One of my favorite New Testament books is II Timothy. It is the very last epistle penned by the Great Apostle Paul while awaiting execution on death row. The letter was addressed to his friend Timothy, with the purpose of encouraging the young and timid pastor to remain strong in the face of intense persecution in the tumultuous days of the fledgling first century Christian Church. As I read the letter from start to finish, I can feel the sense of urgency that Paul attempts to communicate knowing that his days are quickly coming to an end.
One of the reasons for my fascination with the book has to do with striking parallels between Paul's final days in prison and Jesus' last hours leading to the crucifixion, namely stories of rejection by close friends in their hour of deepest need.
Paul in several parts of the letter painfully recounts the tales of how his close associates had abandoned him.
"...all who are in Asia turned away from me"
"Demas ... has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica"
"At my first defense, no one supported me, but all deserted me"
Paul, after eluding punishment by death for several decades despite his high profile finally succumbed to Nero's world-wide killing spree, hunting down Christians wherever they could be found. The Church was mired in deep crisis both internally and externally and her future was hanging in the balance as the leader awaited execution on death row.
It is commonly believed that when the Church is under siege, persecution fosters strong faith and unity among believers. But the picture that I can glean from Paul's last epistle seems to paint the Church in deep disarray plagued with petty in fights and hopeless disunity in the leadership ranks and even defections from the faith en masse. The Great Apostle is on death row locked up in an underground dungeon, and I see no signs of Christians rallying around their beleaguered leader in a show of unity. Instead, they are on the run for their lives leaving their leader who arguably is the greatest human contributor to the Christian faith alone, betrayed, and rejected
Jesus himself knows very well about rejection. In fact, his entry into the world was heralded by rejection. "There is no room", the innkeeper informed Mary and Joseph. "He came to his own, but his own received him not," the Gospel according to John tell us. "He was despised and rejected by men, " the prophet Isaiah foretold centuries before the birth of Jesus.
Throughout his life, he was gravitated toward other rejects. Both his hometown Nazareth and birthplace Bethlehem ranked near the bottom of the prestige scale when the "you are where you live" mentality was very much prevalent as it is today. During his three years of public ministry, most of his friends were lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, sinners, and other rejects ignored and ostracized by society and the religious establishment.
The story of rejection continued until the moment of his very last breath. One of his disciples betrayed him with a kiss. Another publicly and emphatically denied him three times just hours after swearing his undying loyalty. Just as Paul's associates did, Jesus' closest friends ran for their lives leaving their Master on the death march alone, betrayed, and rejected
Yet both of these men showed deep grace in asking God for mercy and forgiveness for those who willfully rejected them. "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do" were the very first of the seven last sayings of Jesus. Of the brethren who deserted him during the criminal trial, Paul wrote, "may it not be counted against them."
There is, however, one very important distinction between the two stories of rejection. While Paul assured himself of God's presence and protection ("the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength"), Jesus cried out in deep agony, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"
Ultimately good things came out of the stories of rejection.
The Christian Church not only survived Nero's rampage of death and destruction, but she went onto thrive and flourish to this very day, centuries after the Roman Empire had fallen to ruins. Paul's last epistle is now included in the Holy Scriptures along with his other epistles and ancient books of faith dating back seven thousand years, and this very night I am drawing profound inspiration and hope from the letter that he authored nearly two thousand years ago while chained in the cold underground dungeon halfway around the world.
Upon this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it
Three days after the murder of Jesus in the commission of the most heinous crime in history, the Lord rose from the dead and the story of rejection became a story of redemption. The dark day of rejection and seeming helplessness, in retrospect, has come to represent God's most sweeping triumph over evil and Satan's overwhelming defeat.
We now call the Rejected One the Risen King. We now call the Rejected One Our Redeemer.
We now call the day of rejection Good Friday.