I can’t say that it’s every weekend that I’m struck by something I come across in the day’s readings. To be honest, more often than not, if I’m not following along in my Magnificat, I’m probably being distracted by something going in the church- a crying baby, an uncooperative child, a misbehaving adult. There always seems to be something to draw my attention away from the Scripture readings of the day. Normally, following along in my Magnificat prevents me from being so easily distracted, but even in the best of circumstances, I wouldn’t put it past me to still manage to lose focus. Because of my struggle to pay attention during Mass, I like to grapple with the passages beforehand. I prefer to come into church on Sunday already knowing what the Scriptures will be for the day. For one, praying with the texts before Mass often helps me to enter more deeply into the passages, and on a much more practical note, if I do happen to get distracted during the readings, I already know what will be proclaimed. Taking a look at the daily readings beforehand has always been a win-win choice for me.
Of course, sometimes life doesn’t go exactly as planned, and quite often, when I hear the readings at Mass, it’s for the first time. Either as the result of my own negligence or because my efforts to pray with the Scriptures were foiled, I find myself struggling to pay attention to readings that I have not had the chance to look over beforehand. This past Sunday was no different. It was the feast of the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, so naturally, the readings were all focused on these two saints. As I followed along in my Magnificat, a section of the second reading stuck out to me. It went like this:
“The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to His heavenly Kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:18). Seems pretty straightforward, right? Paul is confident that God will save him from evil and grant him eternal life in heaven after his time here on earth is finished. But what does that mean for Paul exactly? What does that mean for any of us?
Does it mean that Paul will be preserved from all pain and suffering? That he won’t struggle, or be mistreated for the rest of his life? That his faith in Christ guarantees him an easy passage to heaven?
Not in the least. In fact, after his conversion, Paul was arrested, jailed, and beaten before he was finally beheaded. Paul, a Roman citizen, would have suffered a great deal after his acceptance of Christianity, becoming an enemy both of Rome and those Jews who had rejected Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah. He was not given an easy passage to heaven, but a short one.
And yet Paul’s words, divinely inspired, are nonetheless true. Despite the hardships that he faced during the latter part of his life, his words remain the truth: the Lord rescued him from every evil threat and brought him safely to His heavenly Kingdom. At first glance, Paul’s words and his life do not seem to reconcile. He seemed to have been protected from nothing; instead he was exposed to all sorts of evil as he carried the Good News to those who had not yet heard it. He was arrested and flogged. He witnessed friends and loved ones martyred for the sake of the Gospel, and eventually he also gave his life for that same truth. He endured a great deal of suffering while he lived, and safety could never have been his companion. So how could Paul write these things? How can they possibly be true?
Paul might have written these things before he realized the kind of future that lay before him, but could he have been so naive to have really believed that his life as a Christian would be easy, that he would be protected from pain and suffering until he finally died peacefully in the arms of loved ones? Is that what he believed as he wrote those words, even though he knew that his fellow Christians were being martyred all around him for the same Gospel that he was preaching? Could he have been that naive? Could he have been so wrong?
Of course not. Even if Paul did not know the particulars of his future, he must have known that his acceptance of Christ as the Messiah came at a price. His own salvation had come at a price as well, paid by Jesus Christ Himself. His Savior died so that he could live. The Lord descended into the grave so that He could ascend into heaven and open the gates of heaven to all mankind. Christ gave His life for ours, but He also promised His followers that they would share in this sacrifice. They would be called to suffer for the sake of the Gospel, to even die for the truth. He never said that the Christian life would be easy. He only said that it would lead to eternal life in heaven.
Though Paul had not known Christ during His thirty-three years of life, he knew what accepting Him as His Lord and Savior would entail. He knew that Christ had called His disciples to pick up their crosses and follow Him. When Paul wrote that letter to Timothy, when he wrote that he would be rescued from every evil threat and would be brought safely to heaven, he knew that he would be called to suffer for Christ, probably even die for Him. Pain and suffering in this world were not the “evil threats” of which he spoke. His confidence that he would be brought “safe to His heavenly Kingdom” did not mean that his death would be painless and comfortable. Christ never promised that His followers would never suffer, but that their suffering would be rewarded. He never promised that they would be preserved from a gruesome death, but that their deaths would also be their birth into eternal life.
Though Paul suffered greatly during the latter part of his life, he was nevertheless preserved from those “evil threats.” Knowing that his death was imminent, he also wrote that he had competed well, finished the race, and kept the faith. Because of this, and because of the God-given grace that made this possible, Paul knew that he would be safely brought to heaven. His salvation had been purchased by Christ’s death on the cross, and Paul took hold of this offered salvation and glorified Christ with his life. The price of the cross had not been squandered. Christ’s blood had been offered, and Paul had allowed himself to be washed clean in the blood that streamed from His side. Paul took Christ’s death and resurrection, he took the salvation that had been offered to him, and he girded himself for the battle that lay ahead.
Christ’s saving actions opened the gates of heaven to us and freed us from death, but ultimately, we must choose whether or not we enter through those gates, whether we shirk those bonds of sin or cling to them. When Paul wrote that Christ would protect him from “evil threats,” he was not referring to the state of his body, but to the state of his soul. Christ did not promise that our bodies would never suffer if we embraced Him, but that our souls would be saved. Christ did not come to bring peace, but a sword. And now that we have been given that sword, we must fight. Our souls are on the line, after all.