Year C, Pentecost 22
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
We have all heard stories about people’s last words before their death. Sometimes they are profound and meaningful. Occasionally they are words only understood and appreciated by the few who are closest to the individual who has died. Often, there are no words at all. We hope that when we die, we will die feeling as though we have lived a good life, a life that we are proud of instead of having a litany of regrets. No one wants to die with regret. This 2ndletter to Timothy was essentially Paul’s final words–his last goodbye. They were written to one of his followers (Timothy) when Paul was imprisoned in Rome. He knew that his death was near and he had some things to say.
Last week, we heard the beginning of chapter 4, the final chapter of Paul’s letter to Timothy. This week we heard the middle and a bit of the end. Paul was encouraging, possibly even begging Timothy and other followers of Christ to preach the word of God, even when it was inconvenient and to never give up. In the reading from today Paul was reflecting on his own ministry. It is a deeply personal part of the letter. There are a few verses that are not included in the excerpt of the reading we heard today. In those verses, Paul asked that Timothy visit him as soon as possible. He then mentioned several people who had deserted him and might even harm Timothy in some way. If you look at that and the beginning of the chapter when Paul was encouraging the readers of this letter to persist in the Gospel, it seems that Paul might have been a little anxious about the future of Christianity.
When he wrote this letter, Paul was about to die. It would almost surely be a gruesome death because the Romans liked to make examples of people like Paul. Paul knew all this. While he had evangelized far and wide and introduced many people to Jesus, there was only one person who was still with him, providing for his needs while he was in prison. The prison system then was not like ours today. It was not a system. There was no meal plan. The prisoners were cared for by their friends and family. If they had no friends and family, they probably starved to death or froze. That was why Paul asked Timothy bring his cloak and bring it before winter. That was the only way he would survive the winter. Times were indeed desperate. He had been abandoned by those closest to him. Obviously he had faith in the resurrection. He knew that his death would bring him a new life. But he was also human. He must have been scared and discouraged. He might have even wondered if he really accomplished anything at all.
When you look at a map of all the territory that Paul covered, all of the people who he reached without modern transportation, social media, or even the postal service, it is amazing. He travelled over 10,000 miles by foot and far more by sea. But he didn’t have the full picture that we have. He didn’t have the map. He was just looking at 4 walls. He was bound to be a little discouraged by yet another imprisonment. Yet Paul was never one to be discouraged easily. As he looked back at his life and forward to his death and new life, he had no regrets. Paul was a fighter to the very end. He wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” While at times Paul seemed to take credit for his accomplishments, even seem a little arrogant, in the end he always gave credit to God.
After mentioning the people who had deserted him, he reminded Timothy that the Lord had stood with him through it all and it was the Lord who had given him the strength to persevere. It was the Lord who gave him the will to fight, the power to persist in his mission and the faith that made it all possible. Not only that, but his trial which led to his death, had given him an opportunity to testify to his faith in front of the leaders of the Roman Empire. He was able to evangelize one last time before his death. For him, it was a gift.
Since I do not have the tenacity or courage of Paul, I keep coming back to the frustrating part of this whole story. While the Lord stood by him and Paul was able to make his case to the most powerful leaders of the Roman Empire, he was still put to death. Those leaders did not convert. Rome continued to persecute Christians for hundreds of years. I am sure there were people who abandoned the cause after Paul died. They perceived his ministry as a failure. But we know….we know that was not the end of the story. No, he did not convert the Roman Emperor. His followers did not stream in and demand his release. There was no overwhelming display of support. But his letters circulated and people were so inspired by his life and his words that more people wrote about him. We do not know what happened to the people who abandoned him during his life, but I bet some of them returned to the faith and spread his message, the message of Jesus Christ. Otherwise, we would not be reading his words today. I certainly would not be preaching on them.
There are times when I look at the statistics on church decline and I worry for the future of the church. The Episcopal Church alone has lost a quarter of its membership in the last 10 years and other Christian denominations are facing similar decline. There are moments…days even when I can be extremely discouraged by this. At times, it seems almost hopeless. But then I think of what the early church had to overcome. I think of Paul staring at the four walls of his cell, alone and probably a little scared about what kind of death awaited him. Yet even as he faced what to me would seem like insurmountable odds, he never gave up. When he realized that he would face trial, he saw it as an opportunity for evangelism. When his friends left him, he found comfort in the one who stood with him–God. When there was nothing left to say, he gave glory to God. He ended his letter by asking Timothy once again to visit soon but also to send greetings to several people. He encouraged people to the very end.
We cannot always see the fruit of our own labor. Sometimes, what we perceive as our own failure can inspire others to take a risk. Sometimes the trial we are going through is also an opportunity for evangelism, for talking about our faith. When we talk about our faith, we don’t have to sound like Paul, we might just be admitting that we are struggling, but we are definitely not giving up. Life is full of frustration and discouragement. It can be overwhelming at times. God never gives up on us. As long as we don’t give up on God, then failures are never really failures. They are just opportunities for more attempts. God willing, at the end of it all, we can say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. To God be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”