Friday, July 13, 2018 - Updated: 1:11 pm
“How-to” manuals line bookstore shelves. From repair kits to the booklets describing the usage of every device we buy, such information can be difficult to absorb, but in the end we are grateful to have it.
In seeking such a formula for faithful ministry, we turn to the divine “how-to” counsels we find in Scripture. An excellent resource is Paul’s second letter to his newly delegated disciple, Timothy. In Chapter 4, he offers this beloved child advice all followers of Jesus need to take to heart. This is what he says: ... proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachings to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully (2 Timothy 4:2-5) (my italics).
In this short passage, there are nine directives, stated by Paul in the imperative tense. Taken together these “little commandments” offer us the formula to follow to become disciples in this or any age.
The first and most challenging duty we have is to “proclaim the message” in our thoughts, words and actions. The virtue that most facilitates this honest teaching is “utmost patience.” Paul says that the “time is coming; but for us it already seems to be here, “when people will not put up with sound doctrine.”
The message of justice, peace and mercy the Lord asks us to proclaim has become increasingly countercultural. What one group sees as justice, another interprets as oppression. Bellicose behavior blankets our planet and pockets of peace come under attack. Angels of mercy occupy every mission station, often surrounded by genocidal maniacs.
Such events shadow the proclamation of sound doctrine and block the ability to hear the truth with one’s whole mind and heart. Is it not as true for us as it must have been for Paul and Timothy that inner listening has been replaced by “itching ears” that accumulate in selfish ways this or that teaching suitable to one’s own desires cut off from the teaching authority of the church?
Why should one listen to Gospel truths when, thanks in great measure to the proliferation of social media, we can “wander away to myths.” Rather than open the Bible, one consults the horoscope printed in the daily paper, or the message found in a fortune cookie in an Asian restaurant.
The second directive is essential: “be persistent.” This is the same as saying hold to your promise to proclaim the message whether the climate for doing so is favorable or unfavorable. Now is when we need to speak the truth with conviction, not unwise accommodation. At one and the same time, we need to exercise the firmness of admonishment and the gentleness of admiration. In Paul’s words, we need to rebuke and encourage. There are no hopeless cases, only hopeless people who name them as such. Compliments always go further than condemnation and condescension.
These first five facets of the formula for faithful ministry are, in a word, proclamation, persistence, conviction, rebuke and encouragement. Once we follow them, we are prepared to obey the remaining four, starting with the need to “be sober.” We must never make light of the serious challenges we face. To be sober means to be realistic, not pessimistic. Sobriety is as much a physical decision as a spiritual discipline. It means that we must be prepared to “endure suffering,” which is the opposite of self-indulgence.
To follow Jesus, as he himself told us, is to deny ourselves and take up our cross. The aim of discipleship is not to achieve worldly success but to be faithful to our Lord.
Once these directives become second nature to us, we can “do the work of an evangelist.” It takes a lot of preparation to reach this point. We cannot rush the process since the information we obtain in our head must sink into our heart and change our lives. Only then can we do what Paul asked of Timothy: to “carry out (our own) ministry fully.”
Because Paul teaches what he lives and lives what he teaches, he can assure Timothy that this formula for fully faithful ministry will yield the amazing result expressed in these simple yet profound words. Let us beg God for the grace to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).
Muto is dean and executive director of the Epiphany Academy of Formative Spirituality in Pittsburgh’s Beechview neighborhood. Visit www.epiphanyassociation.org.