Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Fedderson:
Christians do not often talk about faith and duty at the same time. As a matter of fact, many Christians seldom talk about duty at all. There are two reasons for that. One is that Christianity has a number of words and concepts which are far more noble and do not carry the negative connotations of “duty.” The other reason is more humbling — Christians resist the direction, obligation, responsibility, or, if you’ll pardon the expression, duty placed upon them by virtue of their citizenship in the kingdom.
The three Scripture lessons for Sunday tie faith to such noble things as faithfulness, a holy calling, fulfilling or using a gift, ministry (serving God) and, properly understood, duty. Habakkuk is reminded that the righteous live by faith. Paul remembers Timothy’s faith and in turn reminds Timothy to rekindle the gift he received from God through the laying on of hands. We and Timothy are also reminded that God not only saved us by His grace, He also gave us a holy calling. This calling is held up as a precious possession which, like our faith and salvation, is awarded to us not by virtue or our works, but by God’s grace and for His own wonderful purposes.
On the surface, the Gospel lesson looks like three disjointed sayings or teachings of Jesus. On the contrary, they tie faith to faithfulness. Jesus begins with a warning that we all need to watch out for the temptations to sin that keep coming our way. More than that, we need to avoid leading others away from God — especially those who are weaker in faith, like “little ones.” He points out the need to rebuke a person who sins. Then He adds the hard part: “If he repents, forgive him . . . even if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” The disciples recognize this “seven” not to be a limiting but an open-ended number. In other words, every time the sinner repents we are to forgive. They also recognize this as a tall, tall order and ask the Lord to, “Increase our faith.” Then Jesus ties faith to faithfulness, service, duty.
Duty is a humdrum word. It is often hyphenated with dull and demeaning tasks. In the army, extra duty includes such wonderful things as K.P., guard-duty and, lowest of the lowest, latrine-duty. Attempts have been made to elevate duty to something beautiful, like poet Ellen Sturgis Hooper’s lines:
I slept and dreamed that life was beauty,
I woke and found that life was duty,
Was, then, this dream a shadowy lie?
Ah, no, dear heart, toil on and try.
And thou shalt find thy dream to be
A truth and noonday light to thee.
Nice try Ellen, but let’s face it, duty is a drag. Worse than that duty to God performed out of selfish motivations, is Jesus’ most frequently condemned sin — hypocrisy! In addition, good and helpful deeds, performed only out of a sense of duty, can have the opposite of their intended effect. Visiting in a funeral home with a friend who has lost a loved one, simply because it is your duty, can be so hollow and shallow as to be offensive and hurtful.
Because of all these negative connotations, Christians often avoid the word “duty.” Carl Sandburg talks about one of the most common of these avoidances:
“Most of us agree that Protestants have never hammered very hard on the duty of going to church. We have said all the time, it is necessary for the church to make herself attractive and interesting so that people will want to come. There are obligations on the part of the people not to sit at home listening to the radio (television). This is too easy! Do something difficult! Go through rain or snow. You have to feel that you are a part of the greatest organization on earth, that it is going to outlast all the rest of them. You’ve got to tell the importance of your own individual participation in its life. You can’t go tramping from church to church and fulfill your obligation. You’ve got to settle on one church and throw your life into it and build it up. Who would want to go to a picnic all the time and eat out of other people’s baskets? It is our obligation as members of one church or another to give ourselves to it. It is the only hope of peace and goodwill to men that exists among us. It is the church and its Savior, its Prince of Peace, who is the last hope of earth, and yours is a high and holy opportunity to support it with your undeviating loyalty.”
As I have said, we sometimes avoid the notion of duty because it smacks of “work-righteousness,” “indifference” or “hypocrisy.” It is, however, also tempting to use these foul words in order to avoid responsibility. I once received an anonymous note, disagreeing with something I said in a sermon. Jesus’ words in the Gospel Lesson lay a burden on us to forgive the sin of anonymity as well as false accusation. The person said that we don’t want to hear about the particular responsibility I mentioned, but want to hear the Word of God. Sadly, many of us would like to have our Bibles edited to say only what we like to hear. On the contrary, the Bible lays many responsibilities on us. Jesus pulls no punches when He talks about the responsibilities of our calling — living our lives faithfully following His lead. He doesn’t suggest that it will be easy either. Many people love to hear, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light,” but they want a different Bible when they read, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Jesus also says that when we have faithfully followed we ought not expect some special reward: “When you have done all that is commanded of you, say ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'”
Fulfilling our calling and faithfully following Jesus are the noble responsibilities — even the joys of being the people of God. Do you know the marvelous story behind that lovely old ballad, “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms?” The 19th century Irish poet Thomas Moore wrote it when he discovered that his wife’s beautiful face had been terribly disfigured by smallpox. He sat down and wrote the words and the music, and then sang it to her: “Let thy loveliness fade as it will, and around the dear ruin each wish of my heart would entwine itself verdantly still.” They are words of love, to be sure, but they are also born of faithfulness. The poet’s love for his wife obliged him to show it in the way his poetic talent could. In that sense he had a duty to fulfill. As Phillips Brooks said, “Duty makes us do things well, but love makes us do them beautifully.”
Writing from prison and facing almost certain death, Paul urged Timothy, according to the NIV, not to be “ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me His prisoner.” I think the translation is just a little different. I know that sounds presumptuous of me, but it looks more like this in the Greek: “You should not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me, His prisoner.” In both cases, the witness or testimony faced imprisonment, punishment and death — the word for witness or testimony is the same word from which we get the English word “martyrdom.”
Here is a duty, a holy calling, we share with both Paul and Timothy. Our duty in Christ’s mission is to testify about our Lord. What is it that makes people timid in the mission today? What about you? What are you worrying about? What frightens you or holds you back? What have you asked God to do about it? What do you think He wants you to do?
Even with all of his worries and fears, Paul was ready to face death, and he wanted his young counterpart in the Gospel to likewise stand tall and proudly witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul turns Timothy’s attention, and he turns ours, to “our Savior, Jesus Christ, who brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.” Jesus had every reason to be timid before Pilate. His love for us and His duty to His Father made Him stand firm in the face of death. He faced it for us.
This letter is a wonderful gift to Timothy and to us. We see a discouraged Paul encouraging another! How can this be? Paul doesn’t rely on his own resources, but on the grace of God that is in him, and he urges Timothy to do exactly the same thing. If all we have is our own bravado, and some guilt-driven sense of duty, we are in trouble. Paul doesn’t say that Timothy should be brave. He tells Timothy to count on Christ and to preach the Gospel in spite of his timidity. In this case, faith is not the absence of fear, it is our motivation for action in spite of our fear!