“The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom.”
Sermon preached by the Rev Dr Zachary Guiliano
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Every one of us leads life between two poles: our birth and our death. This is an inescapable truth. We didn’t bring ourselves into the world (that was someone else), and we don’t know what time we will be done. That’s true whether we believe we are awaiting some unknown and impersonal expiration date — when all this earthly coil shall dissolve like worn out rags — and it’s true if we think the date of our death is determined in some way by the Lord’s calling and will, his desire at some point to bring us home. Atheist, materialist, agnostic, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, animist, Christian…all others…our journey through life is the same in many ways. Mortality is a brute fact.
In our reading from 2 Timothy, the Apostle Paul finds himself suspended between these two poles, albeit very close to one of them. What he calls his departure (in Greek, his dissolution) is near. He’s already endured much: false accusations, beatings, shipwrecks. He’s been tied up and tortured; he’s faced wild beasts in Ephesus and been “rescued from the lion’s mouth.”
When Paul characterizes his experience of the Christian ministry, these are the kinds of words he uses: affliction, perplexity, persecution (2 Cor. 5:8-12). “While we live,” he says, “we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh” (5:11).
From the time of his conversion Paul’s life was lived on the razor’s edge between life and death. So we may believe him when he says in our reading today, “I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure has come” (2 Tim 4:6).
But he doesn’t end his letter there: spent, exhausted. He continues with those famous words:
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 to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearing.
St Paul, on the verge of total bodily dissolution, stretched for years almost to the breaking, is full of hope and joy and confidence, trusting in the Lord who stood by him and gave him strength (4:17).
Why is that? How can it be? How could he, a mere mortal, subject like all the rest of us to decay and dissolution, be so full of confidence?
The answer lies in two words, two larger realities, whose light led Paul between his birth and his death: these are the appearance and the kingdom.
In this letter, the appearance is a clear reference to the incarnation, the birth of the Son of God as Jesus of Nazareth, at that time when God’s eternal purpose began publicly to be revealed (2 Tim 1:9). And the kingdom is that time when all things shall be brought to completion, all loose ends tied up, when God’s reconciling work shall be visibly complete. No longer shall there be war or violence; no longer shall there be tears or mourning or crying or pain; no more of the banal conflicts between persons or the unbearable brutalities of this time. Then “all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” (Julian of Norwich, Divine Shewings).
For the soul that sees such truth, there is a continual “desire and longing to enter the courts of the Lord,” where heart and flesh may find rest and rejoicing with the living God.
“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion,” says Psalm 84. Those strengthened by the Lord, strengthened like St Paul was, — they will certainly find themselves “going through the barren valley” of life, just like everyone else. They will be circumscribed by a birth and death outside their control. But “they find there a spring, and the early rains will clothe it with blessing.”
The heaven opens, even the heaven of heavens, to give showers, to bring rain, and the fountains of the deep are unlocked. This is the strength promised to those who love God’s appearing, God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. It will bring them to his kingdom at the last.
We live in a dry and thirsty land, my friends. I don’t mean literally. God knows the early and the latter rains are constantly covering these islands with their mixed blessing. I had my raincoat on yesterday today, like the rest of you. I have gutters on my house.
But we live in a time when many are tempted to despair, when they feel there is no strength left. Social harmony eludes us. We see no clear way forward through our political problems. Many situations seem intractable: I think of the problems of rough sleeping in Cambridge or of precarity for those who’ve become settled, whether they’ve come from the streets or from other countries as refugees. Where is there a remedy?
We are often like thirsty travellers with lips cracked, parched by the journey. Our stocks have all run dry. We have chased the mirages, but as we trudge along the road, we find no well, no oasis on the horizon. Only our birth behind us, our death ahead. It all feels too real.
In this barren land, if we alighted upon a traveller whose head was held high, whose tread was steady, whose flesh was not wasted by the journey, we might fall on our knees and seize the edge of their clothes, and beg them, “Where have you found water?”
We are in the presence of such travellers — here, now. We are in the presence of the Apostle Paul, of St Benedict, St Francis, and all God’s saints down the ages. They have found living water.
Let us put out our hands beside them, and plunge our arms into the cooling stream elbow-deep, and then draw draught after draught, to quench our thirst, to bring life to the world, to “go from strength to strength, and appear before God in Zion.”