The following sermon was preached by CLTS President, Revd Dr Thomas Winger, at the seminary’s Opening Service on 7 September 2014. The text was the theme verse shared by LCC’s two seminaries this year:
“Train yourself for godliness;
for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way,
as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (I Tim. 4:7b-8).
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
The two letters of Paul to Timothy and his one letter to Titus—collectively labelled the “pastoral epistles”—are “pastoral” in more than one sense. On the one hand, while most of Paul’s letters were written explicitly to whole churches, these were addressed to pastors, colleagues of Paul in the ministry and subordinates under his episcopal direction. He was giving them their “marching orders”. But they are also “pastoral” in the sense that they express the deepest heart-felt longings of St Paul for the dear flock in the places where they served. St Paul had left Ephesus in a hurry, his lengthy three-year ministry there cut short by a riot amongst the townspeople (Acts 19:23–20:1). The silversmiths who made their living forging miniature images of the great goddess Artemis were feeling pain in their posterior pocketbooks as St Paul’s Christian proclamation stole ever more territory from the goddess. They stirred up a great crowd that pressed down the streets until it surged into the 25 000-seat Great Theatre—and perhaps they thought Paul could simply be done in by mob justice. But the city magistrate intervened, saving Paul’s neck, but sending him prematurely packing.
Paul’s pastoral anxiety for the church left behind by his hasty and unwanted departure is evident from the opening paragraph of the letter he delivered to Timothy, whom he also left in Ephesus. Timothy’s mission was to deal with certain mischievous troublemakers within a church that had only narrowly escaped the wrath of her pagan neighbours. For certain men were teaching a “different doctrine”, devoting themselves to “myths and endless genealogies” (I Tim. 1:3-4)—the first reference to the kind of speculative nonsense and “old wives’ tales” that crop up again in our text from chapter four. These men thought of themselves as “teachers of the law” (I Tim. 1:7)—perhaps they came from a Jewish background and persuaded the Ephesians that they knew the Hebrew Scriptures better than Paul. But they didn’t know how to use that Law, and laid upon the Ephesian laypeople a burdensome set of rules by which they suggested they could draw themselves closer to God. Paul had dealt with two of them previously—Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom he “handed over to Satan” (I Tim. 1:20)—, but their followers seized the opportunity of Paul’s absence to infiltrate the church again. Unlike the passionate pastoral heart of Paul, their consciences had been “seared”, cauterised and scarred so that they felt neither remorse nor compassion for the flock they were leading astray. As if on the stage of that Great Theatre, they put on an hypocritical mask of piety, feigning concern for the people’s souls and making pompous display of their moral perfection. They preached against marriage, and dictated what kinds of food they could and couldn’t eat, suggesting that their bodies were their enemies and that true godliness could be achieved by beating them into submission.
Paul’s response in our text is on first blush quite straightforward. “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (I Tim. 4:4). Timothy is to teach the Ephesians that such things as wife and family, house and home, food and drink, are the good gifts of God, and that we ought to acknowledge this by accepting them with thanks to our heavenly Father. But then he adds a word of instruction that hints at something more sinister going on: “for it is made holy by the Word of God and prayer” (I Tim. 4:5). If these were just “things” that were good in and of themselves, then there would be no reason to bless them, to invoke the holy Word of God over them, to pray for God to make them holy. No, these words strike our ears as somewhat alien, calling to mind Old Testament rituals that took profane or unclean things and made them holy; they evoke exotic images of exorcism and defence against dark arts that seem so foreign to our modern world. But this is precisely what’s going on. For these Ephesian false teachers weren’t simply teaching a different lifestyle, an ancient version of veganism or the joys of the single life. In fact, Paul admits that “bodily training is of some value” (I Tim. 4:8)—and in view of my daily cycle up the escarpment and Dr Stephenson’s regular trots over to the Brock weight room, our faculty are hardly going to disagree. The Telegraph diet, “Eat less, move more”, is darn good advice. No, the problem is that these false teachers were witting or unwitting agents of dark forces in a much more sinister plan. For “the Spirit expressly states that in the latter times some will fall away from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons” (I Tim. 4:1).
Now, while I’m sceptical of fad diets I would hardly call quinoa salads the spawn of Satan. You see, it’s not really about the food. Paul is opening Timothy’s eyes to what’s really driving these false teachers. The evil spirits are cunning. They know that it’s possible, yes relatively easy, to turn weak Christians away from God by curving them in on themselves. Paul had written to Timothy that the Law is indeed good, if it is used lawfully (I Tim. 1:8); but these false teachers were teaching their own laws, not God’s, and were teaching them not as a means to repentance for sinners but as a means to elevate themselves higher than others, to draw themselves closer to God by making themselves cleaner and more perfect. And that’s the cunning plan of the deceptive spirit called Satan: to draw us away from our total reliance on the grace of God towards a seemingly pious process of self-improvement.
What seems so innocent on the outside turns out to be the visible evidence of a far more dangerous spiritual war. As Paul would later write to the same Ephesian congregation: “For our struggle is not against blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual [forces] of evil in the heavenly [places]” (Eph 6:12). Such a dark, spiritual battle cannot be won by picking one food over another. It calls for intense spiritual exercise, training the spirit as an athlete hones his body and equipping the soul as soldiers arm for war. Paul writes, “Train yourself for godliness.” The verb “train”, as our students learnt at our retreat last week, is Γύμναζε—from which we get the word “gymnasium”, which appears in the very next verse as “bodily training” (I Tim. 4:8). It’s an image that would have been familiar and striking to his Ephesian audience, as to any citizen of an ancient Greek city. Ephesus was home to three grand “gymnasiums”—training grounds for athletes and gladiators who performed γύμνος “naked” for crowds of spectators in the Ephesian stadium. These weren’t your typical office boys going to the gym to work off their beer bellies; these were professionals for whom their upcoming competition could very well be a matter of life and death. We might think more of the year-long physical training that precedes an assault on Mt Everest, where dozens die every year because their bodies still aren’t fit enough. And yet Paul says, such “bodily training is [only] of some value”, while “godliness is of value in every way” (I Tim. 4:8).
Avoiding silly myths and endless genealogies, sifting through words to determine what is of God and what is of men, is serious work. Being equipped for this spiritual battle takes knowledge. The training that leads to godliness—the right reverence for a holy God—is hard work. Our world is as much the domain of demonic warfare as Ephesus of Asia was, even though her grand temples no longer grace our skylines. If we were to continue Paul’s line of thought, we might say that this seminary is a kind of spiritual gymnasium, a place where we drill our students over and over in the skills they need to be prepared for the deadly game they’re entering. Our students don’t always understand the need for this or that skill—what’s with Greek and Hebrew verb conjugations and the four alpha-privative adverbs of the Chalcedonian Christological definition? As we know from experience, our students’ appreciation for the spiritual discipline of daily chapel attendance seems inversely proportional to the length of the year—in other words, the busier they get, the more often they play truant. This is the devil’s plan. When we’re under the greatest spiritual testing, when our souls and bodies are weary, he draws us away from the very place where we can find help. He closes our ears to God’s Word and our mouths to sacramental nourishment.
Paul’s admonition to Timothy runs completely counter to this tragic human tendency: “If you put these instructions before the brethren, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, being continually nourished on the words of the faith and of the good doctrine which you have followed so closely” (I Tim. 4:6). You can put nothing before the people of God unless you yourself continue to be fed by the Word of God and your bodies and souls nourished by the living Body and Blood of Christ. For it’s in maintaining this connection to Him, the spiritual Champion, that you find your triumph in the spiritual battle. You see, if I were to say that your knowledge of Greek and Hebrew itself could defeat the devil, you’d not only be in serious trouble … but I would be as guilty of conjuring dangerous and ungodly spiritual pride as those ancient false teachers of Ephesus. The spiritual training of devotion to God’s Word and sacraments, fasting and prayer, self-examination and confession, thanksgiving and hymn singing has nothing to do with making yourself into spiritual warriors who can stand up to the devil alone. It’s about putting yourself into Christ. It’s not so much about wearing the uniform of His team, but of wearing Him. When Paul rejoices to the Ephesians in the armour of God, calling upon them to take up the helmet of salvation and the breastplate of righteousness and the shield of the faith (Eph. 6), he’s simply telling them that Christ’s own weapons will protect them. We who have been baptised into Christ share in His victory because we go with Him. He didn’t look much like a champion. When He hung naked on the cross, the crowds didn’t marvel at the ripple of His muscles, but scoffed at His seemingly helpless and shameful state. But bodily strength was of no value in that fight. By His submission to death He defeated it. Striding forth from the grave, He tramped upon death like a war horse crushing puny foot soldiers beneath its mighty hooves. And God the Father declared His victory by lifting Him up far above Everest’s lofty peak, far above the heavens, far above the demons duking it out behind the prince of the power of the air (Eph. 2:2). And through our Baptism into Him, we are there with Him, together with Mel Murray and all the saints worshipping with the heavenly host, safe from harm, ready and waiting for the salvation ready to be revealed at the last time, prepared with a discipline that has promise not only for this life but also for the life to come (I Tim. 4:8). Amen
Photos: (c) 2014 Thomas M. Winger
(Ephesus, Turkey; and the Ephesus Museum in Vienna)