Over the next couple of weeks, thousands of WA teenagers will be preparing for the biggest test of everything they have learned in 12 years of full-time education – everything they have learned and much of what they have done for over two thirds of their lives – the TEE exams! If you know a young person who is sitting the TEE you may be privileged to witness the mix of emotions, the strategic choices between quiet last-minute preparation and feverish cramming, the reflection of the study habits learned or avoided over the last few years and above all, the sense that now the time for daydreaming and planning and procrastinating is over, the culmination of everything that has been done and everything not done has arrived. And of course it is a culmination that can be accompanied by anything from quiet confidence to blind panic. If you know such a young person, now is the time for some words of encouragement!
Over the last few weeks we have been reading through the second letter to Timothy, one of the so-called Pastoral Epistles because they contain words of advice to Timothy, the young pastor, written in the name of Paul but probably penned by a disciple of Paul after the great missionary’s death. It is in the form of a farewell discourse. And in today’s brief passage we are struck by a sense of sadness, a sense that time has, at last, run out.
The context of the letter is the impending end of Paul’s life, writing from prison where he awaits execution in Rome which he suffered during the persecution of Emperor Nero in the early 60s. Where or not the letter was actually composed by Paul it is authentic and vulnerable. Paul seems very alone, and a bit scared, disappointed and let down. Today’s passage includes some of the most poignant and poetic phrases of the whole Bible – ‘I am poured out as a libation’, he writes, ‘and the time of my departure has come’. And yet it seems to me the most authentic and human phrases are the ones left out by the framers of the lectionary, verses 7 to 15 in which Paul names those who have helped him along with others who have deserted him – Phietus who swerved from the truth, Alexander the coppersmith who did him harm. The whole letter, in fact, just four chapters, contains 26 names, many of them mentioned in what amounts to a shopping list of mundane tasks and favours. And so it has the ring of defensive vulnerability, the sense of frail and lonely humanity that, for me at any rate, helps to put in context the soaring theological structure of Paul’s great letters to the churches in Rome and Corinth.
It is clear from today’s reading – and even more so from the verses we missed out – that Paul feels isolated and betrayed even by those who he thought of as his most loyal friends. Maybe the young pastor, Timothy, to whom the letter is addressed, is experiencing something similar in his own ministry – at any rate we ourselves know the feeling of finding isolated and let down. What did it all mean? Was any of it worthwhile? These are the questions Paul is asking himself at the end of his life, and again we hear an echo of our own experience.
At the same time, Paul is still grasping hopefully but unrealistically at opportunities to spread the word of goodness and grace among the Gentiles. Perhaps there is still another epistle to write, another journey to undertake? It sounds a bit pathetic, especially when with the benefit of hindsight we know that under the pressure of persecution the Christian community around Paul has already collapsed.
And yet – beneath all this we hear the assurance in Paul’s response to his own questions – the assurance of hope that is daring but not ultimately unrealistic in the context of his whole life – the hope that God is God, and that there is no need for fear at the end of this earthly life. Perhaps Paul also has in mind his own teaching, and the apparent self-confidence with which in his letters he sketched out his vision of the crucified and risen Christ at the heart of all things, drawing the whole of creation into unity and completion. It is all too easy to fall into uncertainty when faced with the reality of our own vulnerability and mortality, but Paul seems to understand that, when it comes down to it, he doesn’t have to have all the answers. Not everything needs to be sorted out, not everyone has to agree with him. In the end it matters less whether Paul has been right, and more that God is always right.
This is not a sort of withdrawal, or a tuning out from reality, but just an expression of trust that our human limitations are OK. In the context of the end of his life, Paul reviews all that he has done and seems to remind himself that it is OK to have left his life’s work incomplete. It is OK not to have been able to fix everything, and the important thing is to commend the mix of partial successes and false starts and half-conceived plans of our lives to God. It is OK to have run our race with integrity, even if our recollections are tinged with regret. This is of course about the assurance of forgiveness, and it’s also about the reality of grace. The reality that our flawed and misunderstood lives are transformed because God chooses to see us through the filter of resurrection.
This short letter is a wonderful inspiration for Christians who know themselves to be a bit wobbly. Like me, for example. Christians who know that even their best is overshadowed by the self-knowledge of past failures, by self-doubt and by secret feelings of selfishness and jealousy, and who are privately convinced that God is probably not taken in by the appearance of living a life that is holy and loving and forgiving. Like the rest of us, Paul wavers between quiet assurance and grasping at straws.
The reality of Paul’s ministry during the middle years of the first century is that it was underscored by conflict. Most of what today’s Christians understand as the fundamentals of our faith was still fluid, still up for grabs, and different Christian communities held on to different traditions, different ideas about the meaning of Jesus life and death, even different parts of what we now know as the New Testament. As a persecutor of the early Church, Paul was not universally accepted as an apostle. He conducted a long-running and apparently sometimes fairly heated argument with Jewish Christians who held that Gentiles had to become Jews first, Christians second – and he also argued with Gentile Christians who ran after every wacky doctrine they heard but did not practice the generous hospitality of the Eucharist. And it reminds us of what we also know in our own time – that the life of the Church is conflicted territory precisely because as Christians our very understanding of who we are and what our lives mean is centred in the experience of worship and Christian community. Precisely because as Christians we understand that so much of who we are is at stake in how we do church.
Sometimes of course that comes out in the big-picture arguments that seem to be conducted at a level far above our heads – the arguments between dioceses about the ordination of women priest and bishops, the inclusion of gay Christians and the right way to read scripture. More often the flawed character of the Church is obvious in the different visions we have for our life and our future as a parish, and the imperfect relationships we have with one another. It is easy – not just for priests and pastors but for all Christians – to become disillusioned and to wonder whether we have lost our way, whether our best has been good enough.
Paul is a mirror in which we see the reflection of our own attempts to live as Christians, a challenge for us to live in a way that makes a difference not only in our community of faith but in the world around us – a challenge to live with energy and integrity and conviction - but a challenge also to see that in the end what matters is grace, what matters is God. In the end what matters is the pouring of ourselves out in love, the reflection of the self-offering of Christ in our own lives, and the trust that the completion, the justification and the redemption of our efforts is grace. It is a good attitude with which to face the final exams – also a good attitude with which to live.