A Sermon For Year C, Proper 23SERMON: I was wondering: Just between you and me, do the Bible readings on Sunday ever make you uncomfortable? Do you ever feel like you come to worship for joy and encouragement, only to be confronted with ideas that are uncomfortable and perplexing?
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian
2 Timothy 2:3-15
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian
2 Timothy 2:3-15
I mean, we have had a difficult month of readings. Last week, we heard the prophet Habakkuk get angry and ask God hard questions about how he could let the wicked prosper and the righteous perish.
The week before that we heard Jesus tell a story about a rich man suffering in the flames of hell. And the week before that Jesus told us a parable about how an embezzling manager not only got away with embezzlement, but was rewarded for his shrewdness in doing so!
These readings do not leave us with a warm fuzzy feeling. They often leave us with more questions than answers: questions about God's justice, about God's goodness, about the purity of our own motives, and about our eternal destiny. These are hard questions. Disturbing questions.
And after all of these tough readings, I find that I want something light. Something encouraging. I want to hear Philippians 4:4 "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!"
I want to hear Jeremiah 29.11 "For I know the plans I have for you- declares the Lord- plans for your wholeness and not your harm, plans to give you a hope and a future."
But, that's not what we hear today. In fact, what we hear in Paul's second letter to Timothy is one of the most perplexing readings I know of, because I do not know many other readings that are both so encouraging- and so challenging- at the same time.
Paul gives us three images- a soldier, a farmer, and an athlete- to describe the life of a Jesus-follower. Each image is both shocking and encouraging, but each for different reasons. And I think each of these images corrects the flaws and the possible distortions of the other two, because our Christian life is so incredibly rich that it cannot be nailed down by one precise definition.
So Paul starts by telling Timothy "Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; the soldier's aim is to please the enlisting officer."
Comparing the Christ-life to that of a soldier is scandalous for us for several reasons. To begin with, we live in an era that has seen the carnage of two world wars, Nazi Holocausts, Stalinist purges, and three decades of every misstep of our military being beamed into our homes via Television. In such an age, it is easy to get jaded. It is easy to confuse the heroism of multitudes of good soldiers, with the war crimes of a few.
Unfortunately, since the honorable image of a soldier is tainted in our society, it becomes shocking to compare following Jesus with being his soldier. But, for Paul the image would have been even more tainted, because the word that Paul uses here would have brought up the image of a Roman soldier.
It was Roman soldiers who ruthlessly crushed opposition to Rome all over the known world. It was Roman soldiers who unjustly crucified Christ. And, by the time the letter was written, the first great persecution of Christians in Rome had probably happened, in which Roman soldiers rounded up innocent Christians and imprisoned them in the Coliseum to be tortured and executed publicly.
So, for Paul and the early Christians, the image of soldier was as tainted as it could ever be: And yet Paul still used it. Why?
In what ways are being a despised Roman soldier like being a beloved disciple?
First of all, a Roman soldier knew what it meant to have unswerving loyalty to their commander. It was not Roman military technology or technique that enabled them to conquer the known world. In many ways, from Carthage's war elephants to Persian longbow archers to savage Barbarian hordes, the Roman army was often out-manned and out-gunned on the battlefield.
But, there was one thing the Roman soldier was known for worldwide: Their obedience and discipline. They would not break rank or shirk from orders. When their commanders told them to stand firm, they stood firm. When their commanders told them to advance, they advanced. With interlocking shields, and interlocking footsteps, they advanced as one man... and for centuries, they conquered everywhere they went.
And in using the image of soldier, Paul is saying: Look at these soldiers, obeying as one man the commands of a petty potentate, advancing to conquer a kingdom that will not last. If these soldiers are willing to do this for something temporary and someone unjust, how much more should the disciples of Christ be willing to obey the Lord of Love, who rules a Kingdom that will not end?
And if these soldiers are willing to wield weapons of hate and violence in the name of Caesar, how much more should we be willing to wield weapons of mercy and love in the Name of the King of Kings?
We must be willing to stand firm when our Lord says stand firm, and advance when He says advance, with interlocking hearts and interlocking minds, moving together as one man, to heal our world, our communities, and our families, by His power.
The other thing that the image of soldier shows us is that following Jesus entails suffering. It entails walking the road Jesus walked, and carrying the cross he carried.
Yet, I fear that there is a deeper reason why the image of a soldier is shocking to us. It is shocking because it implies fighting and suffering for something. Perhaps being a soldier for Christ is shocking to us is NOT just because of the injustice of war crimes, BUT because most of us do not want to suffer for anything, ever.
In fact, some may doubt whether there is anything worth suffering for at all. If you look at our media, our commercials, our TV shows, our magazines, it seems that our society has an obsession with feeling good and looking better. We want comfort and convenience, and we want it NOW... I want it now.
In our instant society and consumer culture, perhaps the greatest two sins are to make people wait, and to cause them discomfort. We avoid activities which might take time and effort and pain. We avoid people who might tell us hard truths about ourselves, which make us feel bad, and force us to change.
Just stay up late some night and watch all of the infomercials that promise you rock hard abdominals, and a tight rear end in only 10 minutes a day, without any pain.
Just the other day I heard a commercial for some new system to learn a Spanish fluently, without having to memorize any vocabulary or do any grammar drills. They said all of that old-school, time-consuming stuff was "useless", and they had a system to be fluent in Spanish in only minutes a day. No pain, all gain.
But, being a soldier for Christ- a disciple of Christ- means precisely that we will have to wait, and endure suffering, in His Name. Just as military campaigns take time and effort and pain, so also spreading Christ's Kingdom will take time and effort and pain. It takes time and effort and pain to see our own lives changed, our families changed, our communities changed. If we want to participate with Jesus in the healing of the world, we will have to be willing to march in step with Him for the duration of the campaign.
If we were just left with the metaphor of a soldier, we might be tempted to think that the war would be quick. We might be tempted to think that the power of Christ's resurrection was going to obliterate evil immediately... That the war would be brief, and intense, and then be over, in a snap.
But Paul gives us the image of a farmer to challenge this, because God's Kingdom grows much more like a crop being harvested than like a war being won. In a war, the opposition can be overcome by sheer force of numbers, and sheer power of technology. But, a farmer must wait for the right time, the right season, and the right soil. You cannot force a harvest. You have to work with the land, not against it.
To spread God's Love requires NOT an overwhelming show of force, BUT a patient awareness of the people you love. It takes making the most of teachable moments, not beating them over the head with a Bible. It takes a prayerful awareness of the right words to say at the right time, not arguing them into submission. It takes compassion for the needs and hurts of others, not a drill sergeant screaming: GET YOUR LIFE TOGETHER!
In short, spreading God's Love takes the patience of a farmer.
Also, if the metaphor of soldier was left alone, it might imply that we can spread God's Kingdom through raw power and forcing others to submit (or else!). After all, in the heat of battle, even the best soldier can fall into hatred and inhumanity.
So, to remedy this, Paul gives us the metaphor of an athlete. He says "in the case of an athlete, no one is crowned without competing according to the rules".
The phrase "competing according to the rules" is an important one, because in Greco-Roman society, this is what distinguished professional athletes from amateurs. Often it seems like our culture is completely the opposite: These days it is the amateur Olympians who must scrupulously follow the rules, while professional athletes can flaunt all the rules of society and sport and get away with it.
But not so in Paul's day. For them, it was the professional athlete that was known for perfectly following the rules. It was the professional athlete who trained with scrupulous discipline, day in and day out, in good seasons and in bad. If they didn't, they would be disqualified, and all of their hard work would be for naught.
And the same is true for Christ followers. Jesus summed our rules quite succinctly in the Great Commandments: Love God above all, and love our neighbors as ourselves.
We are called to do this, day in and day out, in good and bad seasons. We are called to love the unlovable, to forgive the unforgiven, and care for the forgotten. And we do this, not on our own power, but by staying connected to the source of our Love: our Risen Lord.
This is hard, and it requires lots of training, and that is why we are athletes. While you can win a war by cheating and being inhumane, you cannot win the athletic competition by flouting the rules. We become what we practice.
We cannot bring about God's Kingdom of Love by using weapons of un-love. We cannot heal our world by ripping it apart with power politics and bitter animosity (both of which characterize so much of the rhetoric we find in our church and our nation these days).
We must compete according to the rule of Love. Only Christ's Love can bring about Christ's Kingdom. We are His Body, his own hands and feet, reaching out to heal the world.
I do not know exactly what that means, and I do not know exactly how to live this Love, but I have some idea. And you do to. And I ask you to join me with interlocking hearts and interlocking minds to figure it out together.
And this leads me to the encouragement that all three of these images bring to us: They all bring us a vision of hope. The soldier hopes to end war and bring peace. The farmer hopes for harvest. The athlete hopes for victory.
As we follow Christ, our hope is sure. We ARE on the winning team. Some day the war will end, and God's peace will fill the earth. Some day there will be a harvest of righteousness, and everywhere we will share the fruit of Love. Some day there will be victory, when the light of Christ banishes all darkness, and the life of Christ defeats death.
I ask you to join me in that hope. Together. As one Body, with one Spirit, serving one Lord.
For we are His soldiers.
AFFIRMATION: And now, as Christ's soldiers, and farmers, and athletes, let us affirm together or faith in the Risen Lord using the words of the Nicene Creed...