a sermon preached on 3 March 2019 at Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church
Please pray with me.
May my heart’s affection, my mind’s attention, and my soul’s submission be to you, oh Lord, my Savior and my Redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all…” (I 2:5-6) This is what Paul expresses in the opening chapters of his first letter to Timothy. These words are also the foundation of what the church believes, what is at the heart of our gathering each Sunday and our perseverance in the faith. We are here, Saint Paul was here and labored, Saint Timothy was here, so that this one God would be known and praised. For without this one mediator between God and man, we are nothing. Without Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all, we would not only cease to exist, but we would cease to live meaningful and joyful lives. Every degree of misery in a man, every moment of doubt and fear and sin and confusion is because we either do not know or we imperfectly know this great truth: “…there is one God…one mediator between God and men…a ransom for all.” When this slips from our imaginations, when it slips from our dinner tables, our marriages, our parenting, our schools, and our hearts and minds, we will slip from joy.
Please turn in your Bible with me to 2 Timothy 4:6-22. I would like to read for us today’s passage.
When a man embarks on a journey, it may be easy for him to forget his purpose. Halfway through the journey he may find that it has become something other than what he set out to do. He may even find he has traveled far off the intended course. He may get distracted; he may, like Odysseus’ men in the land of the Lotus eaters, lose all memory of their journey home. We do not want to be this way with our recent journey through Paul’s two letters to Timothy. Our journey through First and Second Timothy has had a particular purpose about it. Like with any good tour of a great cathedral or conversation with a great saint or great mind, we want to enter with purpose, but we also want to enter with a posture that is humble and open to surprise. Our purpose, as we should recall, in reading First and Second Timothy was to consider what Paul’s advice is to Timothy, a young pastor in Ephesus. Paul’s wisdom to Timothy is not just to Timothy; it is also particularly beneficial for a young church. As we learned what Paul has to say, we have also considered its importance for our own time and our own church. It is fitting then to end our journey here, at the end of Second Timothy, and also at the end of this green season, for this week is Ash Wednesday, which is the start of our Lenten fast.
There is one very simple and important exhortation I’d like to lay before us today, and that is the green church, the young church, though it is born, is the church that must also die. Therefore, the green church would do well to think properly upon death. This theme is fitting for us today for a few reasons:
First, the green church must keep death in mind because this is how Paul concludes his second letter to Timothy. In my preparation for this sermon series, I made great use of several books on these pastoral letters, one by Thomas C. Oden. Oden states, “…how distressed must [Timothy] have been to read toward the end of the letter, that ‘I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith’ (II 4:6-7). His heart surely must have sunk at those words. But just at that point, Paul came to the main point of his writing: Come to Rome. I want to see you. Come before winter. The winter metaphor is telling: Paul could envision his last winter inexorably coming. He longed to see his ‘own son.’ The dungeon was cold. He urged Timothy to come before winter (II 4:21)…” (Oden, p.7) What Oden is telling us, and indeed what Paul is telling us, is that it is good for Timothy to be aware that this older man in the faith will surely end his race, that the time is closer than expected, and that Timothy ought to have a sense of urgency and purpose about him. This not only goes for his trip to see Paul before winter, perhaps Paul’s final winter on earth, but also for Timothy’s own life, before his own winter comes. These final words from Paul ought to rest heavy upon our own hearts as a young church.
Second, the green church must keep death in mind because it is the best way to build something beyond ourselves. When we consider what Paul just said to conclude his second letter to Timothy, “Do your best to come before winter,” we see that Paul intended for this to stick in the imagination of a young Timothy. There is no doubt this would have been shocking to Timothy to hear, a man who was like a father to him, now in prison and on the brink of death, a man who was, with Timothy, one of the first Christians to set foot on European soil from Asia. If we were to read the letter Timothy perhaps wrote back to Paul, we would see that Timothy would have made great effort to comfort Paul and to do as he requested. Timothy would have taken to heart that our earthly ministry, like that of Christ’s, does not last forever, and therefore we ought to have a sense of purpose and urgency to build something beyond ourselves. Death has a way of doing this. It causes us to put our affairs in orders; it makes us count the days; it presses upon our humanity in a way which can bring out the best or the worst in us. As a green church, let us remember that we will, each of us, be put in the grave; let us then build this church, tithe, pray, worship, sing, eat tacos, make art, write books, and live together in such a way that we care for those who are coming behind us. Let us be able to say with Paul that we have “fought the good fight…finished the race…kept the faith,” so that we leave a wake of Timothies behind us when our winter comes.
Third, the green church must keep death in mind because it will cause us to keep holy perspective. Jonathan Edwards, the great American theologian and puritan, wrote his “70 Resolutions.” Seven of them speak of death. When I was in college, I would regularly go to the large Catholic cemetery in Lafayette and read through these resolutions, considering how they more deeply sink into my soul:
- 6. Resolved, To live with all my might, while I do live.
- 7. Resolved, Never to do any thing, which I should be afraid to do if it were the last hour of my life.
- 9. Resolved, To think much, on all occasions, of my dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.
- 17. Resolved, That I will live so, as I shall wish I had done when I come to die.
- 19. Resolved, Never to do any thing, which I should be afraid to do, if I expected it would not be above an hour before I should hear the last trump.
- 43. Resolved, Never, henceforward, till I die, to act as if I were any way my own, but entirely and altogether God’s; agreeably to what is to be found in Saturday, Jan. 12th. Jan. 12, 1723.
- 48. Resolved, Constantly, with the utmost niceness and diligence, and the strictest scrutiny, to be looking into the state of my soul, that I may know whether I have truly an interest in Christ or not; that when I come to die, I may not have any negligence respecting this to repent of. May 26, 1723.
These quotes mature us as a green church. They require us to keep death in mind, and doing so will cause us to keep holy perspective on this life and the life to come. When we do keep perspective, we are able to more clearly and confidently see and discern our life together: making decisions on facilities, finances, ministries, etc, not out of personal and individual desires but out of a hope to follow Paul and pour ourselves out for one another “as a drink offering.”
Fourth and finally, we must keep death in mind because Lent is coming this week. It is fitting that this is the final sermon of The Green Church series, and that this topic would be the final one on Paul’s pen. This coming week marks the start of Lent—a time of fasting, penitence, humility, confession, focused prayer, greater attention to the sacrifice and death of Christ, and generally a time of “giving up.” While lent is not a season of dread, it is not a season of honoring death, it is a season of further considering the fullness of our humanity and Christ’s humanity, especially as it relates to suffering and death. It is also fitting that Lent should occur during the winter months and not during the summer, for, to hearken back to Paul, Christ went through his own winter before his glorious spring, and so shall we.
As we prepare to come to this table, we must be reminded that it is not a table of death. This is a table of life. It is teeming with life; it gives life; it sustains life; it teaches us how we are to live. But, we cannot ignore the symbolism of death at this table. There is this bread, which like the body of Christ, is broken for you. There is this cup, which like the life of Christ, was poured out for you. These are indeed the ideas expressed each Sunday during the prayer of consecration. Both the life and death in this table, the Lord’s Table, ought to inspire you to live like Paul, ought to encourage you to build something beyond yourselves, ought to cause you to keep holy perspective, and ought to better prepare you for the upcoming season of Lent.
To close our time, please hear a poem by George Herbert titled "Death."
Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing,
Nothing but bones,
The sad effect of sadder groans:
Thy mouth was open, but thou couldst not sing.
For we considered thee as at some six
Or ten years hence,
After the loss of life and sense,
Flesh being turned to dust, and bones to sticks.
We looked on this side of thee, shooting short;
Where we did find
The shells of fledge souls left behind,
Dry dust, which sheds no tears, but may extort.
But since our Savior’s death did put some blood
Into thy face,
Thou art grown fair and full of grace,
Much in request, much sought for as a good.
For we do now behold thee gay and glad,
As at Doomsday;
When souls shall wear their new array,
And all thy bones with beauty shall be clad.
Therefore we can go die as sleep, and trust
Half that we have
Unto an honest faithful grave;
Making our pillows either down, or dust.