2 Timothy 4: 6 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
In a logic class in the fall of my senior year in college, the professor was leading us through an exercise in which we would name some basic, easily verifiable facts upon which we could all agree. Based on those, we would then add some other logical conclusions.
She started with, “We are here. Raise your hand if you agree with that?”
All hands went up.
“Therefore,” the teacher added, “We are not currently in Timbuktu. Agreed?”
Again, all hands went up.
“How about,” the professor asked, “I am mortal; I shall one day die. Agreed?”
About half the hands went up, including mine.
“Weird,” said the professor. “So, half of you think that you’re immortal?”
To be fair, perhaps some of those who didn’t raise their hands believed that Christ might return during our lifetimes for the full and final defeat of death. In which case, no, we wouldn’t ever die.
Now I believe also in the coming return of Christ. But I raised my hand to say, “Yes, I am mortal,” because however history works out, even if Christ returns during my lifetime, I expect that this current mode of living in my mortal frailty and vulnerability will come to an end, like it has done so far for everybody else, as far as I can tell. Then, something new, eternal, indestructible and Christ-like will be resurrected from it and take its place. Some form of death is a part of that process, however and whenever it happens.
But there’s probably another reason why only half the class raised hands to say, “Yes, I’m mortal.” Because that was in our youth, back when we were all immortal. Or at least we probably assumed that we were. But I had been disabused of that illusion just a year before, when I ended up in the university infirmary with a wicked case of bronchitis, blending into pneumonia. One good thing out of that sickness was that Becky was working in the clinic. The bad thing is that my Mother, way back in Toledo, Ohio, found out about my sickness the way no mother should, indirectly, from others, and not from me, her son. I just assumed that I would soon be okay, and that I’d tell her later, “Oh, by the way, Mom…..”
I’m not making any excuses for that. That was just wrong and inconsiderate on my part. And was my Mom ever ticked! Once I became a parent, I understood why. She called the university, got transferred to the clinic, and the next thing you know, a nurse—not Becky– was bringing me the phone. The first thing my mom said was, “Why didn’t you tell me you were so sick, and in the hospital? I’m your mother! If you had died, how would I have even known?”
My initial response was, “Died? Me? At just 20 or 21 years of age?”
That all happened back when I was immortal.
Compare my naïve, careless, blissful, youthful denial of my own mortality with today’s words from the Apostle Paul: “the time for my departure is near.” By “departure” he means his own impending, inevitable, rapidly approaching death.
Paul wrote these words just after he had been on trial before the imperial court in Rome, maybe even before the emperor, personally. The charge? Probably something like, “Disturbing the social order,” “sedition” or “treason, for advocating another king than Caesar.” It didn’t matter that he preached a peaceful, crucified, Jewish king who rejected violence, either of the state or against it. It appears too that the verdict has been given—guilty—and therefore, also the sentence: death. For someone with Roman citizenship, like Paul, it would be death by beheading. Mere subjects and slaves were crucified, like the king whom he heralded. Now, all that Paul awaits is the day of execution. He’s hoping that Timothy will be able to come and comfort him with his presence before it happens.
For such a severe sentence, and after such an unjust process, Paul seems surprisingly unfazed. If anything, he puts a positive spin to his approaching death. Paul says, “I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near.” Those words, “poured out like a drink offering,” sound sad and painful to our ears. To a Jewish rabbi, however, they would actually be festive and celebratory. In the Hebrew temple, priests poured out drink offerings of wine onto flaming sacrifices of butchered lambs or goats. These were sacrifices of thanksgiving, atonement, or purification: all happy occasions of restoration, reconciliation, gratitude and homecoming, to be followed by a shared feast upon the roasted meat and grain of the sacrifice, with God present as host and fellow celebrant.
If that were not positive enough, Paul looks ahead to what comes after the festive sacrificial ceremony of his death and says, “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”
This is the second time in the New Testament in which Paul likens himself to wine being poured out onto the flaming altar of a festive Hebrew sacrifice. The first was when he wrote to the Philippians, several years before, from a prison in Palestine, while awaiting transfer to Rome, for his court date before Caesar. Then he wrote, “But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. 18So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.”
Which also seems weird. Rejoice? What’s there to rejoice about as you go in chains to a tribunal from which the door may open right onto death row? And why would Paul speak so positively of himself as being poured out, when he had been so long bottled up in in prisons, cooling his heels, biding his time? The first time, he did not know what the result of his imprisonment would be, how long it would last, whether he would be found guilty or acquitted, whether he would live or die. This second time, in today’s reading, Paul knows what is coming: death, after more years of waiting in enchainment and imprisonment.
After getting what we mortals consider the worst of all rejections, frustrations, failure and punishment for pursuing his God-given mission and message in life, how can Paul use such symbols and language of triumph like, “I have finished the race, I have fought the good fight,” and “there is in store for me a crown?”
Paul is not excited about death itself. No one should be. He is excited about what has been, before death, and what shall be, after death. If death were the last word on everyone and everything, past and future, it would be the ultimate in oppression and humiliation. Everything in life this side of death would then be meaningless, absurd. It might even be better that we had never been born. But having been born, the best it seems we might do is to busy ourselves in distractions that help us ignore and deny death, in any means possible, at whatever the cost, until death stares us in the face and finally we just can’t ignore it any longer.
We do plenty of that already. How much of our endless, nonstop entertainment, our busy-ness and hyper-activity, is meant to distract us from weighty matters, like our mortality? How many of the buildings that are built, the businesses that are started, the books people write, our achievements and our efforts at starting and maintaining institutions and organizations do we undertake, not only to distract ourselves from death, but to ensure that something survives us after death, so that someone will remember us after we have left the scene?
Some psychologists say, “more than we care to admit.”
When Paul wrote these words, in chains, condemned and abandoned by many, all the normal human efforts to distract ourselves, to deny and delay death, were denied to him. All his efforts to do anything by which his name and his influence, his contribution to the world, would survive himself in honor were vain and useless…..or so it seemed. Paul had no way of knowing that for twenty centuries to come, millions and millions of people would find guidance, comfort, courage, inspiration and meaning from words such as these that he wrote from prison for just one friend. Their power lies, in part, in the way that Paul embraced and befriended his mortality.
My logic teacher was correct: we are so obviously and universally mortal, and we are so much in denial and distraction about it. So, how might we also face and befriend our mortality with grace and gratitude in the same constructive and positive ways as Paul did, even while we value this life and do the best we can with it? Paul gives two reasons for his gracious and grateful embrace of life and death in this passage. One comes from looking backward in time, the other, from looking forward. Together, the past and the future form one seamless, integrated whole, in which the passing moment of death is but a doorway from one life into the other.
As for his past, Paul says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Yes, the life he is about to surrender, as must we all, has at times been painful and frightening, like a gladiatorial contest in the Coliseum. But now, he says, a victor’s crown awaits him. Sometimes it has been exhausting, like a long foot race. But now the finish line is in sight.
Paul does not see his arrival at the finish line, nor his victory in battle, as personal achievements, but as gifts of God’s grace. Some of the wounds that Paul had to overcome were self-inflicted, like Stephen’s death by stoning, and his ferocious persecution of the church. But he faces death with the assurance of forgiveness sought and received. With John Newton he could sing, “Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
Dr. Martin Luther King often said, “If we have nothing worth dying for, then we don’t have anything worth living for, either.” Paul’s life and death were both for a worthy king, a worthy kingdom, and a beloved people, and for a love that will triumph and endure even over death. Though Paul was chained up, he and his gifts were not bottled up. Like a drink offering in the temple, they were poured out for God’s honor, in celebration. Paul poured out his life, his love, his faith, his wisdom and inspiration into the letters and the relationships coming from his time in those prisons and chains. They even multiplied his impact for good in this life well beyond anything Paul could have done in freedom.
Looking ahead, beyond death, Paul writes, “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” His future hope then has two parts: the crown and the vision, or “the beloved appearing.” The crown of righteousness symbolizes God’s vision of Paul and his labors. The crown says, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” and “you have triumphed.”
But even more exciting and appealing to Paul is his vision of God. Not just for Paul alone, but “for all who long for his appearing.” This vision, this beloved, anticipated sight, our Christian ancestors have long called “the Beatific Vision,” or “the blessed sight.” It is not a matter of seeing God with the eyes of these mortal bodies, for God is not visible in that way, nor could we in our current mortal, fallen state, stand the bright light of divine holiness, goodness and love directly. Seeing and contemplating God fully requires the spiritual sight of our resurrection selves, after passing through the portals of death.
But every step and stage of life this side of death toward eternity is preparing and purifying us for that blessed vision, as Christ is formed in us. As John the Beloved wrote in his first letter: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 3 All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Only the pure in heart will see God, for only the pure in heart want to see God.” That is what purity of heart is: to want the one purest thing and to want it above everything else, the very thing Paul longed for, the very thing that helped him befriend his own mortality: the promise of seeing his savior.
I recently told my spiritual director that I am coming around to believing in Purgatory. Not in the Purgatory of Medieval Christian imagination, where, after you die, devils roast you over a fire and poke you with pitchforks until you’ve paid enough in suffering for your sins to earn your way into heaven. Either Christ’s work was enough for our salvation, or we should just go home. But I am coming to understand how some of the complexities, losses, struggles and challenges of this life, here and now, can be used by God to reveal what he must heal, to free us in each stage of life of false loves and encumbering idols and so purge our disordered desires to where we treasure and want one thing above all else: God and the sight of God’s beauty, holiness and peace.
The ancient Rule of St. Benedict enjoins all members of the Benedictine Order to consider their mortality as part of their daily devotions. Later, in the Middle Ages, devotional books were written describing and prescribing what they called, “A good death,” one for which you and your loved ones were prepared, willing and ready to take your leave from this life for the next. “Memento mori” became a well-worn Latin phrase of that time: “Remember that you are mortal” (that’s what the title of this sermon means, in Latin). In these books and traditions, preparing for “a good death” was considered vital to a good life, one in which your bags were always packed and ready, spiritually and relationally speaking, for the last leg of this journey. A good death meant that no moral nor relational accounts with God or anyone else were left outstanding, no blessing left unsaid, no sins not confessed and forgiven, no truth left unspoken in love, whenever necessary.
Some ways we might prepare and pack our bags today would include preparing and keeping certain documents up to date, like living wills, end of life directives, and internet passwords where your loved ones can find them, and can close out your Facebook or other accounts. Consider writing up wishes for our own memorial services, like scriptures to read and songs to sing, and filing those somewhere. I think we even have a few of them somewhere in our church office. And do whatever you need to do to leave blessings for those whom God has given you to love, blessings of love and affirmation, of reconciliation and forgiveness, of wisdom, witness and good works.
Most importantly, if we have no sense of hope nor assurance about our eternal destiny, if we have had no foretaste of eternal life in the faith, hope and love of the Holy Spirit, then talk with me or Jana about inviting Christ and the assurance of his eternal love into your life now and the one to come. We are eternal beings because the steadfast love of the Lord is eternal. To know God’s love is to taste eternity even now.
Do not worry that such holy hope and a pure desire for God, and for eternity, will diminish our love nor our constructive contributions to people here and now, as though we would be “so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good.” Quite the opposite. Far from being morbid and depressing, or irresponsible, knowing that this life is like a beautiful but fragile flower, a temporary gift which we must share and then return, we, like Paul, can hold it loosely, gently, thankfully and reverently, instead of fearfully, anxiously clutching it and crushing it. When we befriend and embrace our own frailty, vulnerability and mortality, we find that we also befriend and embrace this world and this life, and all the other frail, vulnerable and mortal people with whom we share them, even as we anticipate the better life to come.