Semper Fi

21st Sunday after Pentecost

II Timothy 2:1-13

From that rude bridge that arched the flood to the dusty roads of Afghanistan and Iraq, men and women, have answered the call of service, putting themselves in harm’s way.  People are amazed!  But some despise them.  “Warmonger,” they cry, because they fail to see that in this world peace must be won again and again.

Their names have been in lights: Pete Rose, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Kobe Bryant, Roger Clemens, Joe Paterno.  They were the best of the game!  They were surrounded with adoring fans.  People were amazed!  But some despise them.  “Traitor,” they cry, because they crossed a line.  And their fall was greater than their rise to stardom.

Since the first blade of a plow parted the timeless sod of the Midwestern Plains, farmers have wrestled a livelihood from the soil.  People are amazed!  But some despise them.  “Polluter,” they cry, because they cannot see creation as a gift to be managed and used.

Jesus Christ went about preaching the Gospel, healing the sick, raising the dead, casting out demons, forgiving sins.  People were amazed!  But some despised Him. “Blasphemy!” they cried.  “Crucify Him!” because He claimed the prerogatives of God.

St. Paul writes to Timothy about athletes and soldiers and farmers and Jesus, and he says, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding…”  Oh, but when we think about such things, if we are given to a cynical nature, we say, “Well, yeah, no good deed ever goes unpunished.”

If we think about these things in the Christian way, we say with St. Paul to the Romans, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”  Faith becomes amazingly eloquent when the going gets tough!

And St. Paul knew all about the going getting tough!  The Bible doesn’t say whether Paul heard what God said to Ananias after that dramatic conversion.  The Lord had told Ananias, “I will show him how much he must suffer for My name.”  And He did!

But now as Paul prepares to suffer the final indignations of his life of suffering, there is no bitterness, no casting blame at any and all around him, no self-pity of any kind.  It’s amazing!

No, not so amazing.  He writes to Timothy, “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my Gospel [not “my” Gospel in the possessive sense, but “my” in the sense that the Gospel possessed Paul], for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal.  But the Word of God is not bound!”

And that’s it.  That’s the theme that runs through Paul’s letters to Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, Thessalonica, and his personal letters to Titus, Philemon, and the two letters to Timothy: “I am chained, but the Word of God is not!”  “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead!”

And the Gospel of life in Christ is most clearly seen in the brutal death of Jesus on the cross.  There is no life without that death, so the freedom of the Gospel is most clearly revealed in the chains of human sin and weakness. There would be no freedom without those chains.  And that’s an amazing thing to say!

Oh…but some called it demonic!  As Paul writes in the verses after this passage he tells of Hymenaeus and Philetus who were teaching a different Gospel, and their chatter was spreading like gangrene in the Ephesian congregation.  By the end of this epistle to Timothy, Paul will mention his own Judas Iscariot, a man named Alexander, who “did me great harm” he writes.  Oh yes, some despised Paul for what he did.

And yet…while we may feel some pity for the apostle, he doesn’t write these things to elicit our pity.  He writes, “Remember Jesus Christ….  If we die with Him, we will also live with Him; if we endure, we will also reign with Him…”  Cross and resurrection are always together.  Always!  In Christ, neither the one without the other.

“Remember Jesus Christ!” Jesus Christ, as the Hebrews author writes, “who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising its shame, and is seated at the right hand of God.”  Every good and perfect work of God is fulfilled in the shame and loss of Christ on His cross.

So likewise the Gospel which Paul preaches is heard very differently because of his own suffering for the sake of this Christ.  The words, “We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” come across very differently from this man who was imprisoned, slandered, tortured, ship-wrecked and more because of the Gospel, than they would sound from some prosperity preacher whose brand of Christianity is all about having your best life now!

Remember Jesus Christ…if we endure with Him we shall reign with Him.  That is a profound mission opportunity these days!  Instead of the trendy thing of gallivanting around the 3rd World on some weekend mission junket, mission is right here, all around us, all the time, in what we are called to endure!

Now, contrary to the excessive use of the term “persecution” these days, we Christians today do not have to endure anything at all like the Christians of the first two centuries, or what Christians in some parts of our world must endure.  And it’s foolish for us to look for something comparable in our culture.  Because those who truly suffer do not say, “See how we suffer for Christ?”  They say, “Remember Jesus Christ!”  “Not us, Christ!”  And what they endure clothes their words in the garments of a profound faith…compared to the often self-centered and entertainment-oriented faith so pervasive in this country.

Nor do we Christians here and now have to endure anything like Martin Luther had to endure because he confessed Christ.  His formal condemnation by the Empire and the Church read in part: “wherever he may be found he is to be taken into close custody and delivered over to the punishments that have been provided”; punishments including torture and burning at the stake.

But like St. Paul, Martin Luther didn’t make his troubles into his gospel.  “Remember Jesus Christ,” he thundered.  “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead!”  What Luther endured clothed that proclamation in the rich apparel of a much-tested faith.

“Remember Jesus Christ!”  In all that we must endure these days—and no, we don’t have to shed our blood, but we do have all of this economic uncertainty, the noisy bombardments of the new atheists (who are not really saying much of anything new), our interminable wars, not to mention all the various personal troubles each one of us endures…and those can be legion!

Yet the simple, patient endurance of our troubles speaks volumes about the faith we hold.  While the way of the world is to go growling and scowling about its troubles, making a lot of noise and spewing its venom in all directions…we say, “Remember Jesus Christ…if we endure with Him we will reign with Him…if we die with Him we shall live with Him.”

In this Christ we have the grace and the faith to endure.  And by our endurance we testify to the Christ.  And from the very beginning, the patient endurance of the saints is the most eloquent sermon ever preached to any listener.  The patient endurance of the saints is the most effective mission in this world.  The patient endurance of the saints is the most glorious song of praise that any human being can offer to God.  “If we endure with Him, we will also reign with Him; if we die with Him, we will also live with Him.”   “Remember Jesus Christ!”  Semper Fi!  Always faithful!