No one is entirely sure how Memorial Day got started. It is so shrouded in mystery that it is a little scholarly specialty; Columbus State University in Georgia even has a dedicated Center for Memorial Day Research. But whatever its origins in this country, whether in the Civil War or earlier, the fundamental practice of Memorial Day – decorating the graves of soldiers – is an ancient one.
Human beings, across civilizations, continents, and millennia of history, have sought to remember their honored dead. That should make us ask ourselves: how do we want to be remembered? What do we want people to say about us after we are gone?
I read a story about two men visiting an old cemetery in Florence, Alabama. Most of the gravestones contained the phrases you might expect: “beloved mother,” “darling son,” “asleep in Jesus,” and the like, all worthy tributes. But one contained a particularly meaningful five-word statement: “a man of unquestioned integrity.” That’s a powerful way to sum up a life.
How would we sum up our own?
Paul gives us his answer to that question in 2 Timothy. Based on the end of the letter, we realize that this was probably written only a short time before his execution. In 2 Timothy 4:6-8, we find a familiar passage: For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.
We know Paul as a great preacher and missionary, but he did not start out that way. He was a persecutor rather than a preacher. But on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians, he met Jesus there on the road. He asked the Lord what he wanted him to do and was told to go into the city. There a preacher named Ananias came and told him to get up and be baptized and wash away his sins. That’s the short version of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus to become the Apostle Paul.
Along the way from that day to the point of writing his letter to Timothy, he preached before high government officials. He took the gospel to Europe. He planted churches in places like Philippi, Corinth, and Ephesus.
Now the soldier of the cross has reached the end of his life. He knows his work is done. He writes this letter to give some assurance to his son in the gospel. He tells Timothy that he knows whom he has believed. He encourages him to preach the word. He also tells him how he feels facing the end of his life.
Paul is ready to depart. There was a time in life when he was not ready. He had always been religious, but he was not ready. He was honest and sincere and zealous, but he was misguided. He has been made ready by his faith in Christ and his obedience to the commands of Jesus. And not only is Paul ready, he has also told others how to prepare. Some have been obedient and are ready; others are waiting for a convenient season.
Paul tells Timothy he has fought a good fight. The Christian life can be a struggle. Think of some of the words applied to Paul’s experience at times: trials, tribulation, hardship, distress. He had to fight with his nature, he had to fight with his body, he had to fight with opponents – both those of this world and the power lurking behind them.
He has finished the race. The Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint. It requires endurance. Winning, in this case, means not giving up.
He has kept the faith. That simply means that he refused to compromise the truth. Paul continued to preach the Word despite all of the opposition he encountered.
That’s why Paul could be ready. That’s why he knows he has a crown of righteousness waiting for him. And, as he tells Timothy, it’s not just for him – it is for all who love the appearing of Jesus and are faithful to him like Paul. Someday, the end will come for all of us, just as it did for him. Will we be able to face it with the same confidence? Could we sum our lives up the way that he did? How will we be remembered?