Our Epistle today from the Second Letter to Timothy is interesting because it gives us a little glimpse into a later stage in the development of Christianity than some of the rest of the New Testament. We’re seeing here the early Church about three generations old. An older Christian is writing to a younger man and he says,
“I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” (2 Timothy 1:5) So, at least three generations of this family have been followers of Jesus and the young man is being reminded of his “goodly heritage” and encouraged to rededicate himself to the same faith – “to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands…” (1:6), the author writes.
This tells us that the early Church was doing the same thing that I do nearly every Sunday. Although the main purpose of a bishop’s visitation is to do what I’m doing here today – celebrating the Eucharist, learning something about the local congregation, trying to encourage and support the clergy and lay people in a parish, often when bishops visit congregations one of the purposes is to assist in “rekindling the gift of God within you through the laying on hands!” We do that in several different ways:
Sometimes bishops baptize new Christians. When we do that, we wash them with water in the name of the Holy Trinity, then we lay a hand on the newly baptized one and mark them with the Sign of the Cross using the oil of Chrism to show that they are now “little anointed ones,” little “Christs,” Christians!
Sometimes bishops confirm young people and adults. We lay hands upon them in that case, praying that the Holy Spirit (which has already been given to them in Baptism) may be strengthened (“rekindled”) through our prayer and through the laying on of hands. Most Christians are baptized as infants and so the vows are taken on their behalf by their parents and godparents – to sort of get them started on the right path.
But, at some point, we have to take these vows on ourselves — Because our Epistle today reminds us that “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (I:7). If that’s so, then we need to confess our faith publicly (as Billy Graham used to say!) and to stand up for what we believe – not only because our parents and grandparents believed, but because we do as well. That’s what it means to be confirmed…to “confirm” our faith…and to do so publicly.
Bishops also pray and lay hands on people who have already been confirmed in another denomination, but who wish to join The Episcopal Church, and people who have just reached a point in their life when – for various reasons – they would like the opportunity to re-affirm their faith publicly again. In each case the intention is basically the same – “to rekindle the gift of God – the Holy Spirit – which is already within them.
Why do we need to do that? Well, because Christians need to have a strong faith today. Of course, the Apostles did too and they asked Jesus in the Gospel today to “Increase (their) faith.” (Luke 17:5). He says that, if they had faith just the size of a tiny mustard seed they could say to a mulberry tree “Be uprooted and planted in the sea” and it would obey them. (17:6).
Since there is no record of mulberry trees flying around the Middle East in those days, apparently they didn’t even have even that much faith! Even so, Jesus tells them to get on with their work and ministry lest they be accused of being lazy servants of God who expect to be rewarded for doing next to nothing.
But, in some ways, it’s even harder to have faith today. We don’t live in a world where God and religion are taken for granted. We live in a very secular age and in an age when lots of things work against our living a life of faith. That’s why the Church – the Christian community – is so important! Because it’s here that we can learn some of the disciplines that can keep us connected with God – through thick and thin… no matter what… come what may.
It’s here that you learn the stories and the history of your faith – through Scripture read and preached about on Sunday mornings, perhaps in Bible studies, or other Christian education programs. It’s here that you learn to pray – perhaps initially by being immersed in the great Liturgies of our Prayer Book, but later by learning to speak easily and often with your God in prayer and (perhaps even more importantly) learning to listen to that same God in silence and in meditation.
It’s here that you are nourished by the matchless sacramental system of the Church – at all the various turning points in your life – Baptism soon after birth, Holy Communion every Sunday on the Lord’s Day, Confirmation when you become an adolescent or adult, Marriage for lifelong partnerships, Confession when you’ve messed up and want to get right with God again, Healing when you are sick in body, mind or spirit. Maybe even Ordination as a Deacon or a Priest or some specific Lay Ministry here in the Church or in the world.
And finally, most importantly, it’s here that you learn something about how to live in this world – in ways that will be pleasing to God, and also that will make this world a better place. That’s the mission and ministry of this church you and I belong to. Everything we do here is intended to “rekindle the gift of God that is within you…for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” Thanks be to God that we have Holy Trinity Church to remind us of that fact every week!