The science fiction writer Ron L Hubbard was famously quoted as saying, “You don't get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.” And of course, that is what he did, he is the founder of the Church of Scientology.
It’s sad but in modern pop culture, in novels, movies and Tv shows, Christian evangelists are most often portrayed as simply in it for the money, or the sex. They usually end up the villains. What is even sadder is that we’ve given them good reason to form such an opinion: Christian leaders convicted of fraud and the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by celebrity pastors… the prosperity gospel which comes close to selling Christianity as a get rich quick ponsey scam.
These are some of the sort of things that Paul is helping Timothy to deal with in Ephesus, false teachers whom Paul says think ‘Godliness is a means to financial gain’, who are in it for the money and encouraging others to follow suite. Paul counters that by telling us “godliness with contentment is great gain in and of itself” and gives some general teaching on the dangers inherent in focusing on wanting to get rich, and in the section we will look at next week speaks about how that applies to those who already have wealth.
The examples I start with may seem to be far off and distant but the passage is of great relevance for us today, as we look to see what Paul has to say about maturity and ministry for us today. One of the great challenges for the church and Christianity in western society is assimilation into our consumer materialistic society, there is a tension between wanting what we are presented with as the good life and our God life. Our material comfort and our spiritual vitality. Our material possessions and our missional passions. We are bombarded with advertising that tells us our wellbeing and happiness are dependent on acquiring this and that. Simply staying where we are now demands two incomes and the pressure that puts on family and time is intense. To be blunt it is the difference between “greed is good”, spoken with religious fervour as a defence for rampant capitalism by Michal Douglas’ character corporate raider Gordon gecko in the 1987 film ‘Wall Street’ and ‘God is Good’ an affirmation of trust from God’s people in times of plenty and in the face of abject poverty.
Let’s look at what Paul has to say and how it applies to us. It’s interesting but this final section of Paul’s letter mirrors the structure of the opening section.
Paul had told Timothy of his mission to Ephesus to counter the false teachers and here that is reinforced in verse2 by Paul saying to teach these things and insist on them, when he says that he is referring to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Here Paul calls it sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and Godly teaching. The idea of Godliness in the pastoral epistles is that we live our life that reflects the God in whom we believe. It is faith that has its goal in love. That invisible vertical relationship with God worked out in Christ like love in our horizontal relationships with each other.
Remember Paul had told Timothy that the false teachers devoted themselves to myths and endless genealogies, promoting controversial speculation and meaningless talk. Here Paul reiterates that by telling Timothy that the false teachers had unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words. The contrast between the gospel and the false teaching is one is healthy and the other is not. Paul lists envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction as the unhealthy fruit of the false teachers, they are directly opposed to the fruit of the Holy Spirit produced by the sound teaching that Paul lists in Galatians 5;22 love, peace, joy, forbearance, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control. The false teaching breaks down community, the healthy instruction of Jesus builds it up in love.
In the first section of his letter Paul had said that the false teachers had misunderstood the law, emphasising it over the grace of God shown in Jesus Christ; the false teachers have used it as a way for people to be put right with God, here Paul says the false teachers have misunderstood godliness, they see it as a means to financial gain. In Both the false teachers see them as ways to earn God’s blessing, rather than trusting in Gods grace to provide our spiritual and physical needs.
At the start Paul counters that misunderstanding of the law by saying that when used properly it is to show us our need for God’s grace and mercy. Not to condemn us to hell, that is not God’s plan for anyone. Remember God’s desire is that all people are saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. Here Paul says that there is great gain in godliness, but godliness with contentment, that God will provide our needs. It is not about financial gain but spiritual gain.
Paul moves away from the structure by now talking about the danger of focusing on wealth. He follows up his statement on Contentment with proverbial wisdom, he says well we bought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it. In Luke’s gospel Jesus tells the a parable which illustrates that. A farmer has an abundant crop and builds a bigger barn and hordes all he has, but just as he sits back to enjoy it he dies, and God calls him a fool. He had gained from what God had provided and lived his life without reference and reverence of God and what was it worth. Jesus concludes “This is how it will be for those who are store up things for themselves but are not rich towards God.”
He then states that if we have the basics of life we should be content with that, food and clothing. Now Paul here is not saying we should all live in poverty, he is not holding that up as an example for life. He is advocating what many people have called the simple life style. What we often find ourselves wrestling with is the difference between needs and wants. One exercise which commentators suggest is simply sitting down and making a list what are our needs, food clothing housing etc and what are our wants. When Jesus taught us to pray the prayer was ‘give us today our daily food” not the Janice Joplin song ‘Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz”. That song by the way was written as a rejection of consumerism.
Then Paul moves on t
Paul finishes this section with one of the most misquoted scriptures, that’s because of trouble translating from the Greek to the English, but as we had read from the NIV today ‘For the love of Money is a root of all kinds of evil. Paul concludes with the sad reflection that some eager for money have wandered from the faith and pieced themselves with many griefs. I’ve watched many of my contemporaries and some of the youth group members I’ve worked with not give up their faith as recant it, but simply it has simply stopped being important amidst the everyday demand of life, and making ends meet and getting a head.
So what does this say to us today.
Paul’s remedy to viewing life simply from financial terms is contentment. In Philippians 4 Paul thanks the church at Philippi for their gift and support, then he wants to differentiate himself from the false teachers who are in it for the money. By saying that he has learned the secret of being content in all situations, in times of plenty and when he is in prison or destitute, that secret is that he can do all things in Christ who strengthens him. The secret to contentment is to trust in God’s presence and provision. We don’t come into the world with it and we can’t take it with us, but God gives it and it and God are good.
I want to share two things that help with contentment. One is that Paul talks of the false teachers having an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that results in envy, the way to counter that for Paul was sound instruction of Jesus Christ and Godly living. We get bombarded by so many adverting’s messages so many words and images, usually telling us that we are disadvantaged or poorer because we do not have this item or use that service. You know I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that My life is not complete because I don’t go and get some hair growth treatment. Women have had body image exploited for years… right!. Women have been wrestling with it for years with body image right! We need to realise that the messages are unhealthy! J V Taylor is his wonderful book ‘enough is enough’ says we need to start having a healthy cynicism to these advertising messages. His response is “who are you trying to fool”, the heart string pulling ad which triggers and emotional response to make us associate love and justice with that brand “ who are you trying to fool”, the luxurious and problem free life because of the right appliance “well who are you trying to fool!”. Along with that we need to have a healthy theology… Again Paul to the Philippians… My God will supply all my needs according to his riches and glory by Christ Jesus… we counter it by our understanding of God, his goodness and his providence. We counter it with identity... I am not a sum of what I consume, I’m not just a cog in the economy I’m a child of God, called not to simply consume but to commune with God, not to buy good new things but bring good news in what I say and how I live. That is the healthy teaching, the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ. It helps us set our priorities and be content.
The second thing is a simple way we can put that into action in our lives… to be thankful. It is a simple thing but it makes a world of difference. Paul talks of the false teachers brining envy and distance between people, I think if we are talking of the ten commandments it would be the sin of coveting. We are not happy with our lot, we want what they have… But contentment is about being happy with what we have. The key way of doing that is to give thanks. To acknowledge all the good things God has given to us. Every good gift comes from God, as we’ll look at next week as Paul talks to those who are rich being thankful opens up the door to generosity. At the feeding of the five thousand Jesus asked his disciples what they had and when they gave him the little they had he gave thanks and was able to take it and feed the whole crowd with enough left over for later. God has given us so much we can share it with those in need. The reward is knowing how much God cares and shows his love and seeing him more and more in our lives and how his kingdom is able to expand through us.
The image that we’ve used for the service this week is a kingfisher. I took it out on a Monday walk on my day off. It was down on the waterfront of one of the suburbs along the Manukau harbour. The kingfisher was sitting on this rock, either waiting for the disturbance in the water that would show that with the high tide the small fish it lives off were coming close to shore in the shallows, or sitting in the sun with a full belly because it had already had its fill. If this photo has a soundtrack it would be the buzz of skill saws and the bang of nail guns as the old batches and 1950’s family homes along the landward side of the domain were being transformed into larger and more palatial properties, it’s the sound track of urban renewal. The wild life wasn’t phased by this. The kingfisher sat on his rock content and happy. The only thing that seemed to disturb it as this rather dishevelled man creeping up it with a zoom lens. It flew away after the click of my shutter. But in the Sermon on the mount Jesus invites us to consider the birds of the air… they don’t sow or reap but God is able to feed them…how much more precious are you to God than they are. So don’t worry be content God can provide your needs and put first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.