2 Timothy 1:1-14: Of Grandmothers and Mustard Seeds

“Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy.”

Can you recall a time when you were so discouraged that you were brought to tears? I’ve had times like that. I’ve been having a time like that this weekend, in fact. And I’ve been grateful to have the comfort and reassurance of my daughter and my husband to get me through.

I wonder what could have discouraged Timothy to the point of tears that prompted Paul to write to him this letter of comfort and encouragement. Like most of the men and women in the NT, Timothy is largely a mystery to us. We can glean a few facts about him from the book of Acts, the other letters of Paul, and Paul’s two letters to Timothy: He was one of Paul’s most important delegates to the churches that Paul founded in Thessalonica, Philippi, Corinth, and Ephesus. He was, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, “My beloved and faithful child in the Lord,” someone whom he sent to them “to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in the church.” To the Philippians, Paul says, “I have no one like [Timothy] . . . as a son with a father, he has served with me in the Gospel.” Another thing we know is that Timothy, though he shared in Paul’s teaching and lived his faith in a way that made Paul entrust these missions to him, did not share Paul’s “personal presence and confidence, for Paul also tells the Corinthians: ‘When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you . . . . Let no one despise him.’”[1] Timothy seems to have been young for the level of responsibility he bore. As such, perhaps he was easily intimidated and easily despised.

The clues we have from this letter are that:

  • Timothy had become intimidated by some false teachers who sought to make him ashamed of the Gospel Paul had taught him and ashamed of Paul himself, perhaps because of his imprisonment or perhaps because Paul was not as impressive a presence as some preachers were. Many of Paul’s co-workers had already abandoned him. So Paul encourages Timothy by reminding him that Timothy had been given a spirit of power and love and self-control.
  • Timothy had become discouraged about preaching. So Paul encourages him by exhorting him to “rightly handle the word of truth” (2:15).
  • Timothy had become frustrated with quarrelling in his congregation, so Paul eases his frustration by reminding him to be kind, gentle, and forbearing.
  • Timothy had become overwhelmed by a divisiveness that seemed to be spiraling out of control, so Paul builds him up by recalling how Timothy had been steeped in Scripture from childhood.

When I myself was discouraged, my daughter and husband similarly encouraged me by their own powerful reasoning; truth-telling; kind, loving, and abiding presence; and commitment to justice. Their encouragement—and the encouragement that Rachel relayed to me from her friend and roommate Amy—reminded me that I did not have to suffer alone. Likewise, and perhaps most powerfully, Paul begins his encouragement to Timothy by writing to him: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lo’is and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you.” Paul realizes that Timothy’s greatest source of boldness, courage, perseverance, and strength is the seed of faith that was planted in him by his grandmother and mother before him. It is a sincere, unfeigned, undisguised faith. Faith “dwells” in Lois, Eunice, and Timothy, as in a house, an edifice that is solidly built on the sure foundation of scripture and the grace of Jesus Christ.

One of the people who planted the seeds of faith in me was my own grandmother, Granny. Like Timothy, Granny was soft-spoken, gentle, full of love and forbearance, and steeped in Scripture. When I was twenty, she sent me a small booklet called “The ABCs of Proverbs.” Inside it she wrote:

Susan, This may sound and read childish, but in these pages you will find good readings to live by. I love you very much. Granny, 1981

I have always kept that book and treasured the words in it. Many years ago, when I was writing for our denomination’s devotional book, These Days, I told the story of this book and Granny’s gentle leading of me back to Wisdom through it. Shortly after it was published, I received a flood of letters from grandmothers asking me where they could find such a book for their grandchildren!

The faith of our forebears can be an important refuge when we feel harassed by challenges and difficulties. Paul reminds Timothy of this and urges him to understand that the faith of his grandmother, his mother, and himself is a good-enough faith. False teachers may intimidate him. The burden of truth-telling may discourage him. Quarrels may frustrate him. And divisiveness may overwhelm him. But his sincere and abiding faith is enough to sustain him.

Enough . . . enough . . . your sincere faith is enough. This is the lesson that Jesus offers his disciples when they say to him, “Increase our faith!” As you may recall, Jesus has been teaching his disciples about right relationship with money, about greed, and about the impossibility of serving both God and money.

I find the disciples amusing. After five chapters on money and greed, they think they get the point. They know that they are not to be greedy for money, so instead they become greedy for faith! “Increase our faith! Give us more! Give us more!” But Jesus’ answers, “If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this sycamore fig tree, ‘Be rooted up, and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

Enough . . . enough . . . your faith is enough!

I want to invite you to revisit a time when you felt so discouraged that you were moved to tears. I invite you to close your eyes and settle in to that time. Imagine it: the circumstance, the other people who were there . . . or who were not there . . . with you. What challenge you felt you could not meet, what obstacle you felt you could not overcome, what difficulty you felt you could not solve, what failing you felt you could not redeem. . . .

Feel that moment in your body: maybe a clutching in your throat, a tightness in your chest, a sinking in your stomach. Maybe a tension in your neck or shoulders, a preparedness in your legs as though you would like to flee. However you experienced that moment in your body, try to relive it now. . . .

If this is too difficult for you or becomes overwhelming, I invite you to begin to breathe deeply and slowly, taking in deep full breaths that fill your belly and exhaling slowly until you feel calmer, more peaceful, more like yourself.

Now bring to mind someone who planted seeds of faith in you: a parent or grandparent, a mentor or friend, a teacher or pastor. Or maybe someone you have never met, but who represents to you a steady, wise presence: Jesus, Mother Mary, Wisdom as personified in Scripture, one of the saints of the church, a writer who encourages you. Imagine that person standing or sitting beside you. Imagine his or her face and presence.

Let that person place a kind, gentle hand on your hand, or shoulder, and imagine him or her saying these words:

Enough . . . enough . . . your faith is enough. Even faith as a grain of mustard seed is enough. . . . My beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. I thank God . . .when I remember you constantly in my prayers. . . . Rekindle the gift of God that is within you . . . for God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love. . . . Enough . . . enough . . . your faith is enough.

God who loves us and calls us to be your children in Christ Jesus. For the faith you have implanted in us, for the men and women who have encouraged us in the faith, and for the spirit of power and love that you have given us, we give you thanks and praise. When we are discouraged to the point of tears, rekindle the gift of God that is within us that we might be encouraged, strengthened, and sustained. Amen.

[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), p. 398.