Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Living the Faith, Part 3

This is the third in a series of posts that are together a sermon I delivered to Milton UMC.

The scripture today is from the lectionary. It’s the very end of the second letter to Timothy. Tradition holds that it was written by Paul to Timothy, but scholars think that tradition might be incorrect. For our purposes, and for our understanding, however, I’m going to place the pen that wrote the letter in Paul’s hand and we’ll assume the recipient is his successor, Timothy. It will give us a concrete framework to hear the words; just know that the setting may be incorrect.

Hear these words from 2 Timothy, chapter 4, verses 6-8 and 16-18:
As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come.   I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.  At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God.

This letter was written from prison. Paul wrote it knowing the end of his life was coming. In fact, the letter has the tone of a last testament.  In some ways, we are reading words from Paul’s Last Will and Testament.

He writes, “I am already being poured out as a libation, and time of my departure has come.” Remember that Paul was a Roman citizen. At the end of every Roman meal, a sacrifice of a kind of made – a cup of wine was poured out for the gods. Paul is saying that the end of his life is coming; he has given his whole life to God, all through his life, and he sees this as one more opportunity to pour out all he has to God. His death is a continuation of his life.

And then come the sports metaphors. I have a friend who, when he teaches Sunday school, loves to use sports metaphors, and in this case, Paul is just like him. Paul says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”  The word he uses for fight means a contest in an arena; and Paul can be satisfied that he has done all he could in this life. He says, “I have finished the race.” For Paul, I imagine this race as a marathon, and we can imagine (I can ONLY imagine, having never run a marathon) what it must feel like to reach the finish line of a marathon. That’s where Paul is. And, he says, he has kept the faith. Paul, as a Jew, would have been familiar with the idea of covenant. I think he means that he has been faithful to the covenant between himself and God. William Barclay says, “If Paul used it this way, he meant that through thick and thin, in freedom and in imprisonment, in all his perils by land and sea, and now in the very face of death, he had never lost his trust in Jesus Christ.”

Paul not only kept the faith; he lived the faith. His life was a witness to his faith in God. And the way he approaches death is no different than the way he lived his life – in it, he is living his faith.

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