The Cost of Discipleship

October 27, 2019

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem, using (Ecclesiastes 11 &) 2 Tim 2.1-7 at Mattins on Sunday 27 October 2019, the Last Sunday after Trinity.

‘When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.’

Famous words, not quite from the Bible but from the oracle, actor and footballer, Eric Cantona, in 1995. People still wonder what on earth he meant!

Making wise remarks is perilous, as their metaphorical meaning is easily lost. It’s undeniably true that ‘when the clouds are full, they empty rain on the earth’ – we’ve had some experience of that over the weekend – and that ‘whichever direction a tree falls, there it will lie,’ but these natural observations sit on the page of Ecclesiastes as sayings, without the context which would doubtless have made their application insightful.

Not so with Paul’s advice in the second letter to Timothy. Timothy was a faithful missionary companion who had stood by Paul for 15 years. He’d been recruited to the Christian cause by Paul himself in Timothy’s home town of Lystra, lying in present-day Turkey, and had become a valued helper. He’d been sent to deliver messages to the churches at Thessalonica and Corinth.

Paul called him ‘his beloved and faithful child in the Lord’ and trusted him as his ‘fellow-worker’, knowing his deep care for the churches. He had even entrusted Timothy with the leadership of the church in Ephesus, with wide-ranging duties such as combatting heresy, selecting members for ordination as elders and providing social welfare for widows.

Things were different now, though. Paul was in prison and facing martyrdom. Timothy would soon have to take over his mantle but was still only in his mid-thirties, a youngster by the standards of the Greco-Roman world. And we know that he had frequent health issues – he was the one who was recommended, in a truly inspirational verse, not just to drink water but try a little wine as well. And lastly, we know that he was timid by temperament, an introvert who found company difficult: Paul advised others to put him at his ease when he visited them.

Paul needed the wisdom to teach Timothy well, above all to give him what we would call resilience for the responsibilities ahead.

Now there’s something that needs to be said about responsibility, which in my view is not emphasised nearly enough, but is entirely obvious. Responsibility entails suffering – you can see it etched on the faces of those in public office.

At home we’ve started to re-watch the political comedy The Thick of It, in which the hapless Secretary of State for Social Affairs confesses to an aide that his idea of a treat is the chance to go to the loo, and that when he is feeling very rebellious he goes to the loo without any ministerial papers. It’s a funny moment, but absolutely true to life. To be in power but in control of neither time nor events is part-and-parcel of what it means to be responsible.

Paul wants Timothy to embrace this inevitable suffering: ‘share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus’, he tells him; but he also wants Timothy to find a mind-set to deal with the pressure, and he does this by offering three wise sayings, the first continuing his military metaphor.

‘No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; the soldier’s aim is to please the enlisting officer.’

Recently Chapter were introduced to a way of rising above our own everyday affairs, in the form of a diagram. It comprised a Greek Temple with a triangular roof held up by three columns rising from a square base. The base represented demanding, everyday stuff, the triangular roof represented our mission aim – to renew, inspire and unite people in faith, hope and love – and the three columns stemming from the base and holding up the roof represented three priorities we needed to determine and stick to doggedly to fulfil our aims and prevent us becoming entangled in emails.

Paul’s next metaphor comes from the stadium.

‘And in the case of an athlete, no one is crowned without competing according to the rules.’

If you saw the rugby yesterday, you will know that England triumphed over the world champions, even though two tries they seemed to have scored were ruled out by fractional infringements. The referee prevented foul play. In life there’s not always such strong oversight, but if we are persistently trying to please God we won’t be tempted to cut corners or to excuse ourselves from rigorous appraisal of our performance.

One of the MPs grilling the directors of Thompson Holidays put her finger on the issue when she said in exasperation, it would be really great if one of you could actually admit you did something wrong. To play by the rules we need to compete under God’s judgement.

Paul’s final picture takes us into the fields:

‘It is the farmer who does the work who ought to have the first share of the crops.’

Having firm priorities and working to the highest standards of accountability will bring their rewards, but doesn’t remove the need for sheer hard work. The farmer is a far less glamorous image than the soldier or athlete, but it is the farmer’s labours which give him or her the right to eat.

This wonderful saying relieves us from the need to believe in some magical managerial or ministerial wand which will make things go swimmingly with a single swoosh. If we get everything right, it will still be tough; in fact, it may be even tougher, because a good leader will be entrusted with more responsibility, because the work is endless.

Which brings us back to Timothy. Paul was offering a relatively young, shy man, not always in the best of health, wisdom to sustain him when Paul was no longer there to help – simple images that he would remember, take to heart and grow to understand as he reflected on his work.

What Paul was saying again and again is that there are no short-cuts when it comes to living with Christian responsibility, whether it is the responsibility of overseeing a church, a business, a community or family. You will suffer. You will face the prospect of being overwhelmed by everyday affairs, you will be tempted to cut corners, you will need to work hard to see results to sustain you, but this is the reality, so – in the current idiom – man up!

Although, in the Christian case, the man we’re all aspiring to be like is someone whose mission and work succeeded in only the strangest of terms, through death on a cross.

And this means, radically, that we shouldn’t be content to suffer because it will get us somewhere, enhance our reputation, output or achievements; we suffer solely for the glory of God, always ready to let go of all we supposed we were called to accomplish.

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
all I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.

Paul knew the cost of shouldering Christian responsibility, but he wanted neither to deter Timothy nor glamourise the task ahead. The cost would come sure enough, from the discipline of being a soldier of Christ, an athlete playing by the rules of the gospel, and from the discipline of ploughing on, to produce an honest crop.

These images must have strengthened Timothy, as tradition has it that he was martyred in old age, trying to halt a pagan procession by preaching the gospel. Dragged through the street by an angry crowd, he was stoned to death – a faithful soldier of Christ to the end.