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Peace at Last

San Williams

October 27, 2013
2 Timothy 4:6-18

As we near the end of our days—and obviously some of us here are nearer the end than others– it’s common for us to want to draw some lessons from our life.  We wonder what our legacy will be.  What have we done well, and what have we left undone?  Has our life mattered, and to whom? Some people will try to answer such questions in a memoir, or in a final testament of some kind. 

Well, today’s reading in 2nd Timothy gives us a rare and rather raw portrait of Paul as he draws near his death.  “The time of my departure has come,” Paul declares, and then he proceeds to review his life’s journey, as well as his preparation for the life to come.   Since the journey to death and beyond is one we all take, let’s consider Paul’s experience in the hopes that doing so might shed light on our own.

Notice first Paul’s distressing circumstances.  Despite his faithfulness, Paul is spending what he believes to be his final days in a dank Roman prison.  Here at the end of his life, Paul finds himself imprisoned, isolated, and, for the most part, bereft of help. Remember that there was no prison system in those days.  Food, clothing, and other basic necessities had to be brought in by family or friends.  Yet to his great disappointment, most of Paul’s closest friends have deserted him.  Demas has run off to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia and Titus to Dalmatia.  Only Luke has stayed close by. Paul pleads for Mark to come see him and, for heaven’s sake, to bring his coat that he left in Troas.  He asks for someone to please bring his books for reading, and especially parchment so he can at least carry on his correspondence.  All this is to say, Paul’s last days were no picnic. He languished in a Roman prison cell, isolated from the world and deserted by his friends.   

Now those are not the circumstances any of us would choose for our final days.  Given the choice, most of us would probably choose to spend our last days on this earth doing the things we most like to do, with the people we love most.  Then one night we would climb into bed, close our eyes, and just never open them again.  Yet as we all know, life doesn’t always have such a serene ending.  Sometimes cancer, Parkinson’s, strokes, memory loss or some other illness will interrupt our plans and re-define our lives in an unwelcome way. Our desire may be to die at home, but that’s not how it happens for everyone.

Last weekend Jan and I attended a Presbyterian Board of Pensions Seminar that was designed to help pastors with financial planning. The financial consultant mused that if we only knew what kind of care we were going to need, and if we could provide the exact date of our death, he could help us plan accordingly. But of course of that day and hour no one knows.  Paul’s experience is a good reminder that even those who fight the good fight and keep the faith aren’t guaranteed a graceful exit.   

Further, as we look back on Paul’s final days, we realize that not everything was resolved for him.  It’s true that Paul, at the end of his life, felt as though he had done his part and kept the faith, but clearly issues remained.  For one thing, we sense that Paul’s spiritual struggle was not entirely settled.  In today’s reading, Paul vacillates from confidence to dismay, from gratitude to bitter disappointment.  For example, when Paul thinks about that coppersmith named Alexander, he is without sympathy. Alexander did some undisclosed harm to Paul, and he hopes that God will deal harshly with this enemy.  But then, in the very next sentence, in imitation of Christ, Paul prays for God’s forgiveness toward those who deserted him.  Yes, Paul was a spiritual giant, but in spite of his great accomplishments and faithful ministry, he remained a flawed human being up to the very end.

Surely it will be the same for us.  By God’s grace, may all of us become more forgiving, more loving, more Christ-like as we move ever closer to the end of our days. Yet like Paul, our quest to fulfill our baptism is never completed in this life.  It’s common today to hear people speak of their bucket list as a way of listing things they hope to do or accomplish before their lives end.  Making a bucket list can be a useful exercise, but in truth we’ll go to our grave with some things still in the bucket.  Not just places we wanted to travel, or adventures we hoped to have, but also people we never quite forgave or who never forgave us, failings we weren’t able to remedy, deeds left undone, dreams unfulfilled.

It was a year ago about this time that K.C. Ptomey, professor of Pastoral Ministry at Austin Seminary, preached in this pulpit for our stewardship Sunday.  A scant six months later, K.C. died of pancreatic cancer.  K.C. loved his teaching at the seminary, and everyone agrees that he still had lessons to give, wisdom to impart and sermons to preach. His death, sadly, came way too soon. K.C. is yet another reminder that regardless of how or when we die, inevitable we leave some things unfinished, some tasks still pending.

And with that realization, our focus shifts from ourselves to God. In spite of his distressing condition, Paul feels completely at peace in God’s love and comfort. Though abandoned by his friends, he is not alone. God, Paul declares, stands by me, strengthens me, rescues me and saves me for his heavenly kingdom.  At life’s end, Paul perceives a beginning, a crown of righteousness that awaits him.

So peace–deep, abiding peace–comes from the profound knowledge that we belong to God.  Only God can complete the life which we could not complete on our own.  The things we’ve done, along with the things we left undone; the things we accomplished as well as the things we failed to accomplish will all be taken up, accepted and completed in the infinite mercy of God.

In his recent book on suffering and faith, Tom Long tells a story about the French war hero and head of state Charles de Gaulle. “What is often not remembered about him,” writes Long, “was that he and his wife, Yvonne, were the parents of Anne, a child with Down syndrome.  Every day, regardless of what was going on in the affairs of state, de Gaulle would come home and play tenderly with this child.   Then he and Yvonne would put her to bed. Yvonne would often say, ‘Oh, Charles, why couldn’t she have been like the others.  I have prayed so often that she could have been like the others.’  Anne died before reaching full adulthood, and the family had a private graveside mass.  When the mass was over, Yvonne was reluctant to leave the grave, reluctant to leave her beloved daughter.  Charles rested his hand on Yvonne’s arm and said to her, ‘Come Yvonne.  Now, she is like the others.’” 

Since today is Reformation Sunday in the church, let’s give the last word to the Reformer John Calvin.  “We are not our own:” declared Calvin. ”Insofar as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours.  Conversely, we are God’s:  let us therefore live for God and die for God.”

“To God be the glory forever and ever.  Amen.”