Last week, on Pentecost, we celebrated the arrival of the Holy Spirit. And in the weeks to come we’ll be considering the gifts that the Spirit offers, which Paul calls the “Fruit of the Spirit.” He names these gifts as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There are a lot of gifts of the Spirit.
For the past few weeks, we’ve been deep in the books of Galatians and Acts, books that really focus on the earliest days of the church. Today, our reading comes from another New Testament text, the book of Timothy.
This book is one of the latest-composed pieces of writing to make it into the Bible, meaning that, of all our Biblical writings, which were written by different people at many different times throughout antiquity, this one was written the furthest along in the establishment of Christian practice.
There was a sort of interesting shift that was taking place as time went on in the first century or two of the Jesus movement. When Jesus and the early disciples were around and preaching, they used a lot of language about God’s kingdom being “at hand.”
And many early Jesus-followers interpreted that language to mean that Jesus was supposed to be physically coming back, like right back, real soon, to stay and rule on high. And then he would fulfill his promises to lift up the oppressed and usher in an eternal reign of peace for all people.
But when that kept not happening in the sort of physical way the early Christians expected it to, they had to begin to re-frame their understanding of what Jesus’ teaching meant, in light of this longer-term wait that they were beginning to realize they were in for.
Some followers grew impatient, and wandered off to join other religions, or follow other apocalyptic preachers. But many stayed, and dug into Jesus’ teaching, and began to consider what it might mean in the context of an ongoing, community-based religious practice. One guided more by the Holy Spirit and the memory of Jesus’ teaching than by his embodied authoritative presence. Let’s hear how early Christians wrestled with these issues:
2 Timothy 4:1-5
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; 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 teachers 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.
I don’t know what it says about me that I just couldn’t wait to get to the “patience” theme. In Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit, “patience” falls somewhere around the middle, but I couldn’t resist starting with it.
I’m struggling to think of an extended time in my life that demanded more patience than this one. I know we’ve been trying to make sense of this pandemic and how the various lockdowns have impacted us for over a year now, and I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I’ve made much progress. Any way we cut it, we’re still just… waiting.
There are a lot of stories about waiting in the Bible. In Genesis, during the great flood, Noah waits for the rain to stop. In Exodus, the Hebrews in bondage wait for liberation. There are many stories in the Old and New Testaments of couples waiting to have children.
In the more story-style scriptures in the Bible, the “waiting” is always satisfied. The one enduring their waiting with patience gets a happy ending of sorts, or at least a happy-for-now. The flood recedes, the enslaved are freed, and the couple conceives. These stories are there to inspire us as we wait. To cultivate faithfulness in uncertain times and provide hope that our longings will be satisfied. We need stories like that.
But I think there’s also something to be said for stories that come from in the midst of those waiting times, the beginning or middle, from that yet-unresolved season. Stories where you can feel the realness and rawness of that longing. Where the ambiguousness of a given time is still open-ended. Sometimes, those are the stories that feel the most therapeutic in uncertain times. The ones that feel more like they’re sitting with you in your uncertainty than trying to make you feel hopeful about future. I think both have their virtues.
Back in the first century, when Jesus didn’t physically come right back and usher in a new egalitarian “kingdom” for his followers, many of them waited, and kept waiting, patiently. And it’s clear from the steady growth of Christianity that the “patience” with which they were waiting wasn’t an idle sort. As they continued to wait and hope for Jesus’ return, the faithful started working on what to do in the growing meantime. If Jesus wasn’t going to come and whisk in a bright new future for them all, they realized that they were just going to have to do the best they could themselves.
Guided by the Spirit, they constructed their own hope by making more of the kinds of communities that Jesus himself had cultivated. This was an act of profound faithfulness. Without Jesus there, they had to rely upon the Spirit as it moved in one another. Together, they became Jesus’ body—Jesus’ hands and feet and voice—themselves.
It could not have been easy. And, as our reading from Timothy shows, not everyone was down for this kind of work. Some early followers, in their impatience, abandoned the Jesus movement for other apocalyptic mythologies. They jumped over to some other message of “hope,” one that was more of the “somebody flies in and fixes thigs for us” variety.
But no one remembers those teachers, because their communities didn’t last. We do remember Jesus, though.
For the early Christians, I’m sure it wasn’t an easy transition, going from relying upon someone with literal divine authority to then having to discern how the Spirit was moving in all kinds of people with all kinds of ideas. It sounds a bit messy.
The letter Susan read this morning reveals the hope these faithful Christians did still have for Jesus’ more imminent appearing, for the waiting to just. be. over. There is a somewhat confused and grief-tainted sense of longing in today’s scripture that feels real to me right now.
In the past fourteen months we have gone from our initial hope for a quick return to normal… to a realization that getting “back to normal” might take longer than we thought…
And then, more recently, our language started to change yet again. Instead of the hopeful certainty of the phrase “back to normal,” we’ve started hearing references to “a new normal,” even though we don’t really know what that might look like yet.
In the past year we’ve been called to consider what it means to care for the most vulnerable among us, our elders, our siblings with disabilities and chronic health conditions. We’ve learned about how important accessibility is, for all kinds of folks. So many institutions and organizations have learned to make accommodations that we now, finally, recognize as feasible, and hopefully will continue to support as we move forward.
Patience, I think, is what we do with the time in which we’re forced to wait. And I don’t mean that in a heavy-handed, why didn’t you learn a language and an instrument and master the perfect sourdough during quarantine kind of way.
I’m thinking more of all the imaginative ways people have found to connect and inspire and learn in this deeply challenging time. It is here, that I see the heart of patience, of waiting-time made to serve, made to invest in the future by sorting out our priorities, by really discerning who we are and who we want to be and what we want to be known for as we move forward together.
We’ve learned so much. We’ve learned how to stand up for the vulnerable in new ways and how to make education and worship and mental health care accessible in ways that I hope will continue to serve us, no matter what the future looks like. We have never stopped trying to connect, trying to do the right thing, trying to stay in community, no matter how hard things got. I think that is where the Spirit was moving in the past year, bearing fruit in our waiting.
Patience is the Spirit at work in our waiting, the Spirit revealing truth and bearing fruit in our in-between times. Even in hard times when we feel stuck, the Spirit works in mysterious ways.
Thanks be to God. Amen.