We can start with the authorship question if we must. But you can’t help but wonder how much value is in such an exercise. Some call it an act of honesty or scriptural integrity to share the debates around attributing the letters to Timothy to Paul. A brief discussion of epistolary practice in the early church might be useful and help inquisitive minds not be unsettled by the revelation that maybe Paul didn’t write these letters. Given the ready availability of biblical scholarship to anyone with a web browser, we preachers need to be aware of fact-checkers in the pews.
Yet the traditional view of Paul imprisoned and facing his inevitable death at the hands of the Roman regime, passing a torch on to his young protégé, Timothy, is a powerful tale. The human scale of this text is where the power lies. It need not be a major delay in the journey of the sermon to begin with a declaration, either of conviction in the traditional view or convenience in using the names as they are presented in the text, that can both acknowledge but then quickly set aside whatever concerns might arise about the origins of this letter.
We all need this blessing; we stand under this call as followers of Jesus Christ. The author challenges us to live a life of faith, especially as a leader or proclaimer or witness to that faith every day of our lives. Yes, this text would produce an appropriate ordination sermon, or it could be used at the commissioning of missionaries or ministers of various kinds, lay and clergy both. But it need not be limited to those occasions. Every act of worship in the life of the church is a call to service and an invitation to be a leader in kingdom-building as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
“Rekindle the gift” is the way the blessing is pronounced. The epistles are full of talk about gifts. Lists abound, hierarchies even of which gifts we ought to seek and which ones the church needs most. But this verse is not talking about those gifts – those individualized but community-supported gifts of the Spirit. Instead, there is something more fundamental here, something deeper and more personal but also more universal. The mentor speaks of grace—the empowering presence of the Spirit and the redeeming love of Christ. It is that which we claim when we first say yes, when we first accept the embrace of Jesus through the arms of the church. Go back, is the advice, and remember who you were and who you are. Go back and look forward. Go back and remember that you’ve been loved from the beginning, whether you knew it or not.
Timothy knew it or should have. He was embraced by a mother and grandmother who lived a life of faith before him. This faith was passed on to him and now through him by a family. Timothy was blessed. Others might not have that blessing, yet Jesus is clear that relationships are available within the body of Christ. These are my brothers and sisters, he said, the ones who do the will of God (Matt. 12:49, et al).
This then becomes a part of the gift being rekindled, the relationships, the fellowship or community that surrounds us. Or if not a part of the gift, then the means by which we experience the gift, become aware of the gift, live into the gift. Paul, the mentor, says to hold fast to the relationships by which you came to faith, even when those relationships change. Because they do. Because they will.
Paul writes from prison. When he says, “Don’t be ashamed,” he means, “Don’t be ashamed of me.” Don’t be ashamed of what has happened to him, of where he has ended up. He isn’t ashamed of where the gospel has brought him. So, Timothy shouldn’t be ashamed either. But it isn’t just being ashamed of Paul that the mentor is concerned about. No, it is the gift itself, the call of the gospel. Don’t be ashamed of what happened to me as I lived this life of faith, and don’t be ashamed of the life of faith itself. The gospel isn’t what brought me here; it is the broken world in which we live—the same world we are giving our all to redeem, just as Christ gave his life to reconcile the world to himself.
Here’s the question the mentor is asking: “Can you trust in the presence of the God of faith even in the face of evidence to the contrary?” Actually, Paul doesn’t ask Timothy that question. Rather, he gives him the answer. Timothy is told how to proceed through a life that will have its struggles and suffering and still cling to the treasure, still claim the gift. And what he is told is that faith is found; Christ is found in relationships. He reminds Timothy of his mother and grandmother. Many of us find strength in a difficult moment by calling to mind those who nurtured us in the faith. Even when they are no longer with us, they can be a source of comfort and empowerment when we remember what they gave to us. And not just family, there are those relationships of faith that become sustaining to us. He reminds Timothy of the tears that were shed at their parting, of the closeness that they shared. Yet here he is still supporting, still advising, still encouraging, even from a distance, even from a humbled circumstance like prison. Prison walls won’t keep him from reaching out and mentoring his young friend. They are still connected in Christ.
The gift, then, is both the faith itself and the relationships in which the faith is found. Rekindle the gift, Timothy, call to mind your mentors in the faith, those who walked with you. Indeed, those who taught you how to walk. That is the spirit of power and love and self-discipline that can overcome any hesitancy, any reticence. So, embrace this life, Timothy, the glory and the suffering, embrace it all, knowing that you are not alone. The Spirit sustains; the community enlivens; the faith empowers; it is enough. Rekindle the gift.