Sunday, February 11, 2018

Church on the Choppy Seas: Charting the Way (Titus 2:1-10)

The wine-like sea wordlessly sloshed and sightlessly foamed. The artful forms of rock and cliff, harbingers of land, were, but for gentle caress of silver moonlight, wrapped in midnight's arcane embrace. To the eye, all was absent. But it was a familiar circumstance for Minoan sailors. Hailing from Crete, nearly two thousand years before any 'Paul' or any 'Titus' would touch toe to their land of labyrinths, they'd taken to this sea as to a home, a playground, a birthright. They were masters of these waves. But how to master what's lost to sight? How to tame what shrouds its shrewdness? How to find your way in midnight when all is nothing and nothing is all?

The secret, they'd learned, is not to look down or ahead. For overhead, above the open water of the wine sea, there were black seas staring down at them. And the black seas were luminous. A swarm of light, floating on the upward abyss. But no seething randomness winged its way there. No, the Minoans in their ship lifted up their eyes to signs and shapes, patterns and pointers, “for on every hand signs in multitude do the gods reveal to man,” they muttered. It was midnight. All around was obscure. But above were all the charts they needed, and in their hearts and on their tongues the poems that reminded them how to read their celestial cartography. Their 'map' was no parchment woven and written by human hands. Their 'map' was the stars.

Such was sailing in the heyday of the Minoans. Such, too, was sailing in the days Paul pressed precariously around Crete's southmost coast. Sailing was yet the same a few years later when Titus commanded, if not a fleet of ships on the Cretan waters, then a fleet of churches on the Cretan culture. And that was no easy sailing. Cretan culture, as we've heard in recent weeks, had plenty of corruption. It was a 'post-truth' culture, splintered and fractured like ours; naught could be known, naught could be trusted, naught was sacred, naught was serious. The institution of slavery had sabotaged the moral compass of countless lives. The noxious stew of frivolous arranged marriages and normalized sexual harassment and domestic violence had stunk up the place, making family life scarcely tolerable and too often loveless. Throughout all Greece, drinking was a problem, especially among the elderly – many a playwright toyed with the caricature of the old drunk – but Crete took it to an art form: people there could get so proud of their drinking habits that they'd literally boast and brag about it on their tombstones!

And to all that, Paul tells Titus, give 'em the words what'll make 'em well – you know, the healthy teaching, just what the Great Physician ordered: “As for you,” Paul writes him, “speak the things that are fitting to healthy teaching” (Titus 2:1). In this letter, which Paul wrote to Titus there and then but God preserved for us here and now, Paul is obsessed with healthy teaching – the kind of instruction that nourishes the soul on what's good and beautiful and, most strange to Cretan ears, emphatically true. It's the kind of instruction that never goes stale, never gets moldy and crusty. And it's the kind of instruction that puffs up the rich dough of the gospel to its full size and brings out all the flavors.

But why is it so important to hear healthy teaching? Because healthy teaching, healthy instruction, promotes healthy ways of spiritual living; and healthy ways of living, seen by the world around you, illustrate what's so healthy and delicious about this healthy teaching. But, to put it another way, Paul is laying out the map, the star-chart, by which we're to sail this church; and the definition of a good journey, a healthy journey, is one that ventures through dark times by navigating according to these stars, this chart.

What healthy teaching have we received? We'll discuss these words in greater depth next week, but listen to the sweet sounds of next week's passage. “The grace of God has appeared” – in other words, God is not wrathful, God is not sore, God is not angry with you! God is not dismissive of you! God is not contemptuous of you, nor does he ignore you! All those are the opposite of this word, 'grace.' In Jesus Christ, God looks on you with favor! So it's in Jesus Christ, in whom God's grace swirls like a hurricane of blessing, that you must be. For “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (Titus 2:11). No one is outside its reach; no one is too heavy with sin to get swept up in the grace-hurricane, no one is too light with insignificance to be hurled to a higher plane in it. And only the grace of God can save us, rescue us. No ritual, no social network, no accreditation or accomplishment could bring salvation down or raise salvation up; salvation is brought by God's grace alone. So we must just trust that God's favor has appeared, that salvation has been brought, in this Jesus. God's favor saves, and saves entirely; any 'Jesus-plus' program will inevitably be weighed down by tying grace to less lofty things.

This grace arrived, “training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions” – it's because we are rescued by this grace through faith, that therefore we must abandon the things from which he rescued us. We dare not seek to tread those pathways, cling to those lifestyles, imitate those idols, ruminate in our ruin, any longer. The grace of God not only trains us in renouncing these, but also trains us “to live self-controlled, upright, and pious lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12), and promises a “blessed hope” on the horizon (Titus 2:13). We have been saved from one way of living, for another way. We have been saved from our soul-sickness for abundant spiritual health. We have been saved from lostness for clear navigation. To exhibit good character, spiritual health, is not a 'Jesus-plus' program. It is not a prerequisite to be saved; it is what we are saved for, the terraforming in the hurricane's wake, the effervescence bubbling up from our faith's embrace with grace. Spiritual health and life transformation are what we are saved for, because it's just what the life of Jesus in us does.

So as we hear the words of today's passage, take notice that Paul is spelling out what kind of life this healthy teaching should lead to for each demographic under Titus' care. It's the kind of life that the lively life of Jesus lives in us, works in us; it's the kind of life that answers the deepest needs and quiets the darkest suspicions of the age we live in, just as it did for them then.

He first turns his attention to the older men. And healthy living for older men, unlike everything Cretan culture tells them, means being 'sober.' The word Paul uses cuts them off from the favored pastime of Cretan elders; but in other writers, the word also got applied to an empty vessel set aside for sacred use, like our offering plate or our communion tray, all polished and clean and ready for service. That's what the older men of the church need to be: unstained with addictions, emptied of inward clutter, and polished up for a holy purpose (Titus 2:2).

Paul also wants Titus to tell them to be 'dignified' or 'serious' – to be respectable, venerable. It's the word you might use for an experienced general leading the troops: he isn't hasty to make his move, but he's firm and decisive when he sees the right time. That's what the older men of the church need to be: thoughtful, dignified, not readily swayed by passing fads, not impulsive, but decisive in the deciding hour (Titus 2:2).

And Paul adds that they need to be 'self-controlled' – we'll hear that word a lot here, but it more literally means 'safe-minded,' well-regulated, kept within safe bounds where life can flourish. It's when the mind doesn't get all wacky and bent out of shape; no, it stays in all the parameters for how a God-graced mind is supposed to work, and keeps itself running as well as can be, safely, where there's space for the kind of thinking God likes to eavesdrop on, the kind of thinking that's a sign of life (Titus 2:2).

Paul tosses in the familiar trio of theological virtues, the ones that last when all things fall apart. You remember them, I'm sure, from 1 Corinthians 13: faith, hope, and love, though of course “the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). The older men of the church, Paul says, need to be “healthy in faith” – they need to have a deep trust in God, a profound reliance on Jesus Christ, an active relationship unburdened by sickly ideas or pointless doubts; they need to know they're at home in the hurricane of grace. But they need also to be “healthy in love” – deeply attached to God and to God's people formed in and around Jesus, attentive to the Father and the Son, but also to the Spirit and the Bride. Paul calls them to a deep attachment to God's people, not their own private projects. And finally, in the place of hope, Paul elaborates and urges them to be “healthy in endurance” – like a veteran sailor, experienced in weathering life's storms and pressing onward toward the final port. If you have health in those three theological virtues, you've got all the parts of a whole soul put together well; you're a full and flourishing Christian. And that's what Paul tells Titus to have the older men be (Titus 2:2).

Today, we might say that rules out going wild on a midlife crisis. It rules out getting too goofy and doddering around. It cuts the strings on addictions, whether to alcohol or opiates, and unhoards hoarded life-junk. Instead it models a strong faith, the wisdom of life experience, a fervent love for God's people, and a well-regulated life. And that matches the map. It matches the map because Jesus was all those things. And God's grace in Jesus cuts away all those hindrances, freeing our older men – and the rest of us – to faith, hope, love, and life.

Paul turns his attention to the older women next, and he goes right out and says that what he's saying to them amounts to basically the same thing. They aren't to be 'slanderers' with sharp tongues – literally, they aren't to be devils! That was a temptation for older women in Crete, I suppose, to gossip and tongue-wag and criticize and tear down others. But that's like getting inspired when Satan shows up on career day. Instead, the older women should find ways to build each other up. And just as Paul told the older men to be sober, so he urges the older women not to be “slaves to much wine” – something that's sadly becoming fashionable today again, just as in those days. No, they should be sober and free (Titus 2:3).

What's more, Paul asks them to be “reverent in behavior,” your translation might read, or “reverent in the way they live,” or – even closer still – “in behavior as becometh holiness.” Paul's talking about a demeanor, a deportment, settled habits that create an overall bearing for life; but it's one that isn't out of place when the place is holy. If the older men are to be like sacred vessels – the plates and tools of temple service, polished for God's purposes – the older women are directed to be just like priestesses: conducting their overall life according to the purity and dignity of the temple. As such, Paul calls them to be “teachers of the good,” able to illuminate and illustrate what's really worthwhile in life, and not the frivolities of fashion or the gripes of gossip or the harshness of harping, but the good, the beautiful, the true. Paul's call to the older women is: Live your whole life as priestesses in the rooms of a gilded temple. That's no place for gossip, bitterness, cattiness, destructive criticism and competition; such a temple is a hospital for healing others and, in fact, for passing along this teaching, this lifestyle, this ordination to a higher hope (Titus 2:3).

Paul's attention veers later to the younger fellows – the 'new men.' He calls on Titus to especially be an example for them, being just a few years out of that category himself. And, first things first, the younger men need to be “self-controlled,” safe-minded and well-regulated, just like the older men – even if it might be quite a challenge for those whose blood still runs so hot! But they have to keep that under control, release steam in safe ways in the bounds God has drawn for our good (Titus 2:6). Like Titus, they need to be devoted to good works – they can use the benefits of their youth to the advantage of others, being industrious with what energy they have before time takes its toll. Like Titus, they need to follow a pattern of “incorruptibility and dignity” – to imitate the character of Jesus, to learn from the older men how to handle themselves under pressure, to not goof around but instead to be thoughtful and steady. And like Titus, they need to turn away from shattered chatter and spoilt speech, from meaningless mouthings and muddy murmurings, and instead get practice with “sound speech that cannot be condemned,” with healthy words that are good and beautiful and true (Titus 2:7-8). Not much of that fits with dominant youth culture today – but let's not pretend the seeds weren't sprouting forty, fifty, sixty years ago, either. But with healthy words of goodness and beauty and truth, and a thoughtful and steadfast mind, and reining in the passions of youth, and diligently offering good works with their youthful energy, Paul has another style of youthfulness on the offer.

In between, he talks to the younger ladies – the 'new women.' In Cretan culture, it couldn't be assumed that, just because a girl was married to a man, that therefore she was drawn to him, affectionate toward him, satisfied with him, even at first, much less as the years tallied up. It couldn't be assumed that her husband and children took pride of place, which was the Greek and Roman ideal. In practice, though, moralists usually said that women should tolerate and respect their husbands, and all men in general; but Paul goes further and wants to see them actually be lovers of husbands, lovers of children – to be committed to their families and to cultivate the warmth of God in their homes (Titus 2:4).

So, too, he wants them to be 'homemakers' – not bound to the home, though in the first century it might seem like it, but governing the house well and productively. Paul asks them to be 'pure,' free from stain, just like the sacred vessels and sacred priestesses, and to be 'good,' or kind, in the most full and basic sense. He doesn't tell them to allow themselves to be beaten into submission under their husbands; but as a strategic move, he counsels them to voluntarily submit to their own husbands' direction, precisely so that God's good news of a grace-hurricane wouldn't be thought to capsize the family dinghy. Their very own husbands, and the husbands of unchurched friends, were to be astounded and impressed by how this subversive new teaching was building a better home. But, in everything, the younger women were to be “self-controlled,” safe-minded. Paul has no patience for ancient misogynists who thought women couldn't possibly be reasonable, women couldn't possibly be sane, women needed to be controlled by men because they couldn't control themselves. No! The younger women are called to be every bit as 'safe-minded,' as 'well-regulated,' as the older and younger men (Titus 2:5).

Now, Paul was writing to Titus who was ministering to first-century churches in Crete, filled with older Cretan men and older Cretan women, younger Cretan men and younger Cretan women. That just looked different than today, and in many cases it's good that things look different now. If Paul wrote to a right-hand man dealing with twenty-first-century American churches, I'd guess the instructions for younger men and younger women would read a bit more similar, because for generations it's been the norm now for women to work in the public world just as men do. But Paul still teaches plenty. Even in today's world, the younger women can be tenders of, and contributors to, the home being what St. John Chrysostom called “a little church.” And the character that makes a house into a home, and a home into a little church, is the same that overflows into any other arenas a young woman may feel called to conquer.

What Paul is describing to Titus here is a healthy Christian community birthed from the healthy teaching of the gospel. This is a community flush with faith, aflame with love, steeped in grace. This is a community working well, humming along, interacting productively toward the greater ends of the organic whole. And each piece is regulated well by a higher wisdom, is kept thinking the thoughts that thinking is for. Each piece is pure in its own way – polished like an empty vessel for the offering, elevated to the honor of priesthood, pure, pure, pure, incorrupt in word and deed. Each piece contributes what's distinctively, what's characteristically, its own; and each piece avoids the pitfalls that dent and scratch analogues that serve only worldly uses.

And what's important to see here is that each piece in this temple, each organ in this body, stands in a mentoring relationship; that's woven into the fabric of what this healthy community is. That's part of what makes it so healthy. The older women are told explicitly, for example, to 'train' the younger ones – it's part of that same word 'self-controlled': they're to bring the younger ones into regulation. As we grow in grace, we're to 'regulate' one another: help one another keep our minds in the safe bounds of Jesus' wisdom where real life grows (Titus 2:4). The Gospels have a different word for that: it's called discipleship. But even here, expressed in other words, the basic idea is the warp and woof of healthy community: it's where healthy teaching gets passed on; where the inward and outward signs of spiritual health get tested and encouraged, and where guidance and regulation don't restrict our Christian freedom but channel it into power. That's a healthy Christian community, the sort we need to be. Because all of what Paul is saying could be rephrased as how Jesus Christ would walk if he occupied your station in life – your age, your sex, your employment. He is himself our Heavenly Sign, the starry map up to which we gaze and in him behold the Way. Look on up to him, and see just what Paul means.

When we do this, it has results. One, Paul says, is that “an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us” (Titus 2:8). When we're all well-regulated and fit for God's temple, when we all reflect back the Heavenly Sign above us, then the health of our community, the soundness of our ship, the purposefulness of our course, will all be unimpeachable. And not only that, but all of this – from old and young, from man and woman, and from the richest of rich (like people able to afford massive stores of wine, though they shouldn't) down to the humblest manual laborer in poverty and subjection (Titus 2:9) – all of this is so that our teaching about the grace of God would be decorated – made appealing and inviting to each other and to our neighbors and our neighborhoods – in everything each one of us does, in all the ways we live and move and have our being together in God our Savior (Titus 2:10). No matter what age bracket you fall in, no matter whether you are a man or a woman, no matter where you stand on society's ladder of success and esteem, “in everything you may decorate the teaching about God our Savior” as displaying all the signs of the real health it really has. These are the stars by which we steer. And so we sail onward for another week, “setting our minds on things above,” the luminous Sign of Christ. Charting our way by him, we set sail. Sail on, church. Sail on. Amen.

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