First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 23

William Loader

Pentecost 23: 27 October  2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

How would Paul look back on his life? Perhaps these are his words. At least they are how one of his keen admirers imagined it. Paul has been faithful. We know from the lists late in 2 Corinthians that Paul went through great stress and adversity, but refused to give away the central truths and concerns of his gospel. This was not stubbornness, but an insistence that faith should not be surrendered to those who wanted to turn it into a competition for spiritual power and influence.

It is clear from the context - and the verses missed out - that Paul suffers isolation even from those whom he might have expected to support him. Such pressures can be devastating. Are we also hearing here the pressures of Timothy's world of ministry? There is a calm in the surrender to hope, not an unrealistic hope, but one which dares to believe that ultimately there is God and one need not fear. Not everything has to be sorted out. We cannot and need not try to control the world of dissent which sometimes surrounds us. This can be a kind of blind withdrawal, but it can also be an expression of faith that we do not have to fix everything  - and we cannot. It is OK to say we have run our race. It is something about acknowledging our human limitations - even about forgiveness. It is certainly about grace. Heading to the end of a marathon, exhausted, or at least reaching the end of his ministry, this Paul has a sense of peace. The words inspire a kind of letting go.

The author may well know that Paul faced his end in Rome. Could one imagine what it was like? Paul would not escape the lions. The horrific cruelty of Nero's Rome awaits him. It was probably all very callous - like the execution of Jesus, and just as uninformed and prejudiced. We are dealing with totalitarian regimes who are not going to take time to listen to the heart of the matter. There is no interest in engagement, nor even in discerning the true nature of the threat, but rather an impatient drive for tidiness, "cleaning up" all potential trouble with a wild stroke of the hand.

Here is a picture of Paul still grasping hopefully at opportunities to spread the word of goodness and grace among the Gentiles. It reads tragically. Did the author know that Paul's hopes would last but a short time and soon he would be crushed like the rest of them? Under pressure the Christian community around Paul has collapsed. His strange peace floats alongside hurt and anger and disappointment. This experience repeats itself. Perhaps it is just the kind of thing which Timothy and his colleagues are experiencing from the many who seem to be undermining their work.

Paul is an inspiration, a mirror in which to see one's own experience, a challenge to stay on course to the end and somehow also to find the peace that comes from simply pouring oneself out without breaking oneself down by feeling one has always to be successful and hold everything together. While pouring out could be an image of resignation, it also suggests a flexibility, indeed, a flowing, where one does not feel one has to run out and pick up all the pieces. Let it flow. It is a cultic image and reflects a common religious rite in honouring the gods. A wonderful way to begin and also to end.

Gospel: Pentecost 23: 27 October Luke 18:9-14

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