II Timothy 1:1-14
There has been no end of dispute and argument among Christians over the past two thousand years. Despite Jesus’ pleas, the disciples who lived and traveled with him, who learned directly from him about the kingdom of God, who saw him perform miracles, and who became the witnesses to his resurrection from death never managed to get along with one another perfectly.
The gospels record an incident where they get into an argument among themselves about which of them is the greatest, like some sort of first-century Twitter fight. The people who came to prominence in the Christian community just after them often had the same discussion, at times framed around the importance of different forms of ministry. Paul had to ask the Christians in Corinth to look good and hard at the situation among them and to see that the Holy Spirit had spread a variety of gifts among them so that they could see their need of one another.
“Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” [I Corinthians 12:29-30]
Of course, the same apostle Paul who wrote these words was just as human as them, and he is recorded as having had his arguments with one of the original disciples, Peter, and even with James, Jesus’ own brother.
Paul’s arguments with them were over doctrine more than personality, although when you read his letters you can get a clear sense that there is at least some of that there, too. (Read through the book of Galatians, where he recounts who said and did what to whom. You cannot miss it.) At base, though, he is trying to establish the faith on the basis of faith in Jesus and Jesus’ love held out for everybody. That also forced him to recognize the difference between adversaries and enemies.
So, time and time across the centuries, Christians have argued and disagreed. At times (and may God forgive us all for letting acrimony go this far) we have let anger turn into violence. Even so, when the smoke has cleared, we have continually come back to the point where we say that there is some bond that holds us together.
It is not that we read the same Bible. There are books that some people judge to be authoritative and others do not. We (“we” being the Protestants) call these “The Apocrypha”. The Roman Catholics just consider them part of the Holy Scriptures. But on the basis of some points in these books, the Catholics have developed the notion of purgatory, a place for souls to work out repentance after death; the Protestants emphasize, instead, the full and entire forgiveness of sin here and now through Jesus having taken our sin onto his own shoulders on the cross. Those are major differences, and they matter. But they are not enough that (with the exception of a few unusual people on both sides) we would say that the people on the other side of this division are not also Christians.
It is not that we worship the same way. Compare, if you will, the elaborate ceremonies of the Eastern Orthodox with a group of Quakers sitting down in a room and waiting silently for the Holy Spirit to speak. You can also flip that around and have two churches that worship in ways that seem basically interchangeable, say your average United Methodist and Presbyterian congregations. It would not be on a Sunday morning, but on some weeknight in an administrative meeting of some sort, that you would discover very different understandings of the nature of the church. Even so, no one in these spots would go so far as to say that they, and they only, are Christian.
What holds us together, and brings us together again when we push one another away, is not a “what” but a “who”.
“I know the one in whom I have put my trust,” [II Timothy 1:12]
Paul told Timothy. And, yes, he also told him,
“Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me,”
but Paul told Timothy to do that
“in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” [II Timothy 1:13]
Once upon a time, we argued over whether Christians could eat pork. That’s all over the book of Acts. (The Seventh Day Adventists, by the way, are often vegetarians for religious reasons.) But no one denies that Jesus sat down to eat with sinners, and in doing so called them back to the righteousness and wholeness of God. The Eastern and Western churches split over what language to use in worship (and that came up again at the Reformation) and also over the question of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, or just from the Father. But we never deny that the Spirit is at work to bring people everywhere to faith. Right now, at least in our branch of Christianity, we’re arguing over the place of LGBT people. No one on either side of that issue, however, disputes that God
“saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.” [II Timothy 1:9]
And I could go on and on. In fact, I am sure that down the road there will arise all kinds of unforeseen differences about what it means to live according to that “holy calling”.
The one thing I am sure of, though, is the love of the Savior who calls. It is the message of that love that goes out into all the world, through all his people. So,
“Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.” [II Timothy 1:14]