II Timothy 2:8-15
First Lesson: II Corinthians 11:21-29
Children’s story: Genesis 37:1-28
We are continuing our short series of letters written to small churches and today we have been reading from both II Timothy and II Corinthians.
So here’s the story before the story. If we had read the very first verses of the second letter to Timothy, as it’s called, we would have read very clearly that it was written by Paul, to the man whom he calls his “beloved child,” Timothy. So it does appear that the well-known apostle Paul wrote this letter to a dear colleague named Timothy. And that may be the case. But the very smart people whom I always consult about things like this give us another, more likely picture. They tell us that these words in II Timothy were probably written in the very first years of the second century, maybe about 100 or 110. But we know that Paul died in prison, about the year 68, in Rome, under the Emperor Nero whom you have heard so much about – that wicked Roman Emperor who hated Christians and did so much to torture and kill them. So in all likelihood this letter was written about forty or fifty years after his death, and Paul didn’t really write it. Instead, it was probably written by some leader in the Christian Church in the second century who had known Paul and wrote in his name. We’ve talked about that before – how common that was in those years for an unknown person to write in the name of a famous person. It is possible, even, that this unknown person took fragments of letters that Paul had written, maybe even letters he had written to his dear friend Timothy and cut and pasted pieces of those letters into the form that we have in our Bibles today. That seems the most likely possibility. That what we have read today was written many years after Paul’s death, by somebody who quoted from his other letters.
But the story of the book of II Corinthians which we also read this morning is quite different. Pretty much all the smart people we consult say that indeed, Paul did write that letter himself. So when we read about all the times he had been in prison, and all the times he had been beaten and shipwrecked and floating in the ocean for a day and night, and in danger from robbers and all the other dangers he tells us about – and often near death - that really is Paul, writing to us about his own experiences. And you remember that many of the people who were reading this letter in the first century and also the second – many of those people were also living through imprisonment and torture and facing death. Under Nero and Emperor Domitian and to some extent Emperor Trajan who followed him.
Now I have never been in prison as an inmate and I don’t think that any of you have, either. Though I have visited in jails more times that I ever wanted to. And I have sat in court to support dear parishioners more times than I want to remember. I have never been chained up in my own home, and I’ve never been in handcuffs, and I doubt that any of you have, either.
Our author for today does know about that, though. He talks about being chained like a criminal, though he was innocent. But, he says, “The word of God is not chained.” And then he goes on to talk about the mystery of how we can be chained but free. Or in prison but liberated. Or handcuffed but able to move freely. Or beaten down but not defeated.
So I have been spending some time these last couple of weeks thinking to myself how we are captive but free. Or how we are in prison, but can be liberated.
Some of us are held captive by what somebody told us many years ago. That we’re not good enough or smart enough or capable enough. Or not handsome enough. Or pretty enough. Or we do things poorly. Or we don’t speak well. Something somebody said to us a long time ago that wasn’t true then and certainly isn’t true now. But those words have followed us all our lives and caged us in. Kept us back from being our best. Surely kept us from being the free and beautiful and lively person whom God created us to be.
Or sometimes we are overcome by guilt. No matter how we try, no matter what good intentions we have, we cannot seem to do the good that we long to do. Every evening we play back the tape of the day and it’s full of the wrong things done and said and the right things not done and said. And the memories of all those failures pile up in our lives and immobilize us. And we are stuck. We might as well be in chains.
Or sadness overwhelms us. Deep, deep sadness. Too many people we know are ill – mentally or physically. Too many we love are dying. Too many people are poor, and too many people in our families are making bad choice and too many people are caught up in alcoholism or drugs or eating disorders. Or we’ve had a string of “bad luck” that we can’t get past. The downward spiral continues without a let up or any kind of change in the right direction and there seems to be no hope or happiness anywhere. The days are always cold and gray and it’s been a long time since we felt any joy. And it feels like we’re in a deep, dark prison.
Or sometimes we are simply too busy. We are frazzled and stressed because nobody could possibly do all we try to do in one day. We become really good time at time management and really good at multi-tasking, and we get up early and work well into the night sometimes. But we are still stressed and anxious and very tired. We don’t know how to say “no.” Or we don’t know how to do what is rightfully ours to do, and let the rest go. We’re in such a state that we can’t do much of anything. And what we do, we do poorly. We feel trapped.
And this afternoon or later today you can pray and ponder all this, and recall how you are chained. Or trapped. Or in prison. Or handcuffed.
And then our author – in chains, you remember, writes to people who have every likelihood of being in chains themselves and in handcuffs and in prison. And he quotes a hymn they probably sang in worship every Sunday, and he says, “If we die with Jesus we will live with him. If we persevere with him we will also reign with him. If we lose faith, he is faithful still.”
Now I do not say this lightly. Some people do say it lightly, I know, and don’t trust them. You know that I do not say this lightly. But there is this: That when we are at our very worst, we call out to Jesus. We invite Jesus into our insecurity and self-doubt. And guilt. Or our sadness, or our unhealthy attitudes or relationships. Or our endless stress. We invite Jesus into all that with us. We tell him, as well as we can, how overwhelmed we feel and how we can’t get those ugly words and thoughts out of our minds. And we give that sadness and that guilt to him. Sometimes we even physically pull the pain and the stress out of our own hearts and hand it him. Or we take the heavy pack off our backs and lay it at his feet. Or we open up our minds and let all those muddled, jumbled, frantic thoughts fly right into his hands.
And then we are free. Then we are no longer bogged down. Then we are no longer tired or frightened or sad. Nothing has magically changed about our circumstances, and our lives are still our lives. But Jesus has taken our load and we feel a deep relief. Our circumstances do not control us. Our stress cannot get the best of us. Our anger cannot have the last word in us. Even though we may be enmeshed in unhealthy relationships, there is a tiny corner of our hearts that is free. Even though we still have too much to do we have relaxed into the warmth and love of God. Even though there may be deep sadness in our lives, there is a flicker of relief. Because of the comforting power of Jesus with us.
Or maybe you will take the example of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. We read his creed just a moment ago. He has lived through a lifetime of pain and evil and discrimination. He has struggled with brutality and the endless, senseless killings of the black citizens of South Africa. Through it all he has remained steadfastly non-violent and unbelievably forgiving of the murderers. And he writes for all of us “Goodness is stronger that evil, love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, victory is ours, through him who loved us.”
This morning we are here in Michigan in the twenty-first century. We have heard the story of a young teenager named Joseph who lived over 3,000 years ago and we are sitting in his company. His brothers hated him and meant to do him evil, but God turned the evil into good.
We have read the song of a young peasant girl named Mary who lived 2,000 years ago and we are sitting in her company. She sang about the power of God against those who threatened to crush her.
We are sitting in the company of a small Christian Church in some unnamed place in Turkey or Greece 1900 years ago. They are reading a letter from a man who’s in prison in chains, and they could have every expectation that the same thing would happen to them. They sit in their worship service in somebody’s home and sing of the faithfulness of God to them.
We are sitting in the company of the wounded, bruised church of South Africa and their Bishop Tutu in the twenty-first century. They have experienced about all the evil and brutality a human can suffer and they sing that goodness is stronger than evil and they sing of the victory they claim in Jesus.
So take Paul who lived in the first century. Take Desmond Tutu who is living in the 21st century. Sing their triumphant songs with them. I do not know how to say it better.
And I simply ask you to experience that freedom for yourself.