“Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him.” Acts 16:3
It has been a tough month for classic rock fans, as the world said farewell to David Bowie and then Glenn Frey of the Eagles. Newspapers and magazines have brimmed with tributes, salutes have been playing on the radio, and people all over the world have sent out a word of gratitude on social media. One trending hashtag after David Bowie’s death was the single word “irreplaceable,” and a number of celebrities paid tribute to this remarkably creative artist by calling him “one of a kind.” The response was a bit more muted for Frey, as the three other Eagles are still with us. But I did chuckle at an Onion article last week that announced a faux resolution by Congress to set aside $90 million to protect the remaining Eagles, “so they are around to rock us, our children, and our children’s children for years to come.”
The subtext here is that truly great creative figures are always unique. They cannot have real successors. When they die, we lose all that was most valuable about their work, because it is all tied up in their individual experience and vision. This is a common idea in our culture, an inheritance of the Romantic ideal of the artist as a kind of possessed creature, a person whose great gift to the world is translating his or her deeply personal perspective on the world onto canvas or musical notes or the stage.
This modern way is quite different from the way someone like Bach or Giotto or a traditional artisan approached creative work. There’s no accountability to God or a living tradition or a shared moral vision. “To thine own self be true”—that, I suppose, is the only maxim of the creative world these days, and though it sounds heroic, in reality, it’s really quite limited and fragile. There will be a star on some walk of fame, a bit of airtime on the oldies station, a fan page, some relics gathering dust in a museum case. But if we really are irreplaceable and one of a kind, well once we’ve gone, there is no more.
One of the enduring themes of the Bible is that truly great figures always have successors.Moses trained Joshua to lead the Israelites and solemnly invested him with his authority before his death. David’s last words were advice to his princely son about how to rule wisely in his stead. Elijah handed on His mantle to Elisha as he departed in the fiery chariot. John the Baptist marked out the Lamb of God. Jesus breathed His Spirit on the apostles. And Saint Paul carefully trained and then sent out Timothy.
Though the New Testament does not preserve any of his own words, the Book of Acts and Saint Paul’s Epistles tell us quite a bit about Saint Timothy. He was a native of Lystra, in present-day Turkey, not so far from Saint Paul’s own hometown of Tarsus. He was of mixed ancestry—his mother a Jew, and his father a Gentile. According to Jewish law, he inherited his mother’s faith, but as a baby, he had not been circumcised, so his father may well have objected. Perhaps he felt caught between two worlds, not in home at either. This may lie behind his tendency to be unsure about himself, fearful of his opponents, as Saint Paul notes in his letters to him. But it was probably also part of what drew him to the Christian message: the ancient Jewish promises fulfilled, and now offered freely to all peoples.
He met Saint Paul, the church’s great missionary to the Gentiles, when he visited his hometown. Saint Paul’s first visit to Lystra is one of the more dramatic tales in the Book of Acts. He shows the power God has given him by healing a man who had been lame from his birth. A great crowd gathered and thinking he and his companion Barnabas were gods, tried to offer sacrifice to them. When Saint Paul responded by challenging their faith in idols, they drove the two out of town and stoned them, nearly to death. But Saint Paul came back, several months later, to strengthen those who had been converted in the midst of all that ruckus. Young Timothy was among them, his curiosity moved by the miracle, and by the great courage and conviction of this preacher who was so convinced of his message and so full of spiritual power that he came back again to the people who had nearly killed him.
When Saint Paul left Lystra, he took Timothy back with him, having him circumcised so his Jewish convictions would not be in doubt, and carefully training him, over the course of many years, to continue his work. We know that Saint Timothy served as a kind of secretary and messenger for Saint Paul, carrying letters for him and visiting churches to investigate rumors of unrest and corruption. Saint Paul described him in letters as his “brother” and fellow worker” and even more tenderly as his “beloved and faithful child in the Lord.” He watched Saint Paul preach and settle disputes. He shared in his prayers and spiritual disciplines. He shared in his sufferings, perhaps being beaten with him, certainly living with him in prison.
The center of Saint Paul’s missionary activity was Ephesus, on the Mediterranean coast in Western Turkey. Many of his letters are addressed from there, and he nearly died there when the local artisans staged a riot because they thought his preaching was driving away pilgrims from their world-renowned temple of the goddess Artemis. Eventually, Saint Paul would send Timothy back to Ephesus, to carry on the work he had begun, as the bishop of the Church there. He would send letters to advise the young bishop—we know them as the First and Second Epistles to Timothy. They are full of encouragement and sound advice, reminders of the lessons he had learned once and now had to learn again when making the decisions on his own. The legend is that Saint Timothy died there at Ephesus, victim of a rioting mob much like the one that had threatened his master’s life before. They stoned him, as they had stoned Paul at Lystra, that first time he heard the Gospel.
Saint Timothy is a model of faithful succession, learning carefully from his master, and continuing steadfast in the work begun before. He shows us that no one in the church is irreplaceable, that God raises new leaders for new tasks, continuing the unbroken chain of Gospel preaching and sacramental worship that goes back to our Lord himself.
This congregation was not formed by the work of one person, and it has never relied completely on a single leader. There are many members, and a multitude of gifts, and the church lives most fully when all are recognized and used for the common work of ministry. Perhaps that’s what our founders were trying to get at when they named this church back in 1868. I’ve read the charming history of the parish, and it’s rather vague on this point—exactly why Saint Timothy was chosen as the patron here. In the early days, as with many new and struggling congregations, there were many leaders—the first service conducted by a lay reader, the rector from Truro Church sharing his time to start the mission, seminarians travelling over from Alexandria, clergy shared with the churches in Chantilly and Centreville. It was a bit haphazard and catch-as-catch can, but God always raised up those who were needed.
At their retreat yesterday, your vestry elected a search committee of five men and women. Next week, at the 10:00 service, they will be commissioned for the work of leading us as we pray and discern the new permanent rector of this congregation. Your new rector will be different from Fr. Brad and from me, and from Fr. Bayfield, and all those other leaders you have known over so many years. You have become used to long-serving clergy here in last half-century or so, and there are great advantages in this. But sometimes that stability can make us imagine that transition in the church is unusual, and the congregation’s mission and identity can get too closely tied up in the personality and character of a single man. To head that direction would be to miss the lesson of Saint Timothy, that in the succession nothing that central to the Gospel message need ever be lost, but that new leaders bring new wisdom, and God moves through them to do new and powerful things.