Sunday, September 7, 2014

Down the Road, Paul and the End

A hanging always attracts  a crowd.  And I would suspect that a stoning was no different.  That’s where our journey began back in June when we discovered Saul of Tarsus witnessing the brutal execution of one of the leaders of the early church.  A man named Stephen. 

We don’t know that Saul actually threw any of the rocks that resulted in Stephen’s death, but we do know that he was in the crowd. And instead of fueling his sense of injustice at the senseless death of this man who was described as a righteous man it seemed set fire to a desire to eradicate the church that Stephen had embraced and that had embraced Stephen.  One of the first descriptions of Saul tell us Acts 8:3 But Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison.
This man was obviously an enemy of the church and an enemy of God.  But in this strange display of Grace God reaches down and speaks into the life of Saul and we see this incredible transformation that turns one of the churches greatest enemies into the church’s great statesman. 
And it isn’t long before Saul becomes Paul.  No big mystery here, Saul and Paul are the same name.  Saul is the Hebrew and Paul is the Greek.  Kind of like Denny is the English and Denney is the French. 
And it was at the point of Saul’s conversion that we joined him on a journey that has taken us all of the summer of 2014 to complete.  We have seen him preach and sing, he has shown up in the courts of kings and prison cells last week we found him on a ship in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea in a terrifying storm.  We have met his mentors and his protégés and now we are at the end of his journey.  The centre of the universe for many of Paul’s contemporaries, the great city of Rome. 
And it is here that Paul’s story and life would end, but his writings and influence would shape the early church and eventually much of the world.  It is in the writings of Paul that we discover what it means to be a Christian and to live a spirit filled life.  And the very foundation of the church was laid by Paul and many of the foundational doctrines of the church are found in these letters.
But now the journey is coming to an end. Paul is under house arrest in Rome and I’m sure that as he reflected back on his close to thirty years of ministry that this might have been his theme song. (My Way by Frank Sinatra)
The scholars tell us that the last letter that Paul wrote, or at least the last letter that we have a copy of is probably 2 Timothy, and that’s where I want to take you today on our journey. 
This letter was written to Timothy who was one of Paul’s protégés, Paul had met him in Lystra and began his training taking Timothy with him on his travels, eventually leaving him in charge of the church in Ephesus.  And that is where Timothy is when he receives this letter from his mentor.
Paul has been under house arrest but he is still under arrest.  There is a soldier with him all the time and Rome is becoming more and more hostile toward the followers of the Nazarene.  They are no longer seen as simply a Jewish sect but because of their refusal to join in the yearly worship of Caesar they are viewed as dangerous rebels, after all if they refused to do something as simple as offer a pinch of incense and use the words “Caesar is Lord” then what else were they capable of?
And so Paul has seen the writing on the wall, he understands that his days are numbered.  And so it is with this in mind that Paul pens these words to his friend Timothy.
2 Timothy 4:6-8 As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God. The time of my death is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. And now the prize awaits me—the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on the day of his return. And the prize is not just for me but for all who eagerly look forward to his appearing.

As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God.   This is one of those references that is lost on us.  An offering poured out to God?  That may not make sense to us but would have made all kinds of sense to the person the letter was written to.  From what we read about Timothy we discover that his mother was a believer who had been raised a Jew and his father was a Greek.  And both traditions had some form of “Drink” or “Liquid” offering.  In the case of the Jews it was spelled out in the Old Testament in the books of Exodus, Numbers and Leviticus.  And it wasn’t a sacrifice, it was an offering to enhance the sacrifice.  The sacrifice was either a lamb or a ram and after it had been sacrificed a portion was burnt.  And it was while it was on the hot coals that a cup of wine would be poured over it. 
So you understand that while the meat was hot the wine was poured on it and evaporated leaving only the steam and the scent.  Numbers 15:6-7 “If the sacrifice is a ram, give a grain offering of four quarts of choice flour mixed with a third of a gallon of olive oil, and give a third of a gallon of wine as a liquid offering. This will be a pleasing aroma to the LORD.
Paul was not saying that his life had been a sacrifice, the sacrifice was made by Christ.  We are told in 1 John 2:2 He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world.   But Paul’s life had added to that sacrifice, it was poured out to enhance the sacrifice.  And because of what Paul offered, his life, his talents, his ability the sacrifice of Christ became a pleasing aroma to the known world.  Remember when Paul came on the scene that the gospel had basically stalled in the Middle East.  It was Paul who saw it spread across Asia and into Europe.  It was Paul who not only started the new churches but put the systems into place for the leadership and administration of those churches.  He laid the foundation for the church as we know it.
It’s interesting that this isn’t the first mention that is made by Paul of being a drink offering.  Earlier he had written to the church in Philippi saying Philippians 2:17 But I will rejoice even if I lose my life, pouring it out like a liquid offering to God, just like your faithful service is an offering to God. And I want all of you to share that joy.
The difference is that in Philippians Paul writes “Even if I lose my life, pouring out like a liquid offering.”  He is talking in the theoretical, he is using the word “If” but here it becomes a certainly as he says in 2 Timothy 4:6 As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God.   Why the difference?  Paul spells it out in case Timothy misses it, The time of my death is near  Paul has now spent the better part of two years under house arrest in Rome, sympathies have turned against Christianity.  Rumours about the Christ followers are spreading.  We are told that the early church often referred to their common meals and celebration of Communion as a love feast, some outside the church took the low road and began to speculate what might happen behind closed doors at an event referred to as a “Love feast”. 
When some heard that at the communion service the body and blood of Christ was shared not everyone understood the symbolism of the statements and so there were rumours of cannibalism being practised by the followers of Jesus.
It seemed that things came to a head after the great Fire of Rome in AD 64, Nero had assumed the throne and it was under Nero that the systematic persecution of the Christians began.  WE are told that when Rome burned that by some accounts, Nero came under suspicion for causing the fire and to deflect attention from himself he used the early church as a scapegoat, after all there was much in their rhetoric about fire and the end days. 
And so Christians were ordered to recant and give up their faith or face the executioner.  Tradition tells us that it was at this time that Peter was executed, and that he was ordered to be crucified like the Christ he followed.  Peter though insisted that he wasn’t worthy to die in the same manner as Jesus and so he was crucified upside down.
But Paul was a Roman citizen and so his execution would be more merciful, quicker and less painful.  He would be. . . beheaded.  And we kind of look at this as barbaric, you know I am opposed to capital punishment, but when you read headlines of how they sometimes mess up executions in the States with botched chemicals and faulty electric chairs you gotta think that maybe the guillotine might not be a bad option. 
And so Paul would have been offered the choice, recant and live or don’t recant and die.  How difficult could it be, all he had to do was proclaim the words “Nero is Lord” and he would live.  But Paul decided that he would rather bow to the executioner than to bow to Nero.
And I’m sure that Nero and those who demanded the death of the early church leaders were convinced that the church would die with its leaders.  But it was Tertullian who would later write as a warning to the Roman Government concerning the persecution of the church, The blood of the martyrs is seed”
Tertullian’s words continue to ring true, in 1982 Chet Bitterman a bible translator with Wycliffe was kidnapped in Columbia by a M-19 a communist guerrilla group, the group demanded that Wycliffe remove all of their missionaries from Columbia,  Wycliffe refused and the terrorists murdered Bitterman. As a result Wycliffe offered to release any of their staff from service in Columbia.  Without exception every bible translator wanted to stay and 200 volunteers offered to fill Bitterman’s place. 

Today in Columbia M-19 is only a memory but you will still find linguists from Wycliffe,working at translating the bible into the 62 language groups represented in Columbia.   The blood of the martyrs is still seed”
It’s interesting to see the analogy that is used here by Paul, the NLT simply translates it as “the time of my death is near”, but other versions translate it as “My departure is near” and the word that Paul uses here is a term that was often used for the process of loosening the lines on a ship.  They haven’t yet been cast off, but they are being prepared for that.
And now Paul uses a series of analogies for his life that all come from sports.  And this is a theme that he returns to time and time again in his letters.  That would make me believe that Paul had either been a jock or an athletic enthusiast.  Because communicators often default to what they are familiar with.  And so you can jump to all kinds of conclusions about the lack of sport illustrations in my messages and the fact that I often tell sea stories. 

I never took part in organized sports as a kid, now that’s not say that I wasn’t involved in sports, I wore out a couple of bikes and the kids in the neighborhood were always involved in a game of baseball with chunks of wood or flat rocks as bases, or touch football, sometime with fairly rough touches or a capture the flag.  Do kids still play like that or does everything need to be organized now?  Again a tangent. 
And so Paul begins by saying, I have fought the good fight Some Christians take this way too literally they will fight over anything and everything.  And social media has made it worse.

Some of the things church folks tussle over, really it doesn’t matter what colour the lobby is, doesn’t matter if you have a pulpit on the platform or not, doesn’t matter if the pastor wears jeans or suit, doesn’t matter if we sing old songs or new songs.  Seriously get a grip.  Remember what Solomon warned us of in Proverbs 17:14 Starting a quarrel is like opening a floodgate, so stop before a dispute breaks out. Or Proverbs 17:19 Anyone who loves to quarrel loves sin.  Pastors could take heed to 2 Timothy 2:24 A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but must be kind to everyone, be able to teach, and be patient with difficult people. And in the New Testament we find quarrelling listed time after time in lists of behaviour that is unacceptable for followers of Jesus.  Romans 1:29 Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip.   Romans 13:13 Because we belong to the day, we must live decent lives for all to see. Don’t participate in the darkness of wild parties and drunkenness, or in sexual promiscuity and immoral living, or in quarreling and jealousy.   Time after time it comes up including when Paul lists the acts of the sinful nature in Galatians 5.  And when people do read these verses then they quarrel about what the bible means when it talks about quarreling.  Stop it. Another tangent.
When Paul says he has fought the good fight he isn’t talking about a military fight he is speaking of the type of fight that was a competition.  Yep, he’s talking about wrasslin’.  Throughout his letters Paul speaks of the struggles that he encounters and that we will encounter as Christians.  As we wrestle with self and our sinful nature, as we struggle with temptation and doing what we should even when it isn’t what we’d prefer to do.  Note he doesn’t say that he won every fight but he fought to the best of his ability.  I wish I could say that I win every time I struggle in my Christian life, but that’s not reality.  Probably in your life, but not in mine.  But I want to be able to say that I fought the good fight, that I didn’t just roll over and give up.
And then Paul continues with the sports analogies saying; I have finished the race.   There is no greater compliment then that you finished well.  Probably the history’s most famous race is the marathon.  Do you know the history behind the race?  The Battle of Marathon was probably one of the decisive battles of the ancient world. It was here that the Greeks came up against the Persians.  Imagine if the Persians had won. The glory that was Greece would never have happened, the language, the art the philosophies.  If the Persians had of won that day there would have been no Aristotle, or Plato, no Archimedes.  And the Persians should have won, they had won everything else, they had superior forces but Darius and his forces were defeated that day by the Greek forces in a town called Marathon. 

But our story revolves around a runner named Phillipedes.  Legend tells us that Phillipedes had run to Sparta from Marathon to request assistance against the Persians.  A round trip of 240 km, and then after the Greek victory he was sent to deliver the news to Athens, and legend has it that he ran the 40 km in the summer heat, delivered his message, “We have won.”  And then he fell dead.  He had completed his course and done his work. 

Over and over again the analogy of the race is used to describe our Christian life, and it always speaks of how we finish, not how we start.  How often in life do we see people start a venture but never finish it.  But it is the finishing that counts in the end.  And so Paul could look back and say I’ve fought the good fight but more important I have finished the race.  To which he adds I have remained faithful.   At least one commentator says that this statement continues in the sports analogy, that the greatest games of all in that era were still the Olympics.

And the day before the games began all the competitors met and took a solemn oath before the gods that they had spent at least ten months in training and that they wouldn’t resort to any dishonesty to win their competition.

If this was the case then Paul was saying; “I have kept the rules: I have played the game right.”  It was William Barclay the author of the Daily Study Bible who said “It would be a great thing to die knowing that we had never transgressed the rules of honour in the race of life.”

Remember the Ben Johnson fiasco in the 1988 Olympics.  He was the Canadian runner who won the 100 metres final in Seoul.  Well on September 24 we celebrated him as the Canadian who won the 100 metres.  Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said “It’s a marvellous evening for Canada.”  Three days later he was derided as the Jamaican who tested positive for illegal steroids.  Canadian Swimmer Mark Tewksbury, hung a sheet out of his window of the Olympic Village with the words “Hero to Zero in 9.79”.  Johnson had finished the race but he had not remained faithful.

My prayer is “Lord, let me finish well.”  Because of what comes next, Paul continues to write And now the prize awaits me—the crown of righteousness. In the Olympics the greatest prize was the laurel wreath.  There were no medals, instead they were crown as victor.  And this is the picture that Paul paints for us here, the athlete who has fought the good fight, finished well, competed honourably and now is awarded his crown. 

Paul is telling us that he is now turning from the judgement of man, to the judgment of God.  He knew that very shortly he would stand before the judgement seat of Rome and would be found wanting, the trial could only have one end.  But even though he knew what Nero’s verdict would be, but he also knew what God’s verdict would be.

We will never be able to please everyone, and really when it comes to our eternity the approval or condemnation of man isn’t relevant.   For the believer our crown comes when we stand before God after our time on this earth is done and hear his words, “Well done good and faithful servant.”

I can't control when I will die or how I will die.   I really can't control that.  Kind of like the bumper sticker that says “I want to die in my sleep like my grandfather, not screaming like the passengers in the car.” 

So I can’t control when or how I will die.  I often say I want to die well, but who know I might be crying and begging for drugs.  I hope not but. . . I have no control over when or how I will die.

However I have all kinds of control over how I will live, and my prayer and hopefully yours will be that as our time of death draws near we will be able to say   2 Timothy 4:7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful.

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