When you enter St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City you are instantly overwhelmed with the beauty and majesty of such a structure. No sooner do you go into the sanctuary than off to the right you see a massive crowd gathered around a glassed-off display case in which is housed Michelangelo’s famous Pieta sculpture. Things you have only seen in movies or read in the pages of books come alive. You can see them, walk around them, take it all in. It is a holy site, the venerated burial place of Saint Peter himself. And amongst all the tourist flooding in and out, among the cameras and the finger pointing and the hushed whispers, there are the true pilgrims. Those who have come to this place, not as a tourist, but moved by a longing to be closer to their God. Their reverence and devotion seem unmoved by the tourists. They whisper silent prayers and cling to their rosaries as they move throughout the space.
As I was watching these pilgrims, I thought they were demonstrating something about our faith lurking within us all. They wanted some measure, no matter how small, some little means by which they could control their salvation. Now, I highly doubt any of them would claim they were in charge of their own salvation. By all outward appearances they were clinging in desperate hope to the salvation given by Christ alone. But they still wanted something they could control, something they could do to reassure themselves they were on the right path, that they were doing what they should be doing as a child of God. So, they bowed in reverence, they prayed, and they hoped their actions might bring the assurance of the promises of God.
This longing is something all Christians share. We have a desire, to be sure, to have some measure of control over our salvation. We know we are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone but there are times when we wonder if it really applies to us, if the gift has actually come to us, if we are in fact saved by the words and works of Christ alone. See, it all renders us passive. It means we do not have control over things. We do not have the means to affect the outcome. Whole churches and movements within the church have been developed around meeting this need. Say this prayer, give to this cause, follow these steps and then you can be sure you are doing what is needed to secure your salvation. Some control, some little bit is all we want.
But when Paul writes to Timothy, when he writes to this young pastor to give him guidance and encouragement for the ministry, he does not seem to talk much about how he can control the situation. He says, “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:1-3). Share in the suffering, he says. Timothy is called to be a good soldier, not to be concerned about what he has control over, but to go where his commander leads him, even into suffering. He calls for Timothy to not deviate from the mission, for the mission is all that matters. And you are not in control of the mission. You are a pawn in it, a means through which it goes forth – so go, like a good soldier.
Now, as Paul writes this to Timothy, he is not writing from his summer villa on the Med. He is not resting in his retirement talking about the good old days when he went bravely forth into the battle and is trying to persuade Timothy to do the same. No, Paul writes about letting go of control at the very time he has no control over his own life. He writes about freedom in Christ at the very time he is bound up in chains. Paul is in prison, in some sort of dungeon awaiting his trial before Caesar. He knows what it means to suffer. He knows what it is like to not receive glory and praise and honor but to be rejected, despised and discarded. Like Jesus Himself, Paul would take up his cross and follow.
Think about this situation. How many of you have experienced hardship and struggle in your lives? And I do not just mean the usual ups and downs, I mean the suffering which causes you to wonder if perhaps you are not really saved. Have you ever been driven to that point? When the opposition and pain and heartache build up and you wonder if perhaps you have not done enough, you have not been faithful enough, you are not good enough as a child of God? Everything about your life points, not to an heir of eternal life, but to the discarded and worthless, and you are left reeling, searching for some control, some way to make it right again.
But notice what Paul does. Consider what this man wasting away in prison directs his hope and faith towards. In a bold testimony to a faith which is out of his control he says, “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the Word of God is not bound” (2 Timothy 2:8-9)! Being bound in a prison outside of his ability to control he speaks of freedom. Not his freedom, but the freedom of the Word, the freedom of the Gospel itself. The good news of Jesus Christ, the hope of the resurrection of the dead, this goes forth, this is not kept at bay by his chains, this is the mission, and this is all that matters.
The good news of Jesus Christ is the one thing which cannot be bound. It is not going to be imprisoned in this age. The Word cannot be controlled. It alone is the hope of Timothy, the driving force of his work. And it alone is your hope as well. It is the unbound promise speaking to you today.
Paul then offers Timothy a reminder, a trustworthy saying. It is most likely a piece of an ancient hymn, a word he might have known by heart, a song he was taught by his grandmother and mother.
If we have died with Him, we will also live with Him. If we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He also will deny us; if we are faithless, He remains faithful – for He cannot deny Himself” (2 Timothy 2:11-12).
A trustworthy saying indeed.
You have died, you see. You have been crucified with Him in the waters of Holy Baptism. There you are connected to Calvary and your God exchanges all that is yours for all that is His. All your sin and corruption He takes as his own. All His righteousness and purity He freely gives to you. There you die, so in Christ you now rise again to new life. And the call is to endure in this gift, if you press on in this faith trusting not in your own work, not in your own control, but trusting in Christ alone. When this happens, you will exchange your earthly garments for white robes and eternal crowns as you reign in the eternal kingdom of God. But if you deny your Lord, if you reject His Word and promise, if you stand opposed to Him, He will oppose you. There is no other way. No other name under Heaven by which mankind can be saved. This is it. This is the only way. To deny it in hopes of some control of your own is to face His wrath all alone.
But what if you are unfaithful, if you press on for a while and then stumble along the way, if you try to soldier-on but keep getting caught up in pursuits of this world, if you are enticed to exchange your faith in the Word for matters you can control? If you are faithless, He remains faithful. Faithful, always faithful – for He cannot deny Himself. He is your redeemer, your hope, your only way to eternal life, and He will remain so, yesterday, today and forever.
In the end Christ remains unbound. He alone is in control. Which means it comes to you despite your boundaries, despite your sin and doubts and worries. The Word goes forth unbound and free to tell you once again how you are loved. You are welcome in His presence for you are forgiven. You then, like Timothy and Paul, are free to speak this word to others. To give what you have received.