realize that the Lord only wants us to live in peace with one another. This will come about only when we exercise 'a spirit of power and love and self discipline'. It will hardly come about if we exercise a spirit of domination over others, of hatred towards anyone different to us, of unbridled force against others at any opportunity like the threat of eternal damnation that the 'christian' faith has used for centuries towards others.
Twice in his letter to Timothy the author refers to 'not being ashamed', and again this is not just a personal emotion, but something which encompasses our faith. Our faith is encouraging of others not dismissive of others. Our faith contributes towards the peace of the world, not just points the finger at others at odds. Our faith is something that encompasses all, not just another variation of human devotion, but the only one specifically ordained by God. In the end these 'faith' dimensions dwarf the little personal foibles I have as much as anyone else. In the end I could retain these big faith dimensions, justifying my continuing marginalisation and alienation of large proportions of the population in the name of 'god'.
I am not ashamed of the gospel, for our relationship with others, in terms of 'a spirit of power and love and self discipline' is the only possible hope for peace for all humanity. It is, of course, recognized by people of many different denominations and faiths. I preached at the National Police Remembrance Day service last Friday the 28/9/2007 at Holy Trinity Orange. There I said: 'Would that there was less religious fervour in Iraq and more law abiding and respect for others who are different!' Of course this is just as true here in Australia as it is there it is a call that all of us ignore at our peril.
Back to: "A Spark of the Spirit"