2 TIMOTHY 2:1-10
Timothy, my son, be empowered in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier who has been deployed gets entangled in the practical concerns of life, since his aim is to satisfy his commanding officer, the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hardworking farmer who receives the first fruits. Think over what I say, for the Lord will grant you understanding in everything. Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descended from David, as preached in my gospel, the gospel for which I am suffering and wearing fetters like a criminal. But the word of God is not fettered. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain salvation in Christ Jesus with its eternal glory.
JOHN 15:17-27; 16:1-2
The Lord said to his disciples: “This I command you, to love one another. If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. He who hates me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. It is to fulfill the word that is written in their law, ‘They hated me without a cause.’ But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me; and you also are witnesses, because you have been with me from the beginning. I have said all this to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues; indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.
Both of these readings talk about persecution. The problem of persecution is two-fold. We need to be able to feel confidence in our ability to embody the roles we have been given in life. I want to be a good person, a good husband, a good father. And I am failing. We need and want to be accepted by others and belong in society.
Imagine that some people are playing a game where you have to draw a picture or an object and the other people in the game have to guess what you’re drawing. One person is drawing and drawing but no one can guess what it is. Finally, he bursts out, “can’t you see it’s the Eiffel tower!!!” Everyone else starts laughing. They don’t think it looks anything like the Eiffel tower.
Then someone takes out their cell phone and googles a picture of the Eiffel tower. And they put them side by side. The guy who was drawing the picture is a bit embarrassed. He has to admit that what he drew doesn’t look like the Eiffel tower at all when you see them side by side.
Jesus Christ is the original picture of what a human being is and can be. Jesus is the image of the invisible Father. And if you hold Jesus up beside the sullied reality of our sinful human lives, the difference is devastating. In one sense you can tell that they’re supposed to be the same, but that just makes it all the more tragic that the one is so far from the other.
When we look at Jesus his love is obviously different from our own choices. We are not like Jesus. We do not love our enemies. We do not bless those who curse us.
When someone who is close to me says words that hurt me and infuriate me I can hear the gentle whisper of the Holy Spirit in my ear saying, “forgive, have compassion on that person, they are suffering too, look for a way to love them.”
My conscience paints an image of Christ for me by nudging me towards choices which are Christ-like. But I am indignant at that image of Christ in my conscience. If I forgive, if I have compassion, then I have to give up the lie that says the true happiness is when I am all-powerful and make people fear me. I have to give up feeling superior to the person who has hurt me. I have to give up on the notion that every time my feelings get hurt it is because the person who hurt them is evil, and I have to consider whether my tendency to be easily offended is due to my own pride. I have to give up the prideful belief that I should never be challenged or questioned.
There is so much I have to give up in order to hear the words of Christ. It is easier to bite back and try to silence the person who has ruffled my feathers. It is easier to lash out at the truth and to hold on to my lies like a teddy bear.
When we stifle the voice of the Holy Spirit in us we put ourselves on the side of the persecutors instead of standing on the side of the martyrs. We may initially lash out and try to silence the truth of that disparity deep down we really want to be like Jesus. We lash out because of our shame and guilt and grieving over our inability to become like Jesus on our own. That is one of the problems of persecution. We are the persecutors. We persecute because of our shame and guilt.
The other problem of persecution is that we suffer persecution. Perhaps you have never thought of yourself as being persecuted. The most insidious and dangerous persecutions are not life-threatening. Very few of us will be eaten by lions or tortured like in the stories of the martyrs. We may very well be looked at as pathetic, pitiable people because we are Christians. Our neighbors and co-workers and our kids’ friends’ parents might look at us as something in the grey zone between awkward and dangerous because we admit to being Christians in this day and age. People in our circle of friends and acquaintances publicly shame Christians for their beliefs. Instead of killing us they imply that we are unfit parents or maladjusted or damaged people who should be pitied.
The pain we feel, even as adults, is the pain of the kid who was excluded. The one who got picked last for the teams on the playground. The kid who wasn’t invited to the party. That is the pain we continue to feel as adults. It is real social pain and anxiety. Jesus knows that it hurts to be rejected for our faith.
The temptation is to hide our faith in order to get approval. We begin an internal dialogue asking whether Jesus Christ is worth all this trouble. We begin to negotiate. Is it absolutely necessary to maintain these opinions that non-Christians find so backwards and offensive? Or perhaps our negotiation is one where we say, “is it absolutely necessary to love those who sin? Can’t I prove my love for Jesus by judging and hating non-Christians? Can’t suspicion and conspiracy theory count as equally valid expressions of Christianity as love and humility? I want Jesus I just don’t want to have to live with ambiguity and consider myself to be the brother and equal of my persecutors.”
Another person negotiates by saying, “Is it absolutely necessary that our church has a sober form of worship that is consistent with the worship that has been expressed through the centuries? Why can’t we just change the rules and update them? Why can’t we just make our worship a bit more fun and entertaining. Why can’t we struggle out of the straitjacket of a Christian faith that earns us the contempt and suspicion of our peers?”
One of our internal voices is begging to be set free from the image of Christ because of what discipleship costs. And the other internal voice is longing and starving to be conformed to the image of Christ. This second internal voice knows that I am failing my family and my friends and my coworkers by being a selfish and heartless person. I am failing at being the person who deserves the respect and admiration that I desire, and I cannot silence the voice of my own estimation of my behaviour. I cannot silence the conscience that tells me that I am hurting others with my prideful behaviour. I know that I need to be made to be like Jesus in order to be the man I need to be. But the price of doing that is that many other people will see me as a failure and as an undesirable person. And the price of following Jesus is that I have to be humble and acknowledge my failures.
How am I going to choose to follow Jesus? The price is so high.
Our neighbors and friends and colleagues look at your Christian life and are secretly jealous. Jesus welcomes the little children into his arms. Jesus defends the poor and the widows and proclaims comfort to the oppressed. Jesus proclaims forgiveness when no one else would even consider forgiveness. Jesus helps people who are doing evil things to become kind and generous.
In the same way that you look at the love of Jesus and deep down you desire to be like him in your own life, so do the people who persecute you. The people who treat you with a combination of suspicion and pity are also starving and thirsty for meaning in their lives. They look happy and they look like they belong and fit in. But inside every sinner is like the prodigal son who longs to return to his father and be at home.
When a Christian takes an honest look at her own inner longing to be filled with the love of Jesus, she discovers the one and only thing that can ever create a community. The only thing that can bring us friendship and peer approval and acceptance is our shared need for Jesus. As Christians we have what the world badly needs and wants.
People want to behave honourably and to be good spouses and good parents and good friends. People want to be ethical, upstanding and admirable. People want to make good responsible choices. People want to spend time with their children and prioritize their families but they don’t know how to find the motivation to do it. People do not want to be enslaved to material possessions and money and work. People understand that one day they will die, and they have no idea how to make the time before death meaningful, or how to overcome the fear and anxiety and dread they feel regarding death. And we have the answers because we know Jesus.
Similarly, Christians in general do not want to be enslaved to entertainment that claims to be religion. Christians do not want to be lost in an ocean of false prophets who each claim to have the full truth. Christians do not want to have the feeling of emptiness that comes from reducing discipleship to a set of opinions and arguments. But that is what the predominant form of Christianity in our culture gives them. They become homeless and isolated and disconnected from a tradition and a larger Christian community than their local group. They badly want and need what we have to offer here. While their churches may seem more hip and more fun, in the end their interpretation of Christianity is disconnected from the substance of the faith which is sober love, repentance from sins, and the humility that is expressed in listening to our elders in Christ.
In our epistle reading there are two short sentences that tell us so much about why we would be willing to pay the price of remaining as followers of Jesus Christ. First, St. Paul says, “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.” What does that mean?
The word for crown is Stephanos. It’s the name of Stephen the first martyr. What St. Paul means is that a Christian is not martyred or persecuted unless he is “competing according to the rules.” Unless you are doing something right you will not be persecuted. Persecution is actually proof that you are doing something right. When society tells us that we are uptight repressed backwards overly conservative people because we follow Jesus it is because we are doing what is right.
The next thing St. Paul writes is, “It is the hardworking farmer who receives the first fruits.” The farmer is God who planted the seed of the Word in us. And the first-fruits are the sacrifices we make, offering them to the Father in Christ. God is the one who created us and called us to be who we need to be. He is the one who defines what it means to be an acceptable and admirable and normal person. And he is the only one who can complete the work of making us holy.
Read the gospels. This is a great spiritual practice. Just read them. Remind yourself over and over who Jesus is and why you need him. With a clear vision of who you need to be you will also receive the confidence to remember that everyone in the whole world longs for the same thing. When the world lashes out at us for following Jesus we see ourselves not as the kid who wasn’t included in the games on the playground but as the parents who know that children misbehave because they are confused and hurt. We look at our peers and say, “these people feel lost and empty and I can be the one who walks beside them.”
When we remember who Jesus is we feel confidence in following him and inviting others to do the same. When you feel doubts and estrangement from the church or from your Christian calling, go back and read the words of Jesus to remember who you are.
Jesus, grant us to see you more fully in the never-ending day of your Kingdom.