Today as we conclude this sermon series on being called I want to examine how Paul’s sense of calling was expressed even in his death. The problem is we don’t know how Paul died or when. Tradition has it he was beheaded in Rome as part of Nero’s persecution of Christians sometime around 63 AD/CE. But the New Testament, our main source of information about Paul’s life, is totally silent when it comes to the matter of Paul’s death.
Most of the book of Acts is a pretty detailed account of Paul’s ministry from his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus to his missionary journeys all over Asia Minor and southern Europe, and finally to his arrival at last in Rome where he was a prisoner under house arrest awaiting trial. But after all the details of geography, arrests, shipwrecks and starting many new churches listen to how the book of Acts ends: “For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:30-31)
In other words as he faced Roman imprisonment and possible execution, Paul spends his time doing exactly what he did for all the years of his life after his call to follow Christ—he proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ “with all boldness and without hindrance.”
Paul is one of the best examples of what I like to call the “Hokey Pokey” Gospel. You remember that fun little song which says in part “You put your whole self in, you take your whole self out, you put your whole self in and you shake it all about. You do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around. That’s what it’s all about!” To be called means to put your whole self into whatever God is calling you to do. That doesn’t mean those who do full time Christian work are called any more than teachers, homemakers, bus drivers, garbage collectors or bee keepers. Any job can be a vocation if it is done fully as part of a life lived according to God’s will and values.
But just as the Hokey Pokey says, to fully respond to one’s call you have to “turn yourself around” or more accurately you have to let God turn you around. We often think the word “repentance” means to apologize, to say we’re sorry, and that’s partly correct – but it also means to turn around and go in a different direction. Paul did that when he was converted from being a hit man against the Christians to Christ’s boldest and most dedicated messenger. He had to give up his old life and do a complete 180. Most of us can’t do that on our own. To beat an addiction, to change careers, to turn our backs on the tempting idols of our materialistic world takes the help and support of others and the divine guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Most of us are more like Woody Allen than Paul when it comes to death and dying. Woody Allen says, “I don’t mind dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” The best description I’ve ever found of what I’d call a good death is in a poem called “Thanatopsis” written 300 years ago by William Cullen Bryant. The word thanatopsis is derived from two Greek words and means “a consideration of death.” The poem is much more than the title word says; it is really a consideration of death and life because those are two sides of the same coin. One cannot die a good death without first living a good life.
The poem ends with these words:
“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”
So however or whenever St. Paul died I have the feeling he “approached his grave with an unfaltering trust like one who wraps the drapery of his couch about him and lies down to pleasant dreams.” But the question is how in the world do we achieve that kind of peace, a peace that enables us to be obedient to the end, to truly walk the walk of faith all the way to the finish line?
To find that kind of peace one must let go of regrets, and we all have them. Frank Sinatra sang “regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again too few to mention.” I wish I only had a few! And don’t think that just because Paul turned his life around on the road to Damascus that he lived 100% regret free from that moment on! In Romans 7 Paul says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” Sin dwells in every human being. It comes as part and parcel of our free will; and that’s why repentance and conversion are not one and done events but on-going life-long journeys.
As Pastor Chris pointed out a few weeks ago Paul doesn’t always come across as a humble, repentant sinner. He frequently boasts about himself as a paragon of virtue and challenges people to live up to his example. And given all the hardship Paul lived through he truly is an excellent model to follow, not because he was perfect but because he was human like you and me, warts and all.
To run the risk of sounding too political one could say that Paul persisted. He refused to give up in spite of bitter conflict in the early church about the legitimacy of his evangelism among the gentiles. One of the most beautiful descriptions of the kind of determination it takes to live a faithful life is in the Scripture read for us today from II Timothy. As an aside, you may know that many biblical scholars are convinced that I and II Timothy were not actually written by Paul. The language in those epistles is a bit different from Paul’s other letters and the organization of the church described in these letters is far more advanced than would have been true in the first century.
But the testimony in these verses is so personal that if Paul didn’t say it he certainly could have. They describe his life and ministry to a “T” in beautiful poetic imagery that is especially vivid just now when we are watching the remarkable achievements of Olympic athletes who have trained all their lives for these games. II Timothy offers these words as Paul’s summary of his life’s work, and I don’t know about you but I’d love to be able to have these words as a eulogy for my life:
“As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
When I was a Boy Scout 100 years ago one of the merit badges I needed to become an Eagle Scout was one for Athletics. This 98 lb. weakling had to accomplish a list of athletic tasks to the satisfaction of the supervisor for that merit badge. I don’t remember the other activities on the list but I still vividly remember the task that seemed insurmountable to me. I had to run ¾ of a mile in under 6 minutes. And yes I know that Olympic athletes today run twice that fast.
But I didn’t. Running was painful for me. I got cramps and pain in my side after about a half mile and that last lap around the track was sheer agony. But I did it because I had a goal I wanted to achieve and had further motivation from a friendly competition with one of my best friends to see which of us could make Eagle Scout first.
Do you ever quit on something before you reach your goal – weight loss, mastering a musical instrument, learning a new language, mending a relationship? I’ve got a terrible record as a quitter – stopped taking piano lessons, dropped out of band in middle school because staying there got complicated with my family’s priorities. I quit on my first marriage. I have not always fought the good fight and finished the race.
Did you ever hear of anyone getting a medal for running a 99-yard race? No – the race is 100 yards and no one wins by stopping short of the finish line. Jesus needs followers who are willing to give it all they have – whatever those talents may be that are uniquely yours. God can use all of us if we trust God enough to put our whole selves in. What that means will be different at each stage of life. As we age we have different amounts of time and life experience to draw upon, different talents and skills we’ve learned over the years.
For those who are called the real question is not “Is there life after death?” But “Is there life after birth?” Are we living life to the full or just going through the motions? Have we found a purpose and passion for our lives that keeps us going when the finish line seems totally out of reach? The power of focusing on that life purpose is what enables us to keep the faith and finish the race.
What keeps you from doing the things you know you should do? Timothy says it’s our “itchy ears.” Listen to these verses again: “I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable…. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” (Vs. 1b-4)
When our ears get itchy we look for teachers and leaders who say what we want to hear, and we turn away from the truth. Like allergies different things make different peoples’ ears itch. For some it is wealth or power. For some the temptation of living an easy life leads us away from God. Paul’s life teaches us that being called is not for sissies. Paul suffered greatly for his faith and has the right to tell us: “As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry (life) fully.”
“Do the work of an evangelist!” What does that mean for all of you sitting out there? Is an evangelist only a pastor or a TV preacher? Is it someone who goes to the inner city or foreign lands to share the Gospel?
I have a friend who is spending a full month just now in Myanmar as a medical missionary. That’s her calling but it’s not mine and not most of yours. She has special skills as a nurse and great devotion to that type of ministry that enable her to go on such trips every year.
We don’t have to go anywhere special to be an evangelist because an evangelist is anyone who shares the good news of Christ with others. We can all witness to the world by living kind, loving Christ-like lives in whatever our work is or as students or in retirement wherever we are. St. Francis once said that all of us should “preach constantly and when necessary use words.” In other words how we treat others speaks louder than any eloquent preacher. Finding your calling where you can do that may mean turning yourself around. It may require making some tough sacrifices, but the Good news of Christ is that we are all loved and accepted by God and therefore do not need worldly comforts to live a meaningful life.
To be loved and cared for unconditionally is the salve that soothes itchy ears. Itchy ears can cause us to believe harmful myths – like our race is better than others, or that men deserve higher pay for doing the same job as women, or that children are to be seen and not heard! Paul fights the good fight until the day he dies to proclaim the truth that “there is neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.”
Age is one of those myths we need to examine carefully before we let them into our itchy ears. They, whoever they are, say “age is just a number.” That’s true but some of us have much bigger numbers than others!! And those bigger numbers can become excuses for not living life as fully and faithfully as we should. Aches and pains can make us give up certain activities. Exercise is too hard; everything takes more time and energy than it used to. We literally can’t do things we used to take for granted. We have to schedule time for simple things like tying shoes or cutting our own toenails because that requires extra effort. My days of giving grandkids piggy back rides are over, gone with the wind like my hopes of ever breaking 80 or even 90 on the golf course.
So it’s true, we old gray mares and stallions can’t horse around the way we used to, and that’s not all bad. I don’t want to go back and make the mistakes I made as a 20 something or 30 something! I’ve probably told you this before, but not today. There’s an organization called “Sageing International” that teaches people instead of saying how old they are to say “I have 71 years of life experience.” Instead of seeing age as a burden let’s value life experience more as an asset. And for you youngsters who don’t have your AARP cards yet, find some elders you can hang around with. We may not be able to figure out our smart phones, but like the Farmers Insurance commercials say, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.”
Here are just a few examples of people who refused to let ageism stop them from finishing the race:
• Albert Schweitzer ministered to the sick in Africa until he was 89 – received the Nobel Peace Prize when he was 77.
• Anna Mary Robertson started painting when she was 76 saying “I am too young to sit on the porch and too old to work on the farm.” She worked until she was over 100. We know her better as Grandma Moses.
• Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court justice served until he was 83
• Golda Meir became the 4th prime minister of Israel at age 72. She said “Old age isn’t a sin; it’s a call to service.”
• Artist Pablo Picasso did some of his best work in his later years and kept painting almost to his death. When asked what his greatest work was, he said, “The next one!”
Paul was not a spring chicken when he achieved his goal of getting to Rome. He didn’t get there the way he would have liked arriving as a Roman prisoner. But he didn’t let that stop him from doing what he was called to do.
So no matter how many candles were on your last birthday cake find God’s purpose for you at this stage of your life. Don’t let anyone with itchy ears convince you life is just a 99-yard dash.
Preached February 11, 2018, Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH