Saint Thomas Becket
The reading is from 2 Timothy 4:1-8. We are face to face here with possibly the last words the Apostle Paul ever wrote. The second letter to Timothy, much like the first, was written to stiffen the resolve of a young, timid, and reluctant leader. The Bible has many examples of those who did not want to be leaders but had it thrust on them by God’s call on their lives. Think of Moses or Jeremiah or Amos or even Peter after the incident in the boat (Luke 5:1-11). Timothy is certainly one of these. Are you being called to some ministry but feel inadequate? Think of these figures. With God all things are possible.
Paul has sent Timothy to be his ‘Apostolic Delegate’ or bishop, as the office came to be called, at the church in Ephesus, where he has oversight of the presbyters, deacons and the whole people of God but he has problems of discipline and, worse, of heresy. In this situation, he is reminded of the Apostolic testimony to which he must hold on, as well as the Scriptures (what we now call the Older Testament). He is then to exercise his ministry in the light of these. He is to proclaim the Word of God whether the time is deemed appropriate or not. The late Archbishop David Gitari of Kenya preached a series of sermons at the height of his opposition to the government’s crackdown on fundamental freedoms. The first was on Daniel’s refusal to obey the imperial decree forbidding the worship of anyone but the emperor for thirty days. The implications for Christians in Kenya were clear to his hearers. The government responded by saying that what happened in Daniel’s day was not relevant to modern-day Kenya. So, the next Sunday he preached another sermon on 2 Tim. 3:16: all Scripture is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. The government spokesman said that may be so but there is a time and place for everything. The following Sunday Gitari preached on 2 Tim 4:2: preach the Word, be instant in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and encourage…!
All faithful preaching must be rooted in the Word of God but must also appeal to people’s minds, i.e. it should enable them to make sense of themselves and of the world around them. It should appeal to their hearts, to know the difference between right and wrong and it should appeal to their will, to do what is right, with God’s help. This is what St Paul is urging Timothy to do. He is not merely to please his listeners. He is to oppose error and he is to help his people so that they too might run the race which the Apostle has run and to win the crown which awaits him.
Thomas Becket was a worldly young man whose friend King Henry II wanted to make him Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket knew that this would change him and his lifestyle forever and he too, like Timothy, was very reluctant to take the thankless task. The King insisted, however, and the rest is history. Thomas took his new work seriously and was soon in conflict with his old friend on a number of issues. The underlying question was whether the Church should be independent of state control or not. Henry thought one way and Becket another. After exile and much suffering, he was persuaded to return to England and to his see but, after some angry words of the king had been overheard by some sycophants, he was murdered in his own cathedral as he prepared to take divine service.
The murder caused outrage throughout the world and the king had to perform public penance for his part in the murder. Becket’s tomb became an important centre for pilgrimage, and he remains the saint most associated in the public mind with Canterbury Cathedral. The principle, however, that the Church in England should be free of state control was enshrined, some years later, in Magna Carta which stated the Ecclesia Anglicana should be free. It is the basis on which the freedom of religion is founded in modern declarations on human rights.
Both Timothy and Thomas remind us of the cost of discipleship. To follow Christ does mean carrying the cross and suffering for the sake of confessing his name. For those who are leaders, it means declaring the whole counsel of God, as did Paul to the churches he had founded (Acts 20:27) and not simply pander to popular taste or the fashions and prejudices of the age. From time to time, as with Daniel and David Gitari, Christian leaders will have to say no to the demands of the state when these go against the Scriptures and the Apostolic testimony.
God our redeemer, whose Church was strengthened by the blood of your martyr Thomas: so bind us, in life and in death, to Christ’s sacrifice that our lives, broken and offered in him, may carry his death and proclaim his resurrection in the world: through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.