St Timothy (Patronal Feast on Jan 26th or 22nd)

Today, we are remembering the namesake of our church, our patron saint Timothy. The limited extent of historical information we have about him is neatly summarized in two objects in our church: the stained glass window depicting his life (a gift from our first ever people’s warden!), and the carved lectern stand. The window shows the trajectory of his life, beginning with the lower level that depicts his childhood spent with his family (reminding us that faith may often start there); continuing through the central section in which St Paul is ordaining him for ministry in a similar way that it’s been done through the centuries (i.e. by putting hands on one’s head); and upwards, literally to the height of his ministry as the church leader teaching the scripture. The wooden carving similarly represents him as a young man he was at the start of his ministry, yet also has him holding a wooden club – a disturbing symbol pointing to his death as a martyr.

How we know any of this is a mix of history and legend, primary and secondary sources, secular and scriptural. His death at the close of the 1st century, for example, is inconsistently reported in non-biblical writings that date well after his life (e.g., Acts of Timothy). His stomach ailment, on account of which he was to “drink a little wine,” the names of his relatives, and the fact that he worked in Ephesus on the other hand, are in the Bible (1,2 Tim). However, almost no historical-critical scholar today believes that those were actual letters Paul wrote to Timothy, or even about Timothy, but 2nd century documents advocating for a tighter organizational structure in the church to safeguard the orthodoxy of its teachings (i.e., single bishop, multiple deacons, and ordained/paid elders who were only married men). None of this was how Paul and his colleagues “ran the church” of the preceding century. How they did work is described in the genuine letters of Paul that are considered a primary source (i.e., providing the first-person perspective on events actually experienced), and Acts that is a secondary source (i.e., describing events from the perspective of a person who wasn’t there). 

With regards to Timothy, we know more about him from the latter – Luke-Acts, the first attempt at a systematic history of the spread of the Christian faith, beginning with the prophets and ending with the 12 disciples, Paul, and his colleagues. What we read today describes Paul’s second trip around the Mediterranean (roughly 50s AD), as part of which he recruited Timothy. Going in the direction from Turkey to Greece, he first went to Antioch, then his birthplace Tarsus, and then to Lystra near modern day Konya in Turkey (inland north of Cyprus) where Timothy lived. Paul had already been there on  his first trip, and maybe that’s how Timothy’s family became converted and were able to teach Timothy – who then, by this trip, had already become a respected member of a Christian congregation. Here we also notice Timothy’s multicultural background, which in fact represents the very context in which Christianity came into being: a synergy of the Jewish and Greek philosophies and practices, which posed certain logistical problems, such as whether the pagans needed to become Jews before progressing to Christianity. Paul is known to have personally ministered only to the non-Jewish people, and firmly advocated against such a progression. Timothy, on the other hand, was evidently supposed to work with the Jewish communities, and therefore underwent circumcision as an adult (!) From there, he accompanied Paul to Macedonia (based on Paul’s dream/vision), Philippi (a site of Paul’s miraculous escape from prison), Athens (where Paul gave a speech on the Areopagus), and Corinth. That’s Acts.

From Paul’s own letters, we deduce that Timothy would go on again to Corinth and Thessalonica without him; however, we also glean something even more precious than these historical kernels – that is, the nature of their relationship. Paul names him as a co-author on many of his documents, and “true son in the faith” (though converted indirectly through his family based on Paul’s prior teachings). According to Paul, there is “no one else like him,” together with him “slaves (not servants! slaves) of Christ Jesus.” The thing I notice about Paul is that despite how much he asserted his authority, which in places caused his writings to come across as rather self-assured and harsh, he also believed that his work was always to be shared. Yes, there was that always present tension with the 12: by comparing Paul’s letters and Acts, we can see that the former makes it seem that he went where THEY sent him, but the letters reveal a different view. Additionally, he had to do constant damage control re. the numerous itinerant teachers who came after him to the communities he had established. But, those who did work WITH him, he respected, valued, believed to have possessed their own authority and claim to leadership, and called apostles. He lists many such colleagues, church leaders, and financial contributors – male and female – including Apollos, Andronicus, Junia, Silvanus, Titus, Phoebe, Chloe, and Lydia in today’s passage, and of course, Timothy.  

Indeed, last week, I spoke about the first “apostles” of Jesus. Well, again, who IS an apostle – in Greek, simply meaning “sent”? The 12 plus Paul? The 70 men, including Timothy? Or, billions of unknown people of all ages and genders, who all share in the authority of God to grow and operate his kingdom – who, like Paul and Timothy, had own strengths and weaknesses, insecurities and health troubles, and who suffered worse things than adult circumcision (and some that are less, but still not to be discounted!). To be honest, the main thing to learn about St Timothy is really his name – Timotheos; which, due to the ambiguity of Greek without context, means either “honoring God” or “honored by God”… or perhaps, both at the same time. Out of the hope that each of us is, indeed, of infinite value to God, may we continue to honor God and uphold the dignity of each other – in this place named after our patron, and beyond its walls. Amen.

PS: my illustration representing a shepherd and his sheep is based on the gospel passage we read not only on this saint’s day, but also on the so-called “vocation Sunday” in Eastertide, as well as at funerals. To me, the most broad interpretation of this metaphor – i.e., notwithstanding the range of all possible and mostly unflattering connotations of the word “sheep”! – is that shepherding by nature is a peculiar kind of leadership. It’s the kind of leadership where a leader and those in his or her care walk together through the landscape of trouble and comfort, shadow and beauty. It is a very different kind of leadership from that which involves a leader staying safe, and sending the followers to what may be, at best, unknown, or most likely uncomfortable and risky, or at its worst, even to their death (as would be the case in some models of military leadership). Thus, the shepherding kind of leadership is exemplified by many scriptural examples, including that of Jesus.

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