Bible Sunday – 2 Timothy 3: 14-4: 5 and John 5: 36b – end
Some years ago, there was an attempt in Wincanton to set up a Lions club. You can get an idea of just how long ago this was by the fact that our then curate Steve Tancock was a member! One of the fund raisers that we attempted was book sales on Saturday mornings in the hall at the back of the Bear Inn. We quickly learned that when you hold a book sale, you nearly always go home with more books than you started with, and you end up with a heavy heart taking quite a number of these to the tip. Even more sadly, the book that most often ends up in a skip is King James Bibles. Nobody these days want to buy a second-hand bible, especially if it is written in the language used 400 years ago and in tiny print. People who buy Bibles nowadays buy something more like the one that I received for my birthday this year with beautiful illustrations and space for journaling which I have not been able to bring myself to use yet, or one with bright colours and fun stories to read to children.
And yet there are many children and adults. whose knowledge of the bible is almost non-existent. Where did we go wrong? 2 Timothy is a good book to read from on Bible Sunday, partly because it contains that wonderful verse in chapter 3 v 16 – ‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, but also because earlier in the book Paul reminds Timothy of what he has learned and from whom he learned it. There is very much a lesson for us here, as in chapter 1Paul says – ‘I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason, I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; 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: v 5) Timothy then had received a solid grounding in the scriptures – the part of our bible that we would call the law and the prophets, from his Jewish mother and grandmother. The teaching about Jesus he received at the same time as they did from Paul himself whom they would have met on his first or second journey – ‘Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us’ (2 Timothy 1 v13).
This is obviously a family that is close to Paul’s heart. Last week on St Luke’s day we heard from this same letter Paul asking Timothy to come to him in prison, and he added some very personal requests – to bring the cloak that he had left behind and his books, and especially the parchments. Paul is very aware that he may not have much longer to live, and at a time like that you want the people around you that you most love.
Paul’s letters to Timothy contain a lot of advice that is still useful to us today – he is supporting a young church leader, and in many respects, what was sensible in the middle east in the first century, is still sensible now, although it is obvious from some passages how much times have changed. In our reading today, he points out that Timothy has been given a good start, by his family, and partly also from having accompanied Paul on his travels and no doubt heard him teach frequently, and joined in discussions with him and others.
I don’t know what the congregation at the church in Ephesus looked like under Timothy’s leadership. I do know that it took courage to be a Christian there, as it was very unpopular in the town to certain parts of society – in particular those who made money from the tourist trade as, just as a cathedral city is to us nowadays, so Ephesus was to the followers of Artemis or Diana as she was also called in the ancient world. Her temple was listed as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and had made the town rich. Small wonder then that they were not happy when Paul first arrived preaching about another God and performing miracles, and I doubt if the regular worshipping church under the leadership of Timothy was any more popular. I do know, however, what most churches in this country look like and much as I love you all, I have to say that we are not a sight guaranteed to excite young people. I think you would probably agree with me!
Is the answer then to return to the word of God? In the letter to the Hebrews, it is described as being active and sharper than any two-edged sword. Alison warned us last week that while the recorded version with David Suchet is beautiful to listen to, it can also be soporific. How can we get people excited again? The Bible Society tell me that this year they have produced the whole Bible in 66 languages being read by 707 million people. 6 language groups received the whole Bible in their own language for the first time in the last year. Five of these were African languages and one was in American Sign language, which I have to admit confuses me as I did not realise that sign language could also be printed and read. These people are overjoyed that at last they can read scripture in their day-to-day language. But in this country, bibles are being sent to the tip.
Could the answer be in Jesus teaching that we heard in our gospel reading? Jesus says ‘You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.’ Our bibles are a valuable, a precious, a life-giving resource, but like the two-edged sword that they are likened to, they need to be used properly. They point to Jesus, and that surely is what we should be doing – in our lives, our worship and our use of the bible.
This Sunday is the last Sunday after Trinity, but the last Sunday of the church’s year comes in four weeks’ time with the Festival of Christ the King. We used to say that all roads lead to Rome – surely all our words should and must, as our Sundays do, lead to Jesus.