There is a lot in this text on which to hang a sermon. But one can’t help but be struck by all the “ifs” in these verses. Of course, it is true that “if” can be causal as well as conditional and that Paul, or the writer of this epistle, is not waffling here. There isn’t a shred of uncertainty in these verses. And yet, a weighted phrase to be sure, and yet, there is something in this wording that gives us room to find ourselves, particularly when we look at the last verse of the text. But let’s come back to that.
The mentor is rehearsing the faith, restating the gospel he proclaimed with his whole life, the one that brought him to his current status. It is presented as information for Timothy. “Remember Jesus Christ,” he writes. Maybe it is self-sustaining in a way, a rehearsal of that faith that gives sustenance to endure all that is happening. Some argue that this is a creedal statement – Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David. It is the gospel in miniature, perhaps, a declaratory statement that encapsulates all of faith.
How would you sum up your faith or the foundational statements of that which gives your life meaning and direction? Maybe the suggestion here is that Timothy (and through him all of us) needed to find something that would hold him in difficult times. “All for Jesus, I surrender,” perhaps. Or “Jesus who said I am always with you to the end of the age.” The mentor has wrapped his whole life around this statement, this declaration of faith – no, this person who is with him in the hardship, with him in the chains. And in this relationship, in this person to whom he has invested his identity and reason for being, he knows freedom, even when condemned as a criminal.
Then the “ifs” come. But for the writer and for Paul (whether they are one in the same or not), the “ifs” have already happened. If we have died with him – check. If we endure – check again and again. If we deny him – wait, no not that, didn’t do that. Therefore, we could read the opposite: if we don’t deny him – check. If we are faithless – ah, now this one is tricky. Is there room for moments of doubt in Paul’s theology? Certainly. Is there room for failures of will in Paul’s confession of faith. Here it is. If we are faithless, Christ remains faithful. This carries the implied understanding that when faithlessness passes and faith is picked up again, Christ will continue to walk in faith with you.
We might ask whether the mentor is trying to shore up Timothy or give Timothy content for preaching. “Remind them of this,” we read, as if this is instruction for the preacher and for the teacher. And of course, it is. But that is quickly followed by “do your best to present yourself to God.” It’s a both/and situation here—as is most of the life of faith. It is both personal and communal, inspiration and exhortation.
But all these “ifs” become a way of describing a life. They are not a conditional approach to faith, but a causal relationship of how the mentor has found his life playing out. There is no waffling here. This is not “if, then, maybe.” This is what I have found; here is how my life has borne witness to the ongoing presence of Christ—the sustaining presence of Christ, even in the midst of hardship and trials.
It also, however, points to the investment of self in the discipleship path. We aren’t passive spectators waiting to be rescued from this broken world, subject to the winds of fate and the frailties of our own commitment. No, we are called to lean in, to grab hold. We are called to be unafraid of failure, to take risks in living out the call of our faith. Yes, we are being made disciples of Jesus Christ; it is not by our power but by the transforming work of the Spirit within us. Yet we partner with that Spirit, surrendering ourselves to that power at work within us. And then we partner with the Spirit in making disciples of others. And all of this disciple-making is not the end in itself. We are making disciples for the transformation of the world. “Do your best,” the mentor tells Timothy and us; do your best to present yourself to God.
Ah, so this is about being worthy. This is about encouraging God to choose us, to claim us. “No, not in the least,” says Paul—in many places. The claiming has been done; the being made worthy has been done. It was done on a cross on a hill called Calvary. It was done in a graveyard in the light of the risen sun on Easter morning. It was done. You are declared worthy. You are claimed by the creator, redeemed by the savior, sanctified by the sustainer.
Still, do your best. At what? If we’re already worthy, if we’re already claimed, what do we need to do our best at? At living the life. At letting the evidence of your salvation show in how you act, what you value, how you respond to everything that happens, for good and for ill. Do your best to let the light within you shine forth from you. Present yourself to God with the best that God has placed within you. Present yourself to God by loving the ones God came to walk among. Present yourself to God by letting every word from your lips be words of praise and invitation. Present yourself to God with joy in every circumstance. Present yourself to God.