Keep the Faith

© Michael Clarkson, 2019.  Preached at St. John’s Ithaca, October 27, 2019, for Proper 25, Year C, Track 1.  Texts:  Joel 2:23-32Psalm 652 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18Luke 18:9-14.  Image:  St. Paul in Prison by Rembrandt.

If the Apostle Paul had a tombstone, the words in today’s reading from 2 Timothy would be appropriate to engrave on it: [1]  “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Paul lived quite the life.  He was born a Roman citizen; raised as a Jew, specifically as a Pharisee; and educated by a famous rabbi in Jerusalem.  About that time, a man named Jesus showed up in Jerusalem with some strange ideas about God, and some seemingly dangerous implications for established society.  He even claimed to be God, which clearly was blasphemy.  Even after this Jesus was executed, his followers kept preaching his strange message, kept claiming that Jesus was somehow still alive and really was God, kept stirring up trouble.  So Paul went on a mission to destroy this scandalous new sect of Judaism.  He was apparently very effective at it, too.  Until one day, on the road to Damascus to round up some Jesus-followers and bring them back to Jerusalem, Paul had a mystical experience that transformed his life.  A voice from heaven told him that it was Jesus whom he had been persecuting.  A bright light from heaven, that no one else could see, blinded him.  After three days of blindness, a follower of Jesus laid hands on Paul and healed him in the name of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.  Paul immediately chose to be baptized.  He began proclaiming in the synagogues that Jesus really was the Son of God and the Jewish Messiah.  For the next 30 years, Paul traveled around the Eastern Mediterranean, becoming the Apostle to the Gentiles.  In that time, the persecutor became the persecuted.  In his own words [2 Cor 11:23-28, my paraphrase] (trigger-warning: Paul gets boast-y):

“I was imprisoned, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I was whipped the most the law would allow without a death sentence: 39 strokes.  Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I was under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.”

After all that, Paul ended up under house arrest in Rome for a couple years, awaiting a trial by the Emperor Nero—who was not known for being kind to Christians.  It’s in that context that today’s reading from 2 Timothy takes place.  This is Paul’s last testament: a reflection on his life story and his beliefs.

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… The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. [2 Tim 4:6-8a, 18a]

After 30 years of suffering, shame, rejection, torture, and imprisonment, there is no hint of regret, no taste of bitterness.  Paul simply says:  I’ve kept the faith.  It’s going to be okay in the end.  In fact, better than okay:  the Greek word for “crown” here means the victor’s wreath awarded in an athletic competition.  Paul has finished and won, in the end.

The end is something that comes up each year in the Church calendar in the month of November, which starts this week.  In the Northern Hemisphere, this is natural:  as the landscape and weather come to the end of an annual cycle, so does our liturgy contemplate endings.  Throughout November and December, the Daily Office readings turn to the end times.  We read the Book of Revelation, with its apocalyptic imagery, and prophecies of destruction in the Book of Isaiah.  November 2nd is the Commemoration of all Faithful Departed, sometimes known as All Souls Day.  The traditional (Catholic) liturgy for All Souls is a Requiem:  a Eucharist at which we pray for the dead, as at a funeral. [2]

I bring this up because today’s Psalm actually features in Requiems:  the traditional introit begins “Rest eternal grant unto them O Lord: and let light perpetual shine upon them.”  And the next verses are from Psalm 65:

Thou, O God, art praised in Zion, and unto thee shall the vow be performed in Jerusalem:  thou that hearest the prayer, unto thee shall all flesh come. [3]

By putting Psalm 65 right at the beginning, the Requiem liturgy is saying:  Keep the faith.  It’s going to be okay in the end.  Because the Psalm continues [my paraphrase]:

Our sins are stronger than we are, but you will blot them out.  Awesome things will you show us, O God of our salvation.  You crown the year with your goodness.  Let the valleys shout for joy and sing.

In the midst of life we are in death, [The Committal, BCP, 1979] yes, but in the midst of death we are yet in life.  Or as John Calvin, noted theologian in the Protestant Reformation, wrote: “God offers life to us in death, and light in the darkest grave.”[4]

So as Paul contemplated his own death, as one steeped in the Psalms from his early education, he could pray in hope [my paraphrase, Ps: 65: 1,12; 2 Tim 4:8]:

You are to be praised O God.  You will crown me with your goodness on that day.  And not only me, Lord, but all who have longed for your appearing.

That “all” is important.  Paul wasn’t boasting about himself here (boasting about sufferings aside).  He was saying that the same opportunity exists for all who keep the faith:  as it will be for him, so will it be for us:  it will be okay in the end.  Better than okay.

In today’s reading from Joel, the same notion of hope for all people shows up again.   After the disaster of famine prompted by a lack of rain and a locust plague, after the shame brought upon Israel among the nations because Israel’s God seemingly couldn’t provide food, God promises:

I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten…You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.  And my people will never again be put to shame. [Joel 2:25a,26]

It’s not just food that God promises, though.  God says,

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. [Joel 2:28b-29]

That’s a big deal.  Prophets were a special class of people, called and commissioned by God.  Not very many people were given that spiritual gift.  But God promises a future in which all will have the Spirit lavishly poured into them:  young and old, male and female, Israelite and foreigners (as slaves usually were).

If that part of the reading sounds familiar, it might be because we read it every year on the Day of Pentecost.  Saint Peter quotes this passage from Joel in his address to the crowd at Pentecost.  Peter interprets the sending of the Holy Spirit and visible birth of the Church that day as the fulfillment of the promise made in Joel.

But…  Two thousand years have gone by since that Day.  The Incarnation of Christ, his preaching of the Kingdom, the sending of the Holy Spirit—these inaugurated a new epoch in the history of salvation, yet the day of the Lord is still coming.  While we await it, we are charged to keep the faith.  And that brings me, at last, and briefly, to today’s Gospel reading.

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector offers a crucial insight into what it means to keep the faith.  The Pharisee was doing good works:  he was using spiritual disciplines like fasting, he was supporting his religious community by giving money, and in both he was doing more than was required by the Law.  Let’s be clear:  we need people in the Church who serve as spiritual mentors; who give of their time, talents, and resources—and yes, money.  These are good things.  But the Pharisee became proud, and worse than proud, as he compared himself to other people.  And from that comparison, he drew the conclusion that he was righteous.

Karl Barth wrote that pride is the chief sin: it confuses Creator and creation, Giver and gift.[5]  The Pharisee confused himself with God.  Whereas, the tax collector looked only at himself, and pleaded for mercy.  He understood his own need for salvation.  He kept the faith.  And that made him righteous in the sight of God.

The world can be a scary place.  Our sins confound us.  There are fires and columns of smoke.  Innocent people are unjustly imprisoned or killed.  Paul saw the same evils in his own day.  But through faith he was able to say in the face of that evil, it will be okay.  Not “okay” as in merely alright, nor “okay” as in some excessive of optimism.  But as in: the God who created us, loves us, and desires to save us will one day crown us with righteousness in his heavenly kingdom.  And on that day, we may finally say along with Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Acknowledgements.

Bartlett, D. L., & Taylor, B. B. (eds.),  Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year C, vol. 4, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

Myers, A. C. (ed.), “Paul” in The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, 1987.

Prior, D. The Message of Joel, Micah and Habakkuk: Listening to the Voice of God.  Inter-Varsity Press, 1988.

Van Harn, R. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary, vols. 2 and 3, Eerdmans, 2001.

URL  1: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom27.iii.iii.xxviii.html

Footnotes.

[1] Suggested by Earl F. Palmer in The Lectionary Commentary.

[2] A former parish of mine, in order to provide an extended opportunity for such prayer, used to observe an older tradition of replacing most weekday Eucharists in November with Requiems.

[3] Perhaps if you’ve ever attended a concert at which one of the famous musical settings of the Requiem was sung, or if you’ve sung in such a concert yourself, you’ll recognize it better in Latin:  “Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion, et tibi reddetur votum in Ierusalem. Exaudi orationem meam, ad te omnis caro veniet.

[4] John Calvin, Commentary on Joel, Amos, and Obadiah, section on Joel 2:32.  Available at URL 1.

[5] So says E. Elizabeth Johnson in Feasting on the Word, vol 4, citing Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/1, T. & T. Clark, 1956, pp. 358–513.