A Hand-Me-Down Faith

One of the benefits of being an older sibling is that I was always on the giving side of the hand-me-down equation. My brother, who’s about three and a half years younger than I am, was the one who was always on the receiving end. And my mother, being the daughter of a farmer whose early adulthood was in the Great Depression, always wanted to squeeze as much value out of just about anything before getting rid of it.

So, anything that I had not completely worn out went to my brother after I outgrew it: school clothes, church clothes, and winter coats and boots, of course; but also many books, some toys, a few pieces of bedroom furniture, even a Halloween costume or two. And I have to admit, my brother was always more gracious about all that than I think I would have been if the situation had been reversed. I guess he just accepted it as the natural order of things; clearly, my mom wasn’t going to just get rid of perfectly useful things, and she instilled enough appreciation in us for not simply wasting things that I think he knew that was not a battle he was going to win, or even one that he was particularly interested in fighting.

Still, hand-me-downs do not have a great reputation. We associate hand-me-downs with things that are worn out or used up; things that have lost their value because they belonged to someone else first. Oftentimes we don’t even associate them with their current owner; “J.C.’s old overcoat,” we might say within the family to make clear what we are talking about, as if it doesn’t really belong to Gill (my brother), even though he’s the one wearing it. It’s just a hand-me-down: he’s using it now, but it’s not really his; it doesn’t really belong to him, or vice versa.

There are streams of Christianity that talk this way about faith, as well, who act like the only faith that has real value is brand-new, acquired by an individual on their own just for themselves. Faith that comes from being raised in a family of faith is sometimes seen as having less value, of being considered a hand-me-down that doesn’t really belong to you.

I remember having a conversation in high school with another student who told me that my faith wasn’t real because I hadn’t made a “decision for Christ,” by which she meant a specific moment in which I responded to the Christian gospel with both understanding and commitment, accepting Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior. I responded that I made decisions for Christ all the time, had done so for as long as I could remember, and that it felt pretty personal to me, but she pressed her case. “That’s your family’s faith, your parents’ faith, not yours,” she insisted; “you never decided to have it, it was just given to you.” It’s a hand-me-down faith, she was essentially saying, something that really belonged to someone else and doesn’t have much value, even though you’re wearing it.

If I had remembered the opening of the second letter to Timothy, I would have had a pretty good comeback to her criticisms, because what Paul is specifically affirming in Timothy is that he has a hand-me-down faith, one that has great value and beauty precisely because it has been handed down. “I am reminded of your sincere faith,” he tells Timothy, “a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” He goes on: “for this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands.”

The first thing to notice here is that Paul not only affirms that Timothy’s faith comes from his mother and grandmother, he declares it one and the same faith, a faith that is both sincere and a hand-me-down from his mother and grandmother which now lives in him. For Paul, personal sincerity and family inheritance aren’t in tension with one another, but are mutually reinforcing. That’s because Paul understands that faith is never something that we earn or accomplish on our own; it is always a gift.

And he understands that while sincere Christian faith is always personal, it is never individual. It has to be lived out relationally, often handed down from one person to another, one community to another, one generation to another, because Christian faith is practiced, not simply believed, and we learn best how to practice something from someone else who already does it well. If faith was just about believing a set of ideas or concepts, then we probably could do it ourselves, though it probably wouldn’t be worth much if we did, and it probably wouldn’t last very long.

Which leads us to the second thing to notice here: Timothy is tired; tired in his body, perhaps, but definitely tired in his soul, tired in his spirit, perhaps tired in his very walk of faith. That’s why Paul urges him “to rekindle the gift of God that is within you.” Now, if something needs rekindling, that means the fire has gone out; it’s a pretty strong word to use, and in fact, it’s the only time in the entire New Testament that the word is used.

But even that is misleading; a fire that has gone out is not the same thing as a fire that has been extinguished. I remember as a new Boy Scout going on my first camping trip and being taught how to make, maintain, and extinguish a fire. The hardest of three, by fire, was the extinguishing part. My Scoutmaster said to think of fire like a beautiful but dangerous wild animal, one that you could train but never tame, so you always had to be careful of it. “It breathes, it eats, it even reproduces; if you let it loose, it can really hurt you, but if you keep it fenced in, it can be very helpful. And it’s very, very hard to kill.”

To demonstrate to me and several other new Scouts, he did something called banking the coals that night. He raked a set of coals from the fire together into a loose pile up against the side of the firepit, and then placed one of the logs that had been burned slightly on one side on top them. Then he raked ashes up underneath the log, so that that the coals only got oxygen from the small gap on the side between the firepit and the log.

The next morning, he called us over and rolled what was left of the log off the coals. They looked grey and lifeless, but after just a minute or two of him blowing on them, they began to glow red again. He laid some dried tinder on top of the coals, and after a few moments, it burst into flame from the coals. Within a few more minutes of adding more wood, he had a roaring fire going again. He looked up at us. “Now, that’s basically how a lot of wildfires get started,” he said. “Someone thinks, ‘oh, the fire is out, we can go,’ but the coals can stay alive for 12-15 hours, sometimes longer, and if something flammable falls on them or the wind blows them up again, boom, there’s a fire going again because nobody actually extinguished it the first time. If you haven’t drowned the coals in water, the fire’s not extinguished. All it needs is some air to breathe and something to eat, and it’s up and on the loose.”

The gift of this lesson today is the reminder that even apostles felt the flames of their faith ebb and go out at times, and the knowledge that even that is misleading. All they need is some air to breathe and something to eat, and they’re up and on the loose. Which is not a bad explanation of why we celebrate the sacrament of communion, when you think about it. Communion itself is a hand-me-down, a practice to be followed in community that is handed down from one generation to another, one church to another, going back to Jesus himself.

Paul even says to the Corinthians, “for I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.'” And the whole point is that in sharing this sacred meal, we might get some air to breathe, the wind of the Holy Spirit itself, and something to eat, the Bread of Life, the Bread of Heaven, Jesus Christ himself so that we can be up and on the loose.

So as you come to the table today, on this World Communion Sunday, come and see how beautiful and precious a hand-me-down faith can be. Come receive what has been handed down to each and every one of us: the gracious, life-giving presence of Jesus Christ, given through the breath of the Holy Spirit. Come be filled and strengthened to be up and on the loose in lives of faith and service. Come, taste and see that the Lord is good.


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