One of the things we are trying to teach our granddaughter is that actions have consequences. Some of those consequences are merely physical laws, like gravity, which she likes to defy by climbing on bookcases and standing on chairs. Some relate to biology, so her parents love that she likes fruit but she needs to learn that her body needs proteins as well. And the toughest subject seems to be social relations, like learning that if you hit another kid or yank toys away from them they will not take kindly to those things. I have even told her that such aggressive behavior, when she becomes a bit older, has legal consequences. Sadly there are adults who have not learned these things. We hear of adults who die from activities, like base jumping, that are inherently risky and a lot less forgiving than other sports. We know adults would won't eat anything green or unprocessed, which has health consequences. We know adults who look out only for themselves, who are nor merely selfish but greedy, ruthless and insulting and then wonder why people have a problem with them.
There are spiritual consequences to certain actions and a lot of people don't realize that. They do things that are unethical but not technically illegal and they don't seem to understand that these things harm who they are. And that's what spiritual consequences are all about. They are about things that shape you and your character, for good or for ill. Some people think religion is about being good so God won't put you on the naughty list and punish you. But God is more like a lifeguard than a cop. He is not so much interested in keeping track of your bad actions as trying to keep everyone from harming themselves or others through careless or deliberately harmful actions. He will rescue you, too, even when it was your own fault that you got in over your head and nearly drowned. Actions have consequences and if everyone behaves, everyone will have a good time.
In today's passage from 2 Timothy (2: 8-15) Paul gets rhapsodic about spiritual consequences. In fact most commentators think Paul is quoting an early Christian hymn in verses 11-13. It seems a little out of place at first but Paul is following through on what he said in verse 10: “...so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.” Paul is thinking about long term consequences and that reminds him of this hymn.
“If we have died with him, we will also live with him.” Now some may see this as Paul talking about martyrdom but he uses the past tense: “...we have died...” This is something that his readers have undergone: baptism.
A Facebook friend, Gwen Powell, who has graduated from a Lutheran Seminary recently, had a baby. And she put on her blog (mylittleparish.blogspot.com) the first of a series of letters to her daughter on the day she was baptized. And part of it says that it is appropriate when babies cry at their baptism because it is after all the day of their death. “This baptism that we have so casually signed you up for is your death, the big one, the one in which we, your mom and dad and grandparents and godparents, say on your behalf that we promise you will die, have died, and are dying to the old world, the old way of things. Not just your old self, but to all the old things. The old world that you were born into, full of old sorrow and old despair and old hopelessness and helplessness and decay and chaos.”
Now this may sound heavy, especially at the baptism of a baby, but Gwen is calling upon the language of Paul himself. In Romans 6 Paul says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Rom 6:3-5) And in verse 8, Paul writes what is almost the first line of this hymn: “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”
The cross and the empty tomb are at the center of Christianity. If Jesus hadn't died and risen again, he would be just one more Jewish sage and Messiah wannabe. Jesus died for our sins and rose to give us new life. And the way we appropriate that is to declare our allegiance to and trust in Christ and be baptized in his name. And while the symbolism of being buried into his death and resurrected might be hard to see in the way we baptize people, in the first century Christians were immersed in a river. You would go under the water and come back up, sputtering and catching your breath. Your sins were crucified with Christ and the old you was buried with him. You were now a new creation in Christ.
So Paul is saying if you want to live with Christ, you first must let the old you die and identify with Christ by being baptized. The consequences of giving up the old destructive ways is a new life. Eternal life is not just living longer; it is living infinitely better.
“If we endure, we will also reign with him.” In Jesus' parable of the sower and the seeds, he speaks of the seed that falls on rocky ground. The soil is not very deep so it springs up fast but then it withers in the sun. Jesus says, “The seed sown on rocky ground is the person who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy. But he has no root in himself and does not endure; when trouble or persecution comes because of the word, immediately he falls away.” (Matt 13:20-21) Endurance is a virtue we seldom hear about in church anymore. But you hear it in sports because the way you get better at something is to persist in doing it. To master any skill requires about 10,000 hours of practice and a refusal to give up.
Perseverance in spiritual matters also pays off. Jesus makes it a requirement of being his disciple. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Daily! Nor was that hyperbole. Jesus knew that his followers would be persecuted. “But the person who endures to the end will be saved,” he says in Matthew 24:13.
Why is persistence important? For one thing it is a sign of commitment. I took violin lessons when I was a child but after two years, I decided the catgut sounded better back in the cat and quit. I was not as committed as, say, Wayne or Holly, who have become accomplished musicians. Persistence is important because it reveals the importance you put on a task or achievement. People make a lot of resolutions in life. The ones they stick to reveal their true priorities.
And perseverance is important to making things actually happen. Jesus stresses persistence in prayer. But if God loves us, why should we have to ask him for something over and over? A good parent knows why. Kids ask for a lot of things. Their bedrooms are littered with the relics of enthusiasms that evaporated. A wise parent holds out to see if the child still wants the item a month or two later. For expensive items you might want to hold out for the better part of a year. (Because, for instance, I'm not sure what the resale value is on a pony!)
In the same way, God wants to be sure we are serious about what we ask for. St. Augustine, a bit of a womanizer, famously asked God for chastity...but not right now! Obviously, Augustine was not really ready to commit to conforming his life to Christ. And what this line in this early Christian hymn is saying is that if we are serious about following Jesus, the result of our endurance will be that we will reign with Christ.
We were created to reign over the earth as God's co-regents. We blew that. But just as God intends to restore earth to its status as paradise once more and us to being clearly created in the image of God, so he intends to restore our royal status. Exactly what we will be doing in that role is not spelled out but it could be analogous to what we try to do now—govern people, protect the environment, prevent the extinction of animals, innovate and create—but accomplished without rancor and partisanship and greed and the pursuit of power for personal reasons. If we reign with Christ, it makes sense that we will reign as Christ does—with love and mercy and understanding.
“If we deny him, he will also deny us.” This is the first line that shows the negative consequences of negative actions. And like the rest it is based on what Jesus said. In Matthew 10:32-33, he says, “Whoever, then, acknowledges me before people, I will acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever denies me before people, I will deny him also before my Father in heaven.” Jesus is not talking about the many ways we let him down by sinning; the Greek word translated “deny” means “disavow” and “reject.” Jesus is talking about those who renounce him as their Lord and Savior. If they want nothing to do with him, then he will have nothing to do with them. In the early days of the church, the temptation was to deny Christ to save yourself from torture and death. Today we are so soft that people deny their Christianity simply because of ridicule, because some clique or class of people they want to be part of has no use for Christianity or even religion in general.
Rarely does someone leave the faith for purely intellectual reasons. They do it because because it is cool, or it is smart, or it is popular, or because they can do certain things without guilt. Or because of anger at God or the church. I remember watching outspoken atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair on a local talk show. She said she had read the entire Bible when she was 11 and had dismissed it as illogical and contradictory. The TV host then took questions from the audience. A priest in his clerical collar stood up and the host held the microphone to him. The priest barely got out a word before Madalyn unleashed a stream of vitriolic abuse upon him and organized religion. She went on so long the priest told the host he would sit down so someone else would get a chance to ask a question. And I thought, “Yeah, Madalyn, that really sounds like your beef with Christianity is purely rational!” Later when I read the memoir of her surviving son, a Christian, I learned that Madalyn was an unwanted child who grew up to be a bitter and angry person, who had trouble holding jobs because of her abrasive personality. I wonder if her life would have turned out better if someone had actually shown her Christlike love.
Jesus does not say his denial of a person cannot be changed if the person takes back his own denial of Christ. Peter denied knowing Jesus 3 times while his Lord was on trial. After his resurrection, John's gospel records how Jesus asks Peter 3 times if he loves him. Peter answers each time that he does. And Jesus tells him 3 times to feed his sheep. Peter goes on to be one of the most prominent of the apostles, who suffered martyrdom. So even denying Christ can be forgiven if we repent.
“If we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.” Out and out denial of Jesus leads to Jesus denying that person but being faithless doesn't. Why is that? Being faithful is about keeping promises. We may not keep our promises to God—like when we say, “let me get through this and I promise I will go to church every Sunday and give up porn and liquor”—but God still keeps his promises to us. And that is amazing! And comforting.
Our salvation, for instance, does not depend on how good we are at living the Christian life. We don't get into heaven by scoring so many Brownie points with God. We are saved by God's grace through trust in him and his promises. We can't earn it. It is a free gift God promises to all who simply receive it. Which is why you may be shocked to find in heaven such people as David Berkowitz, the infamous Son of Sam shooter, and Jeffrey Dahmer, the cannibalistic serial killer. Both of them came to Christ in prison. If they were sincere, God in his grace has saved them, just as he saved the thief crucified next to Jesus. We are no more deserving than they.
Our faith rests on the fact that God remains trustworthy even when we prove not to be.
While Paul remembered this hymn, he was a prisoner of Rome. He speaks of “being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.” And that had to give him hope. Not that he would avoid martyrdom but that the gospel, the good news of what God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ, was free and spreading through the same empire that would take his life. The world thinks that by killing the messenger, you can kill the message. Because of Jesus, Paul knew that wasn't true.
So it would be ironic if the gospel in America gets smothered not by lethal opposition but by apathy. By ennui. By complacency. By a hesitancy to speak up because we fear the social consequences of declaring ourselves to be followers of Jesus. Christianity spread because the early Christians not only believed the gospel but let that belief express itself in their actions. For instance, when plague hit the cities of the empire and the rich fled, Christians stayed and took care of the sick, even at grave risk to their lives. Though they were a persecuted minority, the pagans sat up and took notice. Christians didn't just preach the gospel; they lived it.
Today the second largest faith group in the US is those who claim no religious affiliation at 23% of the population. Evangelicals come in at number 1 with 25.4% of Americans. Third is Roman Catholics at 21%. 14.7% of Americans are mainline Protestants. Now, adding in Black Protestants (6.7%) it turns out more than 67% of those in the country say they are Christian. And yet we know that many citizens do not seem to know what real Christian values are. We see, instead of love for our neighbor and for the alien, hatred. We see, instead of compassion for refugees fleeing ISIS, suspicion. We see, instead of empathy for the underdog, contempt. And young people who grew up in church, see these attitudes and know they are not Christlike and they leave. If that's Christianity, they don't need it in their lives. And polls say they are not coming back!
What we think, do and say has consequences. If we have died with Christ, we will live with him. If we endure pain and wrong as he did, we will reign with him. If we renounce him, he will renounce us. And yet if we are faithless, he remains faithful. But that doesn't mean we can cruise along, living as we like. (Romans 6:1) Paul says works don't save us but God made us to do good works. And those works we build our life on will be tested by fire. If they are not approved by God they will be burned down. We may survive the fire but everything we have built up in our life will not and will have been for naught. (1 Corinthians 3:13) We will have nothing to show for all that God has entrusted to us.
The spiritual consequences of what we do and do not do show up in us, in who are and who we become. If we want to be like Jesus, we need to build on his words and deeds. Because that is what our goal is: to be like him. What Jesus wants us to deny is our right to live as we want. When we give our life to Christ, we don't get it back. We get something better: his life; a life that is eternal, a life that is pure, a life that is love.