This brief passage presents a bit of Saint Paul’s backstory, his experience of trials and suffering, as well as his sense of accomplishment. Today’s Christian might find the athletic imagery appealing. I think this is why one of my pastors promoted this brief passage as a good choice:
For I am already being poured out like a libation,
and the time of my departure is at hand.
I have competed well; I have finished the race;
I have kept the faith.
From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me,
which the Lord, the just judge,
will award to me on that day,
and not only to me,
but to all who have longed for his appearance.
At the time of death, the family and community may well feel that a time of exertion is over and now complete. I’ve served families in which the terminal illness was long, or sometimes when the life lived has itself seemed like a grueling marathon. This can be acknowledged at the funeral. It is an honorable, even a saintly thing, to remain faithful in spite of trials. Such a life, such a person may serve as an inspiration to those left behind, those who mourn.
Paul cites Jesus the Lord as his “just judge.” One explanation of this notion of justice was described in a homily I heard recently.
Human justice is usually thought of as a justice of punishment. Criminals are uncovered, charged, tried, and jailed. End of story.
God’s justice, however, does not work like a court system. God’s justice is offered universally. It requires human assent, not human performance, or the avoidance of crime. As this weekend’s Psalm 98 cites, the Lord’s rule of the earth is one of justice. It is an occasion of rejoicing, of song, and of liberation.
It’s not that we want to sugarcoat sin and its effects. But God works in spite of human frailties. And if we are true to the core of our calling, God’s justice, a good thing, will prevail.
At the end of his life, Paul was sure of this. Paul, the once-persecutor and murderer, is at peace with his immanent reunion with the Lord. So we can be as well.