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09.29.19 1 Tim 6.3-13 Heavenly Treasure Sermon Summary

by on September 30, 2019

As many conservative evangelicals do, I used to read the Bible as if it were God’s words to me personally. Later I discovered that wasn’t actually the case, and I was glad to be let off the hook in some passages. But then I became a pastor and realized that letters like 1 Timothy actually were written to me.

First Timothy is a letter to a pastor. When we read it, we’re reading someone else’s mail. But while some topics are specific to pastors, there is wisdom here for the whole church also. The foundational concerns of the letter include Timothy’s faithfulness to “sound teaching.” “Good conscience” also shows up throughout the text. The goal, we’re told in 1:5 is, “love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.” The author warns Timothy that failure in these matters leads to a shipwrecked faith, (1:19) excommunication, (1:20) and the loss of salvation for the shepherd and the flock. (4:16)

Today’s passage is the conclusion of the letter, and immediately follows a criticism of those who pursue “godliness as a means to gain.” The reference is to financial gain. Do some preach to get rich? Do some practice the good life to get ahead? Is churchiness a means to prosperity?

The answer is no, according to the author. Several years ago a young couple moved to Colorado Springs and visited my congregation. They were the kinds of visitors every pastor covets. They jumped quickly into the life of the church beyond worship. After about a month, they asked me if they could make a pitch for their new business to members of the congregation. Wary of their motives, I encouraged them to continue settling into our communal life before doing so. They didn’t return.

Timothy and pastors in general are warned that ambition for riches leads to divisiveness. In the book of James we’re told that conflicts and disputes arise because of financial ambition. (4:1-3) In 1 Timothy, financial ambition leads to, “morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words, envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling.” (6:4-5) But, the letter continues, “godliness with contentment is great gain.” Is this sarcasm? Maybe a redirection? What is “godliness”? And what is “contentment”?

Godliness in 1 Timothy is a concern chiefly related to pastors, and it appears to be focused around the matter of doctrines (that is, official church teachings) and behaviors. Godliness is defined not in positive terms (“this is what it is”) but by how it is transgressed (“this is what it is NOT”). Some examples of ungodliness include those who are disobedient and profane, murderers, slave traders, and liars, ministers who are preoccupied with celibacy and myths and arguments over words.  (1:9-10; 4:3, 7; 6:4)

Then there are longer discourses regarding how men should pray, how women should dress, characteristics of church leaders, which widows should receive help or not, and how slaves should relate to owners.

As a pastor myself, I like some of this teaching, like “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double compensation, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” (5:17) Other characteristics I don’t: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” (2:12)

As Presbyterians, we’ve come to understand that “godliness” changes depending on context. What constituted godliness in Timothy’s congregation doesn’t necessarily translate to ours. So today men can have long hair, pastors may experience divorced, and women can have authority. Godliness in the pastorate is important; what it means evolves with the context. Whatever the context is of your life, may you find within it the path of godliness.

What about “contentment”? Here is universal wisdom for the whole church, not just for preachers. First, contentment begins with a mindset of “brought nothing in, take nothing out.” We come to life with nothing, and leave life with nothing. In the words of fabled Job: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb; naked shall I go to the dead.” (1:21) Or of the Preacher: “As the rich came from their mother’s womb, so shall they go again, naked as they came; they shall take nothing for their toil.” (Ecclesiastes 5:15) The first step towards contentment is accepting the impermanence of not only wealth, but of our very lives.

Second, contentment is nurtured by a grateful satisfaction. Timothy and the church are urged to be satisfied “with food and clothing.” Why not shelter, too, I wonder? I think shelter is not included on the short list because shelter suggests too much permanence. Food and clothing are immediate, present tense needs. There are no guarantees that we’ll survive the storms, even if we have shelter.

So when Timothy is told to, “Fight the good fight of the faith”—this faith refers to the present. It has an immediate sense. It is always active now, not depending on the future, living in the present, dealing with present concerns. And not just our concerns, but the concerns of others in accordance with our means.

And some people have a lot of means. The letter closes with advice to those who are rich. Don’t be haughty. Don’t rely on your riches, but rely instead on God. Do good, be generous, and ready to share. This advice is wasted on the poor. They are not haughty. They relate to everyone. They don’t rely on riches. That temptation isn’t an option. They have to rely on God. Because they are familiar with the desperation of need, they do already what all of us are called to: They do good, are generous, and are ready to share.

This is the key to “the life that really is life.” Real life is lived in faith, in the now. Real life is lived in relationship, with God and with others. Real life is lived in generosity, in doing good, and in being ready to share.

And it is for this reason Jesus gave us the Table. Here we receive God’s presence in faith, right now. Here we renew our relationship with God and one another. Here we receive God’s generosity in order to share generously with others. So come to this table to receive the life that truly is life, for our lives are hidden with God in Christ.

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