Posted on April 25th, 2017
Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana
2 Timothy 4:5-18
April 25, 2017
“The time of my departure has come.” Springtime at seminary prompts such thoughts. But your ministry will not be what you expect. For St. Paul, departure meant death. So it is for you. Your call is to go and die.
It’s the call of Baptism. “Follow Me.” “Take up your cross.” Come and die.
Paul summarizes his service as having been “the good fight.” More literally, “the beautiful, noble agony.”
What is this good fight? What is the noble agony? The fight is not with the people God gives you to serve.
Sure; we may find evil men fighting us. St. Paul mentions one, Alexander the Coppersmith. He hurt Paul. People will hurt you. But your battle, the good fight, is not with people.
Conflicts will come. But the good fight, the noble agony, is the one where you only care about the Word of God and the well-being of your neighbor. The evil fight, the ugly battle, is the one where Bible and by-laws are mere bludgeons to batter your foes.
It was no noble agony that divided Paul and Barnabas. It centered around Mark, whose feast we celebrate this day. Devolving into bitterness, they separated.
I’ve heard people use the conflict between Paul and Barnabas as a justification for schism in the church. Brothers, it’s there as an example for what we ought not to do. What kind of beautiful agony did Paul and Barnabas and Mark have to go through to forgive? What good fight brought this resolution? “Get Mark. Bring him. He’s useful.”
If Jesus is risen from the dead, why do we act like our conflicts cannot be likewise resolved? Is our struggle one that the Holy Spirit would call “beautiful, noble”?
The deepest locus of conflict is the one inside yourself. There, in your heart, is the arena of the good fight. There, the conflict with your concupiscence, is the noble agony.
In the great battle over the Lord’s Supper, Luther said that the devil began by sending him “coarse, stupid blockheads who can do nothing but lie and slander.” No problem, Luther said; St. Paul had it a lot worse. Demas, his good friend, left him. But, Luther warned, the real battle, the noble agony was still to come for the Reformation.
Moreover, when the really crucial battle with the devil begins, within ourselves, we must expect that some of those who are now the spearheads of our movement will fall, be it Luther or someone else. When we fight with Satan, it is no mere academic disputation.
The “really crucial battle” is “within ourselves.” That battle Demas fought, and appears to have lost. “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me.”
What within you is in love with this present world? Will you be disappointed with your call? Do you think you’re suited for something greater? Is the town not the right size for you? Are you in love with this present world?
You are in love with this present world when you look with longing at a woman not your wife.
You are in love with this present world when you look with longing at a congregation to which you have not been called.
You are in love with this present world when you resent what others have.
You are in love with this present world when you grumble against your leaders.
You are in love with this present world when you argue with the wife God gave you.
You are in love with this present world when you are cowardly instead of faithful.
You are in love with this present world when faithfulness is synonymous with rudeness.
You are in love with this present world when you look at impure images.
You are in love with this present world!
You are not alone. St. Mark struggled with the love of this present world. Likely the rich young ruler, Mark went away from Jesus sad. He could not follow the Words of Jesus to him. “Go, sell what you have, and follow Me.” He was not ready for the noble agony. He was losing the good fight.
He was not yet sober-minded, part of Paul’s instruction to the pastor. Mark could have Jesus, but he still preferred his passions. Controlled by disordered desire, he was in love with this present world.
Finally, deserting Jesus on the night He was betrayed, Mark is stripped of everything. Mark loses his garment, and runs away. In the garden, Mark is naked and ashamed. Mark is Adam. Exposed, without excuse, dominated by fear, desires disordered.
But Jesus was not done with Mark. “You have Me,” Jesus says to Mark.
Jesus is not done with you. “You have Me,” Jesus says to you.
We want this present world, but God works on us so that gradually all of it is taken away. All our excuses, all our self-justifications, stripped away. Only the garment of Christ’s righteousness can cover our naked shame.
“See Me!” Jesus is saying to us. Crucified, naked, deserted, Jesus atones for Adam, Mark, you.
So when he was deserted, Paul could say he was alone, yet not alone. “The Lord stood by me, and strengthened me.” In the noble agony, we lose on our own strength. The Lord alone stands, the Lord alone strengthens.
In the agony, Paul’s life was being conformed to Christ. In the agony Mark’s life was being conformed to Christ. We do not conform ourselves but are conformed. The fight, the agony, comes upon us as God’s gift. We can receive it to our benefit, or rage against it to our destruction.
Confess today, with Demas, your love of this present world. Confess with Mark your love of money. Confess with Paul and Barnabas your strife and contention. Confess, and hear this:
Jesus forgives you. Jesus makes you useful. Jesus covers your shame. Jesus guides you in the good fight. Jesus comforts you in the noble agony. Jesus stands by you. Jesus strengthens you. Jesus died your death, and makes Alleluia your song, so that we go out and preach everywhere, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!