2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
On the occasion of celebrating 50 years of membership with Sandy and George, I want to draw on our reading from Second Timothy to reflect on what it means to spend a lifetime participating in God’s life. But I want to clarify something right from the start, speaking specifically to our two 50 year members; I do not mean to apply the following line to you: “The time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race.” Oh, no you haven’t!
These next four weeks will be the season of sacred discernment for us all to consider what we will pledge to the future of our church in terms of both financial support and volunteering our time to support the work of our church boards. To prepare us for this four-week period of discernment, and to cap off the previous weeks about Jesus’ challenging call to discipleship, I want us to look down the road, as Paul does in the reading from Second Timothy, to the end of our years in discipleship. What do you imagine your discipleship will be about when it is all said and done? What is your personal end-game as a member of this church, as someone who is sharing in the life in God we hold in common? Second Timothy reads like a last testament of Paul, written shortly before his final trial, at which he apparently received the death sentence. (In fact, scholars dispute whether it was actually written by Paul, but it reads that way regardless.) What do you want your final testament to your life in God to sound like?
Paul never even made it to 50 years of Christian faith. We can roughly date his his life of faith as running from the late 40s to the mid 60s—(which is why I think we should also celebrate 25 year members. It would be embarrassing if we excluded Paul from a recognition, and then according to legend, he ends up being martyred.) And yet in these 25-odd years, he did something that no other Christian could have done. He made Christianity into a universal religion, one capable of thriving beyond its original Jewish matrix.
Paul accomplished this universalizing of Christianity in the face on constant problems, resistance, and arguments, as all his letters show. Paul had fights with the church in Jerusalem, as Galatians attests; but Paul’s views won out in the long run. But he also faced constant opposition from his own congregations, from fellow Jews who objected to Paul’s messianic preaching, from local authorities suspicious of the new Christian faith, and from Greek-influenced variant interpretations of Christianity, like Gnosticism. While some today celebrate Gnosticism and bemoan the vehement opposition to it in the early church, from what we see of early Gnosticism in Paul’s letters and elsewhere, it taught that Jesus frees our soul from imprisonment in the material world. That means that God did not create this material world; which is a pretty drastic departure from our Jewish roots. So I can understand Paul’s insistence.
In our passage, when Paul looks back on all the struggles of his ministry, he sounds exhausted, but wonderfully contented: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Paul writes to Timothy, who is well aware of Paul’s dedication and trials. Paul writes in ch three verse 10: “Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions, and my suffering the things that happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. What persecutions I endured! Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them.” Lest we get the impression that Paul is being boastful, which he elsewhere repudiates, the whole of the letter makes clear that Paul writes to Timothy to encourage him in his faith and service, especially in the face of suffering and persecution. He tells Timothy to “share in suffering like a good solider of Christ Jesus.” It may be that Timothy is facing the kind of harassment and persecution that Paul endured, or it could be that Timothy is dispirited not by his own troubles, but by Paul’s arrest and looming trial. Maybe Paul is not telling Timothy so much to suck it up and take the pain, but not to lose faith in God when a beloved leader and father figure like Paul undergoes suffering. Paul assures him: “Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Paul is not boasting about being persecuted; nor is he saying his persecution is from God; but he is saying that what is happening to him is inevitable.
What about us? There are still a few places around the globe where Christians face persecution. Probably just as likely is the horrible fact that some Christians continue to persecute others whom they view as either pagans or sinners. Happily, most of us not directly touched by either calamity. I’ve recently heard complaints that the new dollar coin leaves off “In God We Trust,” but let’s be clear: this is dis-establishment, not persecution. / So, setting persecution aside, when it comes time to sum up your life of faith, will you see it as a fight you have fought, a race you have endured? That might not be how most of us would put it. We more likely expect to look back to the good times and recount them with joy. Now perhaps Paul should have done that, or would have done that if he thought Timothy needed to hear it. But perhaps Paul has a point. We want to look back on our lives and see that the good times outweighed the bad; the joys outweigh the sorrows. That’s very natural. All other things being equal, no one, man or beast, wants to live a life dominated by suffering. But Paul is thinking about Jesus, and modeling his life upon Jesus. And Jesus did not get to look back on his / short / life and see the joys outweighing the sorrows. Only from the other side of the Resurrection, which is a mysterious place, did Jesus see the goodness of his life fulfilled—and by then I think he was beyond thinking about “my life,” for now he saw that his life was bound up with the life of all humanity before God. At the end of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” Jesus sees that the suffering that dominated his life nonetheless leads to triumph for all of humanity.
Once again, we probably don’t have to worry about facing violent persecution, or enduring a literal cross. But we should hesitate before aiming our life toward an end in which we have accumulated more happiness than sadness. If we see the goal of life to simply seek happiness and avoid sorrow, we will end up turning away from others. (A Buddhist will tell you the same thing.) Others who suffer will become to us a threat to our tranquility and enjoyment, rather than the emblems of Jesus’ suffering, which is how we should see them. Instead, while we likely won’t face persecution, we can still follow Jesus’ command to “take up your cross and follow me.” If nothing else, taking up our cross can mean to us that we keep ourselves exposed to suffering, including the suffering of others if not our own. And to return to last week’s message about widows, it is especially those suffering injustice that God turns our attention to. So one lesson we can take from Paul, as also from Jesus, is that suffering and sorrows do not have to rob us of being satisfied with our life. “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength,” he says. The Lord did not give Paul happiness and contentment uninterrupted by the cross.
I see a second lesson lying behind the arresting opening sentence from our reading: “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come.” Paul says this after encouraging Timothy to persist and endure in the long work of the gospel ahead. Paul’s time is, by contrast, about over. But that image grabs me: “I am already being poured out as a libation.” A libation is a drink offering, usually wine or water, poured onto the ground as an offering to God. This was common in Greek religion, and had been adopted also within Judaism. It is a gesture or symbol of sacrifice, of giving something up to God, that perhaps served as a substitute for the actual spilling of blood on the ground during an animal sacrifice. We don’t sacrifice animals any more either, but the notion of sacrifice has staid with us. The whole idea of sacrifice gets carefully worked over in the New Testament; sacrifice to God echoes throughout, but in a transformed way. Recall that Jesus says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for many.” Some people dislike the idea of Jesus being a sacrifice to God; and it is disturbing. But the Book of Hebrews makes clear that Christ is the end of sacrifice. No more are we indebted to God and have to pay. God is above all our liberator, not our bailiff. / But neither is God there just to shower us with gifts. God has chosen us to be a part of God’s salvation in Christ. We now have a supernatural role to play. And it involves giving up our own, ego-centered existence so that we become part of something greater. This is the greatest gift of all, to be made a partner of Christ and in him, a partner of God.
But there is a kind of sacrifice involved. There is an emptying of ourselves, a pouring out. Near the end of his life, after years of hard travel and strife both inside the churches and outside, Paul feels poured out, like a libation, like an offering to God. Is that how you expect to feel, at the end of a lifetime of participation in God? That’s not how we generally think of retirement. We are supposed to have saved a nest egg for ourselves, and composed a bucket list, and gathered to us all the things that we enjoy, now that we will finally have the time to enjoy them. We approach retirement as a time to finally get to do whatever we want. That’s not entirely unbiblical. Job dies at a ripe old age, having regained his wealth and surrounded by family. But retirement can also be a time when we get to do what God call has called us to be. We no longer have to work in our profession; we no longer have to work at whatever we have found to maximize our earning potential. We are free to do God’s work, which means working for the highest ideals imaginable: love and justice for all, and love and devotion to the ultimate purpose and meaning behind all that is—God. (Now it doesn’t have to be all one or the other; there’s room to do God’s work and also have some fun. I hope even Paul did some of that—can you imagine him taking a little side trip to the beaches on the Bosphorus or something?)
But think about it. Would it be so bad to arrive at the end of your life and feel really spent—like you do after good workout or a hard race? Paul has the satisfaction of feeling spent, poured out, on behalf of God. That’s not how it typically goes with us. We arrive at retirement feeling poured out by our careers, and then our natural reaction is to want to reserve all the rest of our lives to ourselves. And then the game becomes, how long can you hold on to what you have—your health, your wealth, your mobility, your mind? We end our life clutching at what is mine.
There aren’t many Christian traditions around retirement. In Hinduism, the classical retirement ideal is to leave behind all your possessions, sometimes even your spouse, and retire to the forest to become a Sannyasi, one who seeks spiritual oneness with all that is. Now, we Christians have it relatively easy; we can stay within our beloved communities. And then instead of clutching on to what we have, we can continue to make a gift of ourselves. And so maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to be near the end of your days, feeling like you have given your all to God’s service—feeling poured out as a libation. I know that’s what many of you have done.
But while Paul begins with the feeling of having been poured out to God, he moves to the affirmation that he looks forward to the crown of righteousness that God, or perhaps Jesus, will give him on the final Day of the Lord. He doesn’t elaborate what he thinks that reward will look like. He uses the metaphor of a crown, but it is a metaphorical crown of righteousness. Whatever we foresee God having in store for us on the last day, it certainly will include the assurance of having lived a righteous life. Not a perfect life; Paul elsewhere admits his faults. But overall, wouldn’t it be so reassuring to approach your final days feeling assured of the righteousness of your life? If we are lucky, we find a career that is engaging and meaningful; how many of us feel like our career has earned us a crown of righteousness? I found myself recently reading an interview with David Letterman, the former talk show host; I was a teen-age fan. He said he doesn’t miss doing his very popular show. He looks back and shudders at the fact that he spent 30 years trying to beat Jay Leno in a ratings war. That was what, above all else, drove him; but now, in retrospect, it seems so vain to him. So he signed on to host a documentary about climate change, and is looking at what else to do. Too bad he doesn’t have a church! There is no end of good work to be done here, in fellowship with good people. You don’t have to wander around in vain looking for your crown of righteousness.
And that fellowship is essential. With the image of the crown of righteousness, Paul again draws on the image of the Greek athlete, who receives a laurel crown for winning the race. Our culture sometimes encourages us to look back on our life in a self-centered way: “What do I have to show for myself?” Then we can belt out, “I did it my way.” Paul confidently proclaims that he has finished (but not won) the race, and that he has fought (but not won) the fight, and he now looks forward to the crown of righteousness, not victory, that the Lord will give him. But he adds: “Not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” Paul doesn’t look forward to any more reward than any ordinary person who has done little else but long for God to come to this world. He doesn’t really see life as a race to be won; he’s not out to beat anyone, or to stand out from the crown on a victor’s platform. Despite all his incredibly hard work, for which the state is going to take his life, he is content to share his crown with all the ordinary folk he’s been serving all these years. That’s how much Paul loves Christian fellowship. He knows we are not in a competition with each other; we all have enough of that. The end of our Christian journey through life is not lived alone, but together, as a family.
Thank God none of us is in prison, awaiting trial, awaiting persecution. We have the rest of our life to make ourselves a libation to God and to God’s earth, and to earn our crown of righteousness.