Scripture: 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
One unforgettable scene in Thorton Wilder’s play Our Town is the scene of all the townspeople gathered in the cemetery for the funeral of a young woman named Emily, who died tragically in childbirth. After the funeral is over, Emily is not ready to go on to the next world, so she convinces the Stage Manger, who is somewhat of a Godlike character, to take her back in time to one happy day in her life, her twelfth birthday. The Stage Manager allows her to go, but the day is not happy like she remembered it. The experience of going back turns out to be quite painful because now that she sees life from the point of view of her death, she can’t understand how her mother and others in her family can take life for granted. As she leaves to go back to her grave, she makes this speech to her mother, a speech that only the audience can hear:
“Oh, Mama, look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I’m dead. You’re a grandmother, Mama! … Let’s really look at one another! … We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. …One more look. Good-bye, Good-bye world. Good-bye … Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers …and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you! Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it – every, every minute?”[i]
Through this memorable scene, Wilder reminds us that when we look at life from the point of view of our death, what matters changes. We all have those moments that allow us to step outside of the mundane details of the every day and to refocus our attention, to change our perspective and behaviors, and to be reminded of what really matters. Those moments are often rare and unfortunately timed. Words spoken at a funeral or forgiveness offered after a terminal diagnosis have the capacity to soften hardened hearts, but we all hope we can figure out how we want to live before we or our loved ones are on death’s door.
Paul’s words in our text for today are written from the perspective of the end; they are often read at funerals. These words serve as Paul’s last will and testament. They are intimate words written to Timothy, his friend and protégé in the ministry. In this passage, we get to know an older Paul, a Paul who is no longer traveling about the Mediterranean Sea, a Paul who is done with adventures, a Paul who is through walking the city streets and creatively finding odd jobs to support his itinerant ministry. We get to know a Paul who knows that the end is near, a Paul who knows his last days will be spent in a Roman prison, a Paul who knows that his life will probably come to a very violent end. When one knows that the end is close, one often has clarity on what really matters.
In these words penned from his prison cell, Paul uses two metaphors to describe himself and his ministry as the time of his departure has come. Paul says he is a drink offering and an athlete, a wrestler who has fought the good fight and a runner who has finished the race. Paul says he is already being poured out as a libation. He has been since the beginning of his ministry, and he is continuing to be poured out now. The image of libation was a common one in Paul’s world; it was a cup of wine or blood that was poured out at an altar as a sign of sacrifice and devotion to a god. Paul saw his life as something that should be used up in service to the one true God, made flesh in Christ Jesus. When Paul began pouring out his life in service to Christ, he knew it would one day be depleted. As he recognizes that the end is near, he encourages Timothy to pour out his life as an offering as well, holding to sound doctrine and persisting in ministry. Though Paul will be emptied, Timothy can continue the mission of the church by pouring himself out and teaching others to do the same.
The second image is the image of Paul as an athlete, as a runner. Paul has not been sprinting; he has been running a marathon. His life of ministry has been filled with many uphill battles and detours, many stops to refuel. In Philippians 3, he spoke of pressing on toward the goal for the prize. He did press on and now he has reached the end; he has fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith. He prays that Timothy will do the same. Paul knows that a crown of righteousness awaits him, a crown even greater than the crown of laurel, pine, or olive that would have been given to the winner in an ancient athletic game. Paul doesn’t think that he is somehow more worthy than everyone else; he writes that all who long for Christ to appear again will receive this crown of righteousness. It’s not about one’s individual ability. All that’s required to receive the prize is to have longed for, desired, yearned for Christ to come again.
Paul doesn’t claim that it’s by his own strength that he finishes the race. He gives God the credit for rescuing him from the lion’s mouth or from every evil attack. By using the image of the lion’s mouth, Paul conjures up the story of Daniel who got thrown into the lion’s den because he prayed to the God of the Jews, choosing God over King Darius, God over empire. Paul too chose God over King, God over empire. Even though he was being held captive by the Romans, he continued in his mission to proclaim the gospel to all the Gentiles. Paul makes clear to Timothy that he has been able to be poured out as libation, to fight the good fight, to resist the empire, and to finish the race because the Lord has stood beside him and given him strength.
What might this intimate letter from Paul that gives advice to Timothy and the congregation at Ephesus have to teach us this morning? Professor Paul does not give us knowledge just for knowledge sake. Professor Paul hopes we can learn to apply these truths to our lives, to our congregation! I think we have to reflect on the fact that the man who was responsible for bringing the gospel to Europe, the one who was responsible for the Gentile movement, the one who through his writing contributed heavily to our ideas about our faith, talked about his life during his last days as a life of sacrifice, a life that required endurance and persistence, and a life that required strength in the face of great persecution. One of the great pilgrims of our faith spent his last days in prison and very probably was killed by the state. This sounds a lot like failure. What does it mean that from our perspective Paul looks a failure? How might his last will and testament speak to us as we wrestle with our fears that the church in 2016 looks a lot like failure, too? Perhaps, we need to take a serious look at what we think it means to succeed in ministry.
As we think about what successful ministry looks like, theologian Matthew Bruce encourages us to clarify what we mean when we say church. Bruce says some people only see church as a place, a place where our parents got married or we were baptized, or the building that needs a new roof, a new organ, or both! Some see church as a community of consumers, an institution that exists to provide us goods and services, programs that meet our needs over different stages of our lives. Some people see church in an ideological way only, as the community that is called out from the world, and forgets how to engage in the world. Bruce says that what all these models have in common is that they all think the church is an end in itself, that the church exists for self-serving reasons; the goal is continued existence. He says that the fear that dominates our communities is that our particular churches will die. He points out the great irony in this fear; he says, “The problem is that such congregations are already dead. Why? Because the goal, the end, of the church is not the church. Rather, the end of the church is Jesus Christ, its crucified and resurrected Lord. The purpose of the church, all of its institutions and programs, is to bear witness to Jesus Christ in the world.”[ii]
Bruce says that the church is to be the body of Christ, a missional community that exists for the sake of the world. What it means to be all of these things might not look like winning in our world. After all we model our faith after people like Paul who spent many a day in prison. We press on in the faith given to us by Christ, who finished his race by being nailed to a cross. This looks like failure. It looks like death. It is death. But Bruce tells us that the church cannot worry about itself; instead it must trust that the Lord will take care of us. He says, “In this freedom, the freedom of not having to worry about its continuing existence, with no fear of death, no urgent need of self-preservation, the church can get on with its task of proclaiming Christ.”[iii] We can pour ourselves out knowing that God will never allow the cup of the church to run dry!
Even though some of the ways in which we’ve done ministry might be dying, we might be being brought to new life. Jesus tells us himself that we must lose our lives in order to truly find them. Hear this letter to a dying church about the possibilities of new life, not from Paul, but from a Millennial:
Let me start off this letter by expressing my deep love and appreciation for you. I have been profoundly blessed, cared for, loved, and inspired to be a better human being through you. I have also seen — and even participated in — some of your ugliest and most unfaithful moments in recent history. But I [still] believe that the church is the hope of the world.
With that said, there has been a lot of talk recently about your impending death. For a long time, I believed the hype. I saw the numbers of millennials who were walking away from the churches and both mainline and evangelical churches closing their doors. I was convinced that maybe the church had truly seen the end. But I was recently reminded that what we have been witnessing in the West is not, in fact, the death of the church at all. Instead, we are experiencing the death of Christendom …the death of the triumphalist age of Christian influence over the globe in which predominately European Christians used the message of the Gospel and the structure of the church to leverage power, wealth, and influence. With this kind of position and privilege, we have seen great masses of people flocking to our communities — not necessarily because they sought to commit their lives to the way of Jesus, but rather because it was the culturally acceptable thing to do. Our once radical faith of self-sacrifice became nothing more than state-sanctioned religion…God has seen fit to pull out the foundation of Christendom and caused the whole thing to crumble. And I for one am thankful.
So the good news is that you are not dying. While the studies indicate that organized communities of faith are in decline, the amount of men and women who are seeking and finding a radical faith in Jesus is increasing. God is still at work in our world and is still bringing people into this rag-tag family called the church. My generation, the millennials, are also not walking away from their faith in Jesus, but are walking away from the modernized, politicized, sterilized, Europeanized version of Christian faith. Organic, grassroots communities of faith are forming all across our nation. Many believe that the way the church has existed over the past few centuries is the way that it has always looked and should always look. Many will work hard to maintain a position of power and influence over culture and government. But I firmly believe that all of these efforts are in vain.
God is re-revealing to us the radical message of our Lord — a message of transformation through service, sacrifice, and selfless love for our neighbors, enemies, and selves. Christians were never meant to be the ones in power. In fact, history shows us that anytime Christianity is given a position of power and influence, it quickly departs from the Gospel of Jesus — because a Christianity that is given worldly power is not Christianity at all. Christianity is the religion that proclaims a God who humbled himself and entered into creation, taking the form of a servant —who touched the untouchables and spoke sharp truth that exposed those in power. Christianity is a religion centered on the subversive power of love and sacrifice, not power and wealth.
Church, I am convinced that our best days are ahead of us. I am certain that God is not finished with us yet and will continue to use us as the vehicle for Christ’s redeeming work in our world. But it will look very different than it has in the past. May we be open and willing to allow God to do God’s refining work on us, understanding and embracing the pain of change, and looking forward with great hope and expectation for the days to come.
With love, A Millennial[iv]
It is true. The age of Christendom is ending. We will continue to struggle with numbers and membership and programs. But perhaps that means our ministry has the opportunity to be brought to new life, to be resurrected. Perhaps we have the opportunity to be reminded that our faith is one of self-sacrifice. What needs to die for our church to be reborn? What do we need to sacrifice so that we can finish the race well? With Timothy and the congregation at Ephesus, we can cling to the wisdom of a man who saw things from the point of view of his impending death, a man who had clarity about what really matters, a man whose life still witnesses to the gospel thousands of years later, a man who testifies to the One who has the power to bring us all to new life. Greenwood Forest, Paul calls out to us from the grave, hoping we are still able to hear him as he gives his last lecture: Pour yourself out. Sacrifice yourself, your existence, your thoughts about the way things should be done to the larger ministry of the church. Fight the good fight. Keep on keeping on so that you can finish the race and keep the faith. The Lord will stand by you and give you strength even when it feels like the religious landscape you are living in is devouring you like a lion. The Lord will rescue you and remind you that this gospel you’ve given your life to is one that calls you to be crucified, to fail, to die, so that Christ can truly live through you, so that Christ can give you the strength to finish the race. To him be the glory for ever and ever.
[i] As quoted by Thomas Long in Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible – 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus.
[ii] As quoted in Nate Phillips, Do Something Else, 29-31.
[iii] Ibid, 38.