Sunday before the Theophany of Christ, December 31, 2017
2 Timothy 4:5-8; Mark 1:1-8
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Be watchful in all things, suffer hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (II Tim. 4:5).
These are the words of St. Paul’s admonitions to his disciple St. Timothy that open our epistle reading today. At first glance, it seems like a list of good advice from an apostle to one he has appointed as a bishop, and it certainly is that. But in the way that the Church has received this text, this is not just a private letter from Paul to Timothy that we can see as an historical artifact that has nothing in particular to do with us.
When the Church receives Scripture, she receives it precisely because it has something to do with us, because even if the messages in these various texts were initially intended for people of a particular time and place, she has found that they are applicable for people of all times and places. And that means us, too.
So let’s hear that passage again as if Paul were speaking not only to Timothy but to us, because he is: “Be watchful in all things, suffer hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
First he says, “Be watchful in all things.” This is the beginning of spiritual life. And isn’t it the beginning of any task? What do I mean? If you are going to learn how to do something, first you have to pay attention. You can’t dive in to a new task or a new kind of life without observing what doing it looks like.
First, you get the general shape of the thing. In Christian life, that means we first encounter Jesus Christ and we see Who He is. Then, you begin to notice details and see how much you have to learn. See how Jesus acts, what it means for Him to be both God and man, and how far you currently are from being like Him.
Then, you also see that there are obstacles in the way. Being a Christian means becoming like Christ, but that means denying our own desires. But we don’t want to deny our desires. And there are also distractions from the world and temptations from the devil that get in the way. These are obstacles. So first we have to become watchful in all things.
Second, Paul says, “suffer hardship.” This is the next element that emerges in Christian life. Now, we may think that this has to do with external hardships. And that might be true. You might find that your job or your family or your friends make it difficult to be a true Christian. They may not want you to be truly Christian, so they try to draw you away from life in Christ. And while in our country we enjoy religious freedom, there are places where being truly Christian can mean serious suffering and even death. So yes, suffering hardship can mean suffering external threats.
But the hardship that most of us encounter more often is an internal hardship. It is the hardship of our imperfection, of our fallen desires. We like to choose the easier path most of the time, so when it becomes apparent to us that the Christian life, with its intensive programme of repentance and confession, of participation in the sacraments, of daily prayer, of giving up our possessions, of putting ourselves after other people, of reordering our priorities toward the Kingdom of God, is not going to be easy, we really easily give up. Or we may try part of it for a while, and when it doesn’t seem to be working right away, write it all off as useless. The biggest hardship that we suffer is, frankly, ourselves.
Why is that? Why can’t all this just work, or why couldn’t God have made it easier to be Christian?
To understand why Christianity means suffering the hardship of ourselves, we can look at nearly any other experience in life. I’ll pick three from my own life that you might be able to relate to.
When I was first married, even though if you had asked me if I believed in “happily ever after” I would have said “no,” the truth is that I did believe in “happily ever after.” “And they lived happily ever after,” which means “and they were perfect for each other, never got on each other’s nerves, never disagreed over anything, never were anything but perfectly self-giving to each other, never had problems with their kids, never found that their families of origin were an issue, never had a different vision for where to live, how to spend money, what to do for leisure, etc.” In other words, even though I would have intellectually agreed that “marriage takes work,” I implicitly felt like marriage was not supposed to be a struggle for me, that it was not supposed to be an ongoing project. But guess what?
When we first started having children, even though if you had asked me if I believed that parenting takes work I would have said “yes,” the truth is that I didn’t really believe that. Implicitly, I figured that my wife and I were such good people with the right opinions and the right behaviors that our kids would just pick up on that and imitate us. The kids wouldn’t have to struggle, because they’d just see the right thing to do, and even if they didn’t, well, I’m sure I could explain it to them in a way that just made sense. I implicitly felt like parenting was not supposed to be a struggle for me, that it was not supposed to be an ongoing project. But guess what?
When I first became a pastor, even though if you asked me whether pastoral work would be a time of growth for both me and my flock I would have said “yes,” the truth is that I didn’t really believe that. I figured that, so long as I did the right things, served the services, taught classes, engaged in outreach, and really loved people, then everything would be fine. There would be no administrative challenges, no relationship problems I couldn’t solve, no money issues, etc., and the church would be packed for every service, every class, every event, and the offerings would be overflowing. Now, if you had asked me if all that was unrealistic, I would have of course agreed, but it’s still what I felt. I felt (even even if I did not intellectually think) that being a good pastor is itself a kind of magic that has magical effects. And a lot of my struggles were because I was still learning to be a good pastor. I implicitly felt like parish life was not supposed to be a struggle for me, that it was not supposed to be an ongoing project. But guess what?
So you can see that we all suffer hardship in trying to be Christian. This does not mean that the process is broken or useless. It means that we are learning. And learning takes struggle. Struggle is not unexpected. It is an opportunity for us to grow, and it is in fact the only way that we grow. And when the people around us—spouses, children, parents, family, friends, co-workers, fellow-parishioners—are struggling, there is not something wrong with them. It means they’re learning, too. We can’t make them learn, and we can’t rescue them from that struggle to learn (even if it looks to us like they’re not trying to learn). But we can join with them and be with them as they struggle.
The next admonition Paul gives is “do the work of an evangelist.” In one sense, evangelizing means preaching the good news to those who have never heard it. But that is not its only sense. Evangelizing is about bringing that good news to where it has not yet fully taken hold. And what is that good news? It is that Jesus is the Messiah, that Christ is risen, and that we can be saved as a result.
It involves specific historical events that we proclaim, which we find in the Gospels. It involves reflecting on those events, on what they reveal about Jesus, and what we are called to do as a result. This is the work of an evangelist, and it is work that every Christian is called to. We can all tell the story of Jesus, Who He is, how He lived, how He died and rose again, and what we do to become part of His story together. We can all do this.
Finally, Paul says, “fulfill your ministry.” The Greek word there for “ministry” is diakonia, from which we get the English word deacon. In its most basic sense, diakonia is a work of service. The original diakonos was a waiter, someone who waited tables like at a restaurant.
Each of us, in our priesthood as part of the Body of Christ, participating in Christ’s one priesthood, has a diakonia or perhaps more than one to fulfill. There is a form of service for each of us, a faithful service that is like a waiter’s service. We watch and see what is needed, ask what is needed, and then bring it to the table. A good waiter knows he’s a servant, doesn’t make himself the center of attention, pays attention to those he is serving, and does what’s needed almost before it’s even asked for.
Your diakonia might be serving at the altar or singing in the choir. It might be in giving your money or giving your labor. It might be in teaching or in assisting a teacher. It might be in visiting the sick or in comforting those who are suffering. The list could go on, and perhaps your diakonia is more than one kind of service. But we are all called to fulfill this ministry, this diakonia in Christ’s Body the Church. We are His own hands and feet in this world, and the work of ministry we are fulfilling is His ministry.
So in this one verse, St. Paul has summarized for us in four phrases what it means to be Christians. First, we must be watchful in all things—we have to pay attention to Who Jesus is, what He did, and what that means for what we are supposed to do, and we also have to be on the lookout for obstacles and external threats. Second, we will suffer hardship—it may include external hardship, but most of it will be the internal struggle of learning and growth, a struggle which is normal, expected and necessary. Third, we do the work of evangelists—we know the good news, tell that good news, and reflect on its application for us. And finally, we fulfill our ministry—we are like waiters, performing our diakonia in faithful, attentive service, whatever it may be, participating in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ.
Be watchful in all things, suffer hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
To our Lord Jesus Christ, therefore, with His Father and Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor, and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.