Healthful words of life

November 4, 2022

In September I had the beautiful privilege of preaching at a combined meeting of the Conference of Bishops and the inaugural gathering of the 2022-23 Fund for Leaders class. It was an amazing meeting of those beginning their call to public ministry and those who have served for decades—and, in some instances, were ready to retire. All have said yes to God’s call—whether it was over 40 years ago or just this year.

What on earth would compel someone to say yes to this call or even to stake one’s life on the seemingly preposterous claims of the gospel—that there is a God who is greater than us, greater than the universe; that this God created all that exists out of love and for love; that this God has infinite care for all of creation and knows each atom intimately; that this God is not far off but entered human life as one of us and spared nothing in order to bring us back into the joy of this relationship of love?

Paul charged Timothy to “hold to the standard of sound teaching.” Sound teaching, hmm … what does this mean? Is this some sort of inert deposit that needs to be guarded and protected? Is it a disembodied theory? Is it lifeless?

Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy explicitly declares that this sound teaching—or in Greek, these “healthy words”—is decidedly not static, inert, theoretical or lifeless. This is the transmission of a living faith filled with the power of God revealed in Jesus “who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light” (2 Timothy 1:10). These are the healthful words of life. This is the promise that Lois transmitted to her grandson and Eunice transmitted to her son because they wanted the absolute best for their dear boy. Theories and sound moral teaching do not have the power to save and change lives.

It is for the gospel that we have been appointed heralds and apostles and teachers so that all may be filled with new life in Christ.

Paul called Timothy—and all of us who read this letter—to a bold and living faith. “For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you … for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).

And just as this sound teaching is a living gift, it is also dynamic. It is poured into us by God and flows through us to the world God so loves. It is not a treasure to be hoarded, but a gift freely given that we may freely give.

Portions of 2 Timothy are always read at the installation of a bishop. It was poignant to recall these words at the combined meeting of the Conference of Bishops and Fund for Leaders scholars. Fall is the season of bishop installations, and Paul’s charge to Timothy was read at each one.

It is safe to say that the average age of ELCA bishops is older than the average age of seminarians. It is also safe to say that bishops have many more years of public ministry than seminarians who are at the beginning of their careers in the church. Some of the bishops are close to retirement; seminarians are just getting started. But all of us heed Paul’s words and pray that the Spirit rekindle the gift of God that is within us.

I imagine that the seminarians who were with us this fall thought of the bishops as sage, utterly confident, self-sufficient Christians. Not true. Actually, no Christian is self-sufficient. We are all dependent on God for everything, for life itself. And we are all the children and grandchildren of our spiritual mothers and grandmothers in whom the living faith lived, just as Lois and Eunice passed on the living faith to Timothy.

It is for the gospel that we have been appointed heralds and apostles and teachers so that all may be filled with new life in Christ.

Read more about: