Last week in the lectionary we had the wonderful passage from 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 in which Paul is telling Timothy how he should lead his church. We also had the persistent widow story with the encouragement to keep praying. My husband was preaching so he preached on prayer, but the Timothy reading really struck a chord with me so I brought it back to church this week to look at it again.
For some people this passage may be familiar, it is quite a well-known reading even when you don’t have it two weeks running. It’s very memorable because it is very strong, it leaves no room for doubt. “Preach the Word. Be prepared. Correct, rebuke, encourage. Keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”
It’s quite easy when we read the New Testament letters to build up a picture in our head of who is talking. Paul comes across as very confident, not afraid of conflict, he is willing to risk everything and challenge anyone for the sake of the gospel. But Timothy, who Paul is writing this passage to, is not like that.
Timothy is a pastor who has been put in place in Ephesus to put false teaching straight. The church was still very young and was finding its feet in what was true, and what was misinterpretation, or just plain wrong, so Timothy was there to keep the church going down the right path. But unlike Paul, he was timid, he was young, he was frequently ill, he led by quiet example, his strengths were in preaching and teaching and he had a firm faith which was handed down to him by his mother and grandmother.
Timothy was an excellent witness to Jesus, but he was not an evangelist like Paul. He was not confident in going out and telling people about what Jesus had done for him, and the reason why he had become one of those first followers. But Paul knew that evangelism- which is literally just sharing the good news- was part of his role, which is why he writes to do the work of an evangelist. Paul is admitting that he is not an evangelist already- and telling him to become one, to construct and make himself into the form of an evangelist.
There will be some of you for whom the idea of talking to other people about your faith, about why you are a Christian and the difference that makes to your life, is really exciting. I’m sure there are lots of Paul’s sitting in congregations all over the country. However, there will also be lots of Timothy’s. And I would be the first to say that I’m one of them. I hate talking to people I don’t know. The idea of having a conversation with someone about my faith is terrifying, it makes me really nervous and is generally the last thing I want to do. Which is why it’s even more amazing that I ended up ordained!
The problem is, that I firmly believe that as a Christian, it is part of my job. Not as a leader, but as a Christian. I think that if the message of the bible-that God created the world and loved those who follow him; that the people God chose were incapable of loving him back and so kept pulling themselves away from him; that God cared enough to send his Son to die on a cross so that everyone who follows Jesus can have a relationship with God even though they still pull themselves away; and that one day Jesus will come back and create a new heaven and a new earth; I think that if you become convinced of that message, then it is so big, so important, so life-changing, that you should do something about it. That I should do something about it.
If I believe that if I really love my neighbour, as I claim I do, then I should want him to become convinced of all that as well, because in the end it will save his life. Evangelism is the vital task of every single Christian, not just the ones who stand at the front of church or wear silly clothes. I think part of the reason that we switch off as soon as someone talks about evangelism is because we don’t really understand what it is, and we’re scared of doing it.
How many of you have been through your local high streets and come across people preaching on the street corner, or singing outside Primark, and thought, ‘that’s not for me, I could never do that’, and assumed that’s what evangelism is? For years I thought that was what the word meant. For a certain type of person that way of sharing their faith is what excites them and where they feel confident, but that’s not for everyone.
We all have our own gifts, temperament and passions, and we will each have a way of sharing our story, because that is all we are doing, in a way that fits with how God has made us. That will initially stretch us to grow our faith, but that is relaxed and natural to us.
When I was on the CPAS Arrow Leadership Programme residential last week, which is a course specifically for Christian leaders so has a big emphasis on sharing our faith in that context, we had a day on evangelism. As a leader, the way and the opportunities we have will be different. The pastor J John, when he’s asked what he does, replies by saying that he works for a global enterprise, with outlets in every country, that runs hospitals, hospices, homeless shelters, does marriage work, runs orphanages, feeding programmes, educational programmes, is involved in justice and reconciliation, looks after people from birth to death, deals in behavioural alteration, is intergalactic- including everyone who’s come before us, and it’s called the church.
I mentioned that at a discussion on Arrow and was asked if that’s how I reply, and I had to be honest and admit that I probably can’t pull it off. As much as I love how exciting and hardworking he portrays the church, I don’t have the guts to respond like that. If you ask my husband, I’ll have conversations with random strangers all the time, but what actually happens is that I only manage to talk to people when they talk to me on a train.
In the last five years I’ve been on a train on my own twice, and in both those journeys people have approached me to talk about faith. I made the mistake of praying on Arrow last week that God would give me opportunities to talk to people. Last Sunday my husband preached that prayer is powerful and is answered. Annoyingly, God did answer that prayer, a good lesson to only pray for things you actually want to happen. On my first train I was with 2 other Arrow participants and we were asked a lot of complicated questions by an astrophysicist. On my second train a visiting American asked me what a vicar does after I accidentally let slip that I can find my way around a graveyard. And in the gap waiting for my third train a young professional started asking about the church and service, leading onto our role in baptisms and funerals, and finally Christianity in schools. I was exhausted by the time I got home, but fortunately there was a pizza waiting.
The benefit that I have as a leader is not that I’m automatically more confident or better equipped to give answers, but just that when people ask me what I do, I have a way in to talk about my faith. That’s it. But that’s not an excuse for not talking about your faith. 1 Timothy says to Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have, and our reading this morning also says to be prepared in season and out of season.
To cut a long story short, always be prepared to tell your story. What motivates your life? What gives you hope? What difference does it make that you follow Jesus?
Jesus himself gives us a pretty good clue what difference he makes: “The “Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
Jesus is good news. If we don’t believe that then why are we coming to church? If we do believe that Jesus is good news, then why aren’t we sharing that good news with the world?
I recently heard this story called the Parable of the Candles told by Max Lucado, which is in the back of one of his books:
There was a blackout one night. When the lights went out, I fumbled to the cupboard where we keep the candles for nights like this. I lit four of them. I was turning to leave with the large candle in my hand when I heard a voice, “Now, hold it right there.”
“Who said that?”
“I did.” The voice was near my hand.
“Who are you? What are you?”
“I’m a candle.”
I lifted up the candle to take a closer look. There was a tiny face in the wax. “Don’t take me out of here!”
“I said, Don’t take me out of this room.”
“What do you mean? I have to take you out. You’re a candle. Your job is to give light. It’s dark out there.”
“But you can’t take me out. I’m not ready,” the candle explained with pleading eyes. “I need more preparation.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. “More preparation?”
“Yeah, I’ve decided I need to research this job of light-giving so I won’t go out and make a bunch of mistakes. You’d be surprised how distorted the glow of an untrained candle can be.”
“All right then,” I said. “You’re not the only candle on the shelf. I’ll blow you out and take the others!” But right then I heard other voices, “We aren’t going either!”
I turned to the other candles, “You are candles and your job is to light dark places!”
“Well, that may be what you think,” said the first one. “You may think we have to go, but I’m busy–I’m meditating on the importance of light. It’s really enlightening.”
“And you other two,” I asked, “are you going to stay too?”
A short, fat, purple candle with plump cheeks spoke up. “I’m waiting to get my life together, I’m not stable enough.”
The last candle had a female voice, very pleasant to the ear. “I’d like to help, “she explained, “but lighting the darkness is not my gift–I’m a singer. I sing to other candles to encourage them to burn more brightly.”
She began a rendition of “This Little Light of Mine.” The other three joined in filling the cupboard with singing. I took a step back and considered the absurdity of it all. Four perfectly healthy candles singing to each other about light, but refusing to come out of the cupboard.
As Christians we are candles, and it is our main purpose to shine the light of God into the world. We will all have our own way of doing it, we will all shine to different levels of brightness and different colours. Some of us will burn brightly and fiercely like Paul, others will burn slowly and steadily like Timothy, but all of us share light with those around us. Our choice is not whether or not we do evangelism, but how we do it. How we share our faith, how we lead others to share their faith, and how we keep the desire to share our faith central to the rest of our lives.
Are you a Paul or a Timothy? What are your gifts and passions? How can you use them to do the work of an evangelist and carry out your ministry as a Christian fully when you go out into the world at the end of the service?