Monday, July 28, 2008

How to Finish the Race (Part 1)

St. Panteleimon, the main saint commemorated on July 27. Below is the first half of the sermon I preached on that day (i. e. yesterday). The sermon has nothing to do with the saint's life (other than the fact that he exemplifies one who endured hardship like a good soldier), but his life is well worth reading about. Click here to read St. Panteleimon's biography (from the OCA website).

How to Finish the Race
1 Timothy 2:1-10

Christians who are sports fans like me love St. Paul’s epistles, not least of all because they contain so many analogies from athletics. St. Paul often compares the Christian life to an athletic contest, most frequently a race. And he constantly urges us to “run in such a way as to win [the prize]” (1 Cor. 9:24). As St. Paul points out in First Corinthians, in a regular race, only one person can win first prize. Fortunately, this is not true in the “race” of the Christian life. Thanks be to God, to “win” this most important of all races, all we have to do is keep running and finish the race. Everyone who finishes is a winner. But just how can we finish the race? In today’s Epistle reading, St. Paul gives his disciple Timothy four things to do to finish the race of the Christian life and thus receive the price of eternal life. He does this by way of three analogies: the soldier, the athlete, and the farmer.

But before he goes into depth about the life of a soldier, St. Paul urges St. Timothy to “endure hardship.” “As surely as sparks fly upward, man is born to trouble,”. we read in the book of Job (5:7). It is often said that only two things in life are certain: death and taxes. To this I would add a third: trouble. Hardship. All of us have this in common: we WILL experience hardship. We cannot stop it. But what we CAN do is to control what we DO about it. When we face struggles, trials, and difficult situations, do we whine and complain? Do we despair? Do we say, “why me?” Do we, as Job’s wife urged him to do, “Curse God and die?” (Job 2:9). Or do we endure the hardship like a good soldier? Do we tell God, “I don’t understand why this is happening, but I believe that you are allowing this to happen for my ultimate good. I don’t like this situation, but I still believe that you are good, and I love you and will trust in you!”

St. James urges us to “count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (Jas 1:2-3). And St. Paul told the Romans “We glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance, and perseverance, character, and character, hope” (Rom. 5:3-4). So let us with thanksgiving accept the trials that come upon us, not because they are fun to go through, but because of the effect they will have on our character, if we do not give in to despair and doubt.

St. Paul then elaborates on his comparison of a Christian to a soldier. He tells Timothy, “No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier.” In this day and age, any positive talk about the military is very unpopular among some folks. I remember back when I was in seminary, some Christian denominations were removing hymn such as “Onward Christian Soldiers” from their hymnbook. And yet, the image of the Christian life as a battle, in which we are soldiers, is common in the Scriptures. We are called to “fight the good fight” (2 Tim. 4:7) and to “put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph. 6:11). This is why the Orthodox Church refers to those of us who are still on earth as the “Church Militant.”

But in order to successfully fight the battle to the end, we must, as St. Paul says, not become entangled with the affairs of this world. We must detach ourselves from the world. This does not mean that we all have to flee the world and become monks. It means merely that we must not let the things that we own own us! We must keep them at arm’s length and be willing and able to let them go if and when we are required to do so. In the classic work on the spiritual life The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John Climacus makes “detachment from the world” the first two steps. He writes, “If you truly love God and long to reach the kingdom that is to come…then it will not be possible to have an attachment, or anxiety, or concern for money, for possessions, for family relationships, for worldly glory, for love and brotherhood, indeed for anything of earth.” All of these things, even those that are good things, must be secondary to our devotion to God and our salvation, if we are to please him who enlisted us as soldiers.


charlene said...

Fr. James,
My prayers will be with you as you continue to share the talents God has given you in writing this blog. We are indeed blessed when you share the scriptures and the words of the Fathers with us.
Maybe it is a woman thing, but I am a bit confused by St. John Climacus words. He tells us not to have "an attachment, an anxiety, a concern for ... family relationships ... love and brotherhood". If a spouse or other family member or friend that we love were taking us away from Christ, then certainly our Lord is number one and our only one to be concerned with. As a wife, mother, grandmother and loving friend, I find the admonishment to be detached a bit strong. Do we not GROW in love for our fellow man, the more we love God? Can you ask a parent not to be attached?Thank you Father.

Clint said...

Father, bless.

Thank you. I needed that with all of the uncertainty in my life right now.

Trust God. Job #1.