Years ago, the writer Ernest Hemmingway came across a newspaper ad that in his opinion formed a perfect, if piercingly sad, six-word short-story. The notice read: “Free baby shoes. Never been used.” There is a similarly sad short story in the New Testament concerning a man who is mentioned only three times. His name is Demas. He first surfaces in Paul’s letter to Philemon, where Paul notes the presence of those friends who are in prison with him and sustaining him by their encouragement. Paul writes, “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.” Note that Demas is listed ahead of Luke in Paul’s reference. The second time we find Demas’ name mentioned is in the letter to the Colossians. Again, Paul is in prison, again he is writing to friends, again he is listing those who are attending to him in his incarceration. This time he writes, “Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas greet you.” In this second reference, Luke is mentioned first, ahead of Demas, though we cannot read too much into this subtle change. But there is no mistaking the meaning of the third reference. In his second letter to Timothy, incorporating, we suppose, one of the last messages Paul ever wrote, the apostle says, “Demas has deserted me, having loved this present age and gone to Thessalonica.” These three references to Demas constitute a graph, plotting the devolution of a man’s spiritual pilgrimage. “Demas, my fellow worker; Demas greets you; Demas has deserted me, having loved this present age.” In that plotted arc we find the sad story of a man who began his career in faith with integrity, distinction, and passion – but he did not finish well.
Demas is a minor New Testament figure, but he represents a spiritual type we meet all the time. Demas falls into one of those types of people Jesus describes when he tells the parable of the sower. Our Lord noted that there are people whose hearts are so hard and inured to God’s Gospel that the message of Good News bounces off their souls like seed off a rocky road. Demas is not such a person. Demas began his pilgrimage with great openness to God. The Good News took initial root in him. He was someone of importance in the early church, someone who befriended Paul, someone who earned Paul’s trust and admiration. But Jesus no doubt knew a lot of people like Demas, people filled with fiery enthusiasm initially, but evincing a faith that lacked staying power. The Gospel seed grew in such people initially, but their faith’s roots remained shallow because the believer did not expend the investment of time and energy necessary to cultivate them. Over time Demas’ enthusiasm waned, his faith cooled, his pilgrimage stagnated. He started well, but he did not finish well: “Demas; Demas, my fellow worker; Demas has deserted me, having loved this present age.”
Oddly enough, when I think of Demas, the name that comes to mind in a modern context is that of Todd Marinovich. Those of you who are knowledgeable college football fans will recognize the name instantly, for he was known as the “test tube quarterback.” Todd Marinovich was raised from the cradle to become a great athlete. One of his parents was a former professional athlete himself, and both parents trained this child from the crib to become an athletic superstar. By the time he entered college he had never eaten a Big Mac, never consumed an Oreo or known the gustatory pleasure of a Little Debbie. When he was a child and went to birthday parties, he took his own cake to avoid sugar and refined white flour. Colleges started recruiting him when he was a high school freshman, and he ended up being the first freshman quarterback to start at Southern Cal since World War II. If anyone had a marvelous athletic beginning it was Todd Marinovich. Yet, by the time he was a senior in college, the young man whose body had never known a Big Mac had already experienced his first arrest for cocaine possession. The kid who never ate an Oreo in his youth spent the next fifteen years addicted to hard narcotics of one kind or another. The kid who was raised from the cradle to be an All-Pro ended his career being regarded as one of the greatest flops in American sports history. This young man had an incredibly promising beginning. But great beginnings do not guarantee great ends.
In 2007 UCLA published a survey of some of its students’ religious practices. They interviewed incoming college freshmen and found that about 45% of them said they attended religious services frequently. Participation in a faith community was a regular part of their life. By the time those same students were juniors the number of students who attended religious services frequently had dropped from 45% to 25%. What had happened? While these young people had received a solid spiritual foundation, along the way they lost their spiritual passion. They lost their holy habits. They stopped investing and cultivating the faith that once nourished them. Their relationship with God became one more relationship among many. My point is, Demas is not a dusty, obscure Biblical figure. Demas is an all too prevalent spiritual type in our midst. His life represents a common spiritual parable of folks who along the way lose their spiritual passion and commitment.
When I ponder the parable of Demas, I am reminded that Christians often fall into ridiculous spiritual arguments. To this day, Calvinist theologians maintain the notion of “once saved, always saved.” But what exactly does that mean? If someone walks down the aisle at age ten and professes faith in Christ, does that mean that they receive not only the gift of spiritual life, but the gift of eternal life from that time forward? It seems to me that the Scriptures teach that obedience to Christ is cultivated through a lifetime commitment. One’s profession of faith simply starts the process and pilgrimage of a relationship with our Lord. The idea that people cannot turn away from Christ after having once dedicated their lives to Him lacks any basis in reality. Do not tell the Apostle Paul that people cannot turn away from Christ after having first turned to him. He saw it happen in the person of Demas. Demas is proof positive that people can be committed to faith in Christ, can practice faith in Christ, can be defined by participation in the community of Christ, then can fall away by their own bad choices.
Why did Demas fall away from his faith? Why did Christian service cease to be important to him? I think it is possible that he realized the high cost of discipleship. Think of the circumstances in which Paul wrote his letters mentioning Demas. Paul’s letter to Philemon was written while he was in prison – and Demas was with him there. Paul’s letter to the Colossians was written when he was in prison – and Demas was with him there. Paul’s letter to Timothy was written when he was in prison. And Demas by that time had chosen a different life. Demas saw firsthand what it cost to be a believer. Demas may well have realized that if he continued in his pathway of commitment to Christ, he was going to end up shackled and persecuted like Paul. So he chose to orient his life in a different direction.
Legend has it that Demas ended up as a successful priest in a pagan temple in Rome. He probably died in his bed, surrounded by creature comforts, having lived a long and peaceful life. On the other hand, Paul was surely executed during the reign of Nero. Yet Paul is cherished in the Christian church as the great apostle to the Gentiles, and his friend Luke is cherished as the author of one of the Gospels and the writer of the first history of the Christian church, the book of Acts. Paul, Luke and Demas all experienced the same adversities, all weathered the same challenges, but two of them knew the importance of finishing well, and one did not.
Think about what Paul had declared and written to Timothy just prior to writing the words, “Demas has deserted me.” He had just dictated these valedictory words to his friends: “I am already on the point of being sacrificed. 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.” How could we miss the trumpet notes of triumph in that testimony? Yes, Paul is in prison. Yes, he is soon to be executed. Yes, the Roman Empire is beginning to throw the full weight of its might into a violent suppression of Christianity. Yes, in that moment the prospects for the spread of the Gospel seem dark and dire. But Paul can nevertheless exclaim in joy, “I have fought the good fight! I have finished the race! I have kept the faith!”
We are fully aware, my friends, that the times in which we are living are profoundly stressful. This pandemic has placed a great strain upon every individual, upon our entire society, and upon our church – and every church. The temptation to despair amidst such ceaseless strain is very real. But we cannot succumb to that temptation. Mature faith remains steadfast in its commitment to Christ in the wintry seasons of life as well as in times of ease and comfort. Our spiritual discipline, our steadfast commitment to service of our Lord, provides us with the essential patterns of life that nourish our personalities and feed our souls. Our commitment to cultivating our relationship with God provides us with a fundamental resource that shepherds our soul toward paths of health and wholeness and purpose. Paul’s life and ministry was never easy – it was marked by pain, persecution, rejection by people he loved and betrayal by people he trusted. Yet every moment of his pilgrimage was fueled by his intense sense of purpose that he was Christ’s appointed apostle to the Gentiles. That sense of living in obedience to a divine calling put his every experience, good and bad, painful and pleasant, encouraging and discouraging into a divine context. We do well to ask ourselves this morning, to what extent are our lives impelled by the daily sense that we appointed ambassadors for Christ? To what extent do we live with the ceaseless sense of purpose that we have been recruited by Christ’s Spirit to play a role in the ongoing drama of contributing to the establishment of God’s Kingdom? To what degree do we live with the awareness that we have been recruited by God to play a role in the publishing of God’s Good News? If that sense of fulfilling a divine purpose dominates our thinking, then in good times and bad, in moments that are pleasant and painful, in moments that are encouraging and discouraging, we know we are advancing toward a goal that finds its ultimate satisfaction in the company of our Lord.
Outside of Aiken, South Carolina, there was, and I suspect still is, a garish, gargantuan mansion, ringed by a huge black iron fence that features the outline of footballs. At least when I knew of it, the mansion was unfinished. I suspect it still is. It was owned by William “Refrigerator” Perry, a former Clemson football star who rocketed to fame with the Chicago Bears in the 1980s. For a time, “Refrigerator” Perry, a 300-plus pounder with great agility and a winsome smile, was a national celebrity, the darling of Madison Avenue. William “Refrigerator” Perry could be seen in commercial after commercial, and the money flowed into his coffers from a host of endorsements. He started building his mansion at the height of his fame. But the fame didn’t last. Injuries and a lack of self-discipline curtailed his career, and the money stopped flowing his way. As best I know, the great gargantuan mansion remains unfinished to this day.
Likewise, I suspect that it was Luke’s friendship with Demas that caused him to include a parable of Jesus that only he records. Only Luke records Jesus as saying, “Which of you wishing to build a tower, does not stop first and count the cost, lest he lay the foundation for the tower, only to discover that he doesn’t have sufficient resources to finish it, so that people come by to mock his effort?” Jesus was making the point that there are lots of people who are initially caught up in a sense of spiritual excitement and they make all manner of ambitious resolutions and form all manner of spiritual commitments. But often, along the way of life, they stop cultivating their spiritual seeds. They don’t have the inner wherewithal to continue in their commitment to Christ and their relationship with Christ becomes only one more obligation among many. Or they forsake that relationship to Christ altogether. Such a person was Demas, whose life was traced in these few words: ”Demas, my fellow worker; Demas greets you; Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present age.” But how much better is the lasting spiritual legacy of the Apostle Paul who declared, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” May his triumphant testimony be ours as well.