“As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” ~ 2 Timothy 4:6-8
Most of the time I don’t focus much on the Epistle reading in the lectionary as I usually find myself lingering over the Hebrew scripture or racing ahead in order to delve right into the Gospel. But this week’s selection from one of the “pastoral” letters grabbed my attention and held it, especially the verses above. It doesn’t matter to me that they weren’t actually written by Paul, but rather a disciple of his a generation later. Whoever it was certainly was speaking with Paul’s voice and authority. No biggie.
So, here we have Paul sitting in a Roman prison awaiting his execution. The clock is ticking and his time on earth will soon be over. And what’s he doing? Looking back over his life and reflecting on it. And what a life it’s been! He, an educated Jew who once persecuted his fellow Jews who had become followers of Jesus, that is, until his rather dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. He who had guided, cajoled, and supported the early church communities around the Mediterranean, almost single-handedly holding the entire fledgling movement together through sheer will-power. Actually, it was his faith—his supreme faith—that gave him the courage, tenacity, and vision to do what he did.
Sitting in his cell he looks back on his time doing God’s work and refers to it as a life of sacrifice and compares it and himself to a drink that is being poured out as a libation, something which quenches the thirst and allows the person who drinks of it to live. How many of us could say that about our lives? How many of us have as a vocation lived in service to our God and to our sisters and brothers, focusing our energy and resources on bringing about the Kingdom here and now?
He goes on to say that he has “fought the good fight.” Usually I’m not drawn to analogies which utilize physical altercations, sports, or militarism, but in this case I understood why Paul would say something like this: it had been a fight. He not only had to contend with the Roman authorities and the power of the empire, but also had to fight the close-mindedness of the people to whom he preached the gospel; fight the notions of what it meant to be an observant Jew; fight the status quo. Who among us has had the courage to do that? Who among us, even if we burn with the desire to create a more just and equitable society, has the fortitude to fight the powers that be? How many of us, if we knew our death were imminent, could say, like Paul, that we’d fought the good fight?
He then says, “I have finished the race.” Does that resonate with you? Not everyone is able to actually run a physical foot race, but for those of us who have, at least at some point in our life, or have completed some other sort of physically demanding competition that challenges our endurance, this gets the point across. Living a life of faith isn’t a cake walk or a stroll in the park! There’s a beginning and an end. In between there are hills and turns and countless obstacles. But if we keep focused on our goal—our mission—and we ask God and our fellows for help along the way, we will, all of us, finish the race. And what satisfaction we can take in that!
Finally, Paul says, “..and I have kept the faith.” He doesn’t say I “had faith” or “I was faithful.” No, he uses a verb that connotes a caring for, a holding onto, or a continuing to have, all of which imply action and not passivity. Paul is saying that in spite of everything and through everything, he kept the faith. And note how he didn’t say his faith, but rather, the faith; demonstrating how he believed in a universal faith. And how did he keep the faith? In the same way as you or I: by being steadfast in belief, by praying, and by being thankful. And because of these things Paul rests assured in the knowledge that “there is reserved for [him] the crown of righteousness.”
Now, this could be the end of his reflection on his life and what awaits him, but no, Paul wants all of us to know that if we have the same longing as he, if we are diligent in the practice of our faith, and if we teach others to walk with God, that we, too, will be judged to be righteous.