A Grace That Is Ages Old

Body: 

  “This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began…” 2 Timothy 1:9

I think often of those who suffer because they are followers of Jesus. And I think often of those who suffer because they are human beings and suffering comes to all human beings. As president of Union University of California, I remember our students who face oppression and the daily possibility that someone in authority will make their lives more difficult because they are Christians; that someone may use power abusively with the purpose of causing suffering in the lives of people in our UUC community.  As one who pastored a congregation of fairly wealthy and privileged American Christians for 23 years, I also know that having wealth and privilege is no guard against suffering when a loved one, adult or child, sickens and dies due to a fatal illness. Poor or rich, powerful or powerless, there is no way in this life to avoid suffering. Suffering will find us, and we will suffer.

2 Timothy is written from the context of suffering. After a life that included much suffering as an apostle of Jesus, Paul is in prison in Rome. The “time of his departure has come” (2 Timothy 4:6). He doesn’t expect to remain much longer in this world. He looks back over his experience of life, and he believes that suffering is a normal experience for those who follow Jesus. As a pastor, I look back over 40 years of pastoring, and I believe suffering is a normal experience of all people.

To a large extent the second letter to Timothy is about enduring suffering, about sharing suffering together , about being “good soldiers” of Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 2:3) who are willing to suffer for one another and for our Lord.

We are not to be ashamed when we suffer because our suffering does not mark us as people deserving of shame. Rather we suffer generally because all human beings suffer, and we suffer specifically because we follow Jesus. The reality is that in some places at some times, Christians are suspected, disrespected, and even despised by authorities and people who do not know the Lord. 

But God did not give us a spirit of fear. God gave us a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7). In a world where no human being, not even the persecutor, escapes suffering, Christians have the ability to endure suffering themselves, and to reach out to those who suffer, even the persecutor. Suffering does not defeat us. And we can show others the way through suffering because of the grace of Jesus Christ. That way is to rely on the power of God, who has saved us according to his own purpose and grace (2 Timothy 1:8-9).

Paul writes that the grace we have received in knowing Jesus Christ was given to us long ago, long before we were born or even before our parents or grandparents were born. This grace was given to us “before the ages began” (2 Timothy 1:9); “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). It is this ancient grace of God, given to us before anything existed or God had called creation into being, that sustains us in times of suffering. Paul is reminding Timothy in this letter of this truth.

Something about suffering surprises us. We hoped we would escape it. We hoped it would not happen to us. And when it does, we react with surprise and sometimes fear. Like Timothy we need to remember and claim that grace that goes back before the beginning of time and was designated as a gift for us, that we might persevere. And more than persevere, that we might reach out with that ancient gift of God’s grace to draw other sufferers into the community of Christ’s love.

Let us remember all who suffer, and especially the suffering church.

Let us give thanks to God for the grace given to us before the ages began.