Readings: Psalm 22:23-31, Genesis 17:15-19; Romans 4:18-25; Mark 8:31-38
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 25 2018
Late in the Fourth Century, there lived a young man called Telemachus. Telemachus believed that God was calling him to a life of service. He believed that Jesus wanted him to do something with his life that would bring glory to God. But what should he do? There were so many things that a person could do. There were always people around to tell him what he should do. Which way should he go?
The town where he lived wasn't a bad place. It had its faults and it had its strengths. Maybe God was telling him to stay where he was and just get on with living his life as best as he could. So, for much of his life that is exactly what he did. He worked. He played. He prayed. He involved himself in the life of his growing church community. He liked people and people liked him. But inside he was kind of restless. Although God was blessing him, He felt that where he was, wasn't where he should always stay. He kept searching for the right way.
He talked it over with some of his friends. He talked it over with some of the church people who's advice he respected. Should I stay or should I go? Some people said do this, some people said do that. He was very impressed by some of the monks at the monastery out in the desert. Those guys had given everything up for God. "That must be it," he thought. “That's what I'll do with my life.”
So he told his friends and his family and his church that he was joining the order and that things were going to be different from now on. Some of them were happy for him. Some were disappointed because they liked him being around. Others shook their heads and said, "Nothing good will come of this".
The community that he joined were big on silence and isolation. Telemachus threw himself into a life of prayer and meditation and fasting. He sought to do nothing but spend time in contact and deep fellowship with God. He knew that some great things had come to the world through the lives of those who showed such whole hearted commitment. Some had written books about their experiences which had blessed so many others. Some had experienced moments of revelation that they shared with the world and which changed the way people thought about God. There were amazing stories going around of the miracles that God had done in answer to the prayers of the faithful.
In isolation and silence Telemachus continued to seek his God. At first he was real good at it. The disciplined lifestyle suited him. There was a real bond of fellowship between the brothers. Although they spent much time alone, there were times when they got together and shared their experiences. They were really going places with God. But as Telemachus read his bible and prayed and did all the things a good monk was to do good, he became uneasy. There was something wrong.
So, again, he talked things through with some of the brothers. Some said, "It's the devil. Jesus wants you here with us. You are doing a great thing." Others said this, others said that. Which way should he go?
He had a lot of time to think things through. He had all sorts of questions in his mind. Why was he in the monastery? Was it for his sake, or was it for God's sake? Was it selfless devotion that drove him along, or was it selfish love? As he meditated on the bible he noticed that, yes, there were all these wonderful teachings about unceasing prayer and withdrawing to quiet places and about the God who sees what you did in secret rewarding you in secret ways. There were also a whole host of other passages about the way Jesus interacted with the crowds, went to peoples houses and to their parties and to their towns and to their cities.
One day he rose from his knees, went to see the head of the monastery and told them he was leaving. If he was to serve God, the desert was no longer the place. The cities were full of people needing a Savior and they weren't going to find out unless someone went and told them. Of course some of the brothers weren't so pleased. Some would miss him. Some thought he was doing the wrong thing. Some thought he was trying to tell them that what they were doing was the wrong thing. And just like when he had gone into the monastery, there were those who said "Nothing good will come of this."
Now which road should he take? He'd taken a vow of poverty when he went into the order, so he didn't have two cents to rub together. Where should he go? Back home maybe? No, it would be hard to explain. How about that town in the neighboring province? Or what about heading West? No, let's think big. Where is the biggest, most powerful, most sinful, most needful city in the world?
At that time it was Rome. Rome was miles away but he would get there. All roads led to Rome. So that's the road Telemachus chose to follow. He begged and borrowed, took a job for a while here and there, managed to work his passage on a ship across the seas. It took a while. By the time he got there, he was an older and wiser man and Rome had officially become a Christian city. Hmm. That wasn't one of his expectations. He was going there to help save their souls. Now what would he do?
A great Roman general, Stilicho, had gained a mighty victory over Rome's enemy, the Goths. Stilicho wanted to give thanks for the triumph. There were processions and celebrations and Stilicho rode through the city in triumph, with the young emperor Honorious at his side. It was a bit like the old days, with one exception. Now the crowds poured into the Christian churches to give thanks and not to the pagan temples. Telemachus arrived in the middle of these celebrations.
"Wow!" was his first thought. "This is great!" The Kingdom of God has come and arrived in Rome. A holiday had been proclaimed and a big show down at the Arena. Eighty thousand people gathered at the arena, and this time no Christians were thrown to the lions. Telemachus thrilled to see the chariot racing, but noticed a disturbing change in the mood of the crowd as it came to the grand finale, the Gladiatorial contests.
Although Rome had declared itself Christian, some of the barbaric practices of the old Rome remained. One of those was that at the climax of the games, some of the people captured in war would have to put on the gladiators costume and fight. But this was no game. This was to the death. They were to kill each other to satisfy the blood lust of the crowds.
They came into the arena and Telemachus was appalled. This wasn't right. Was not Rome now a Christian City? If so, how could this entertainment be glorifying to God? Men for whom Christ had died were killing each other for the amusement of an allegedly Christian populace!
"Let the Games commence!" shouted the Games Master. The crowd roared their approval. With hardly time for a thought of what he was doing, Telemachus leaped over the barrier. He was standing there between the two gladiators. "Get him out of there!" the crowd yelled. The gladiators pushed him aside.
"Stupid old man" shouted someone. Somebody else threw a stone. This was good sport. More stones, more shouts of abuse. Telemachus just ran between the gladiators and held up his hands, as if to speak to the crowd. He was ruining their fun. The commander of the games gave an order; a gladiators sword rose, and flashed and stabbed; and Telemachus lay dead on the ground.
At this point something strange happened. The crowd started to become quiet. All of a sudden, although there were eighty thousand people in the arena, the silence was so intense that if one of them had dropped a pin it would have sounded like a thunderclap. Nobody said anything but there was a mass realization that something dreadful had taken place; the killing of a man who had compassion for his enemies .
Some made the connection between what they witnessed in the arena to what they had learned of Christ in their churches. Some wept because a holy man had challenged them in a way words never could do. That was the last day the gladiatorial games were ever held in Rome. Telemachus, through his death, had put a stop to their barbarity.
A famous historian, Gibbon, wrote of him, "His death was more useful to mankind than his life." By losing his life he had done more than he had ever done if he had stayed at home or confined himself to a monastery in the desert.
In our reading from Marks gospel this morning we heard Jesus telling His disciples, "Whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's shall save it." (Mark 8:35).
Many voices around us are telling us that we should go their way and that following their path will lead to happiness and satisfaction.
When Jesus started to tell Peter and the other disciples that, from then on, His road would involve being murdered and betrayed and rejected, it was too much for Peter. He couldn't see how that sort of losing your life could help anybody. He took Jesus aside and tried to put Him right. Instead Jesus put him right (and how!) "Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God's interests but man's."
He wasn't saying that Peter was the Devil. He was saying that for Him to not go to Jerusalem and complete the work He came to do was precisely the thing that the Devil would have loved to have seen happening. God was interested in the salvation of mankind. Peter was only thinking about his personal salvation. Further down the road, he would see things differently.
One commentary on this passage makes the simple statement, "God gave us life to spend and not to keep." If we live in such a way as we are always thinking first of our own profit, ease, comfort and security; if our sole aim in life is to make it as long and trouble free as possible, then we are losing life all the time and we are missing out on the "abundant" life that Jesus would have us discover.
If we spend our lives for others, if we forget health and time and wealth and comfort in our desire to do something for Jesus and for those for whom He died, then we are winning life all the time. If we keep our focus on Him and the things He is calling us to do in the different situations and circumstances of our lives then although our actions will be misunderstood by some, in ourselves we'll know the real blessings and love of God.
Back in the Fourth Century, Telemachus didn't travel to Rome with the intent of stopping the brutality of the arena. He was just someone who went through their life trying to figure out which way to go. When it came to a time he felt he had to make a stand, then for a fleeting glorious moment he came out of the crowds and something totally unexpected and amazingly wonderful took place.
In your own life seek the direction and purpose of God. Try to discern His voice among all the others. Now there's a real challenge! There's always those who will say, "Nothing good will come of this." Sometimes, as Peters untimely advice to Jesus shows, even those closest to us don't really understand the choices we are facing. Sometimes, as Abraham and Sarah, who laughed in disbelief when God said they would have a child in their old age, God's Spirit takes us totally by surprise.
If you walk the Easter Road you will reach those intersections where you say, "Which way do we go now?" Trust in the capacity and grace of God to lead you. Remember, that even when we don't know what He's doing and can't understand why something bad may be happening, He is still in control. At least that's how it seemed to Telemachus, and who am I to disagree?
The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.