Monday, September 30, 2013

Fight the Good Fight

19th Sunday of Pentecost
September 29, 2013
Fr. Philip Eberhart

Fight the good fight!
(click title to hear audio)

Whenever we can we should listen to men’s “famous last words!”  Our reading from Paul’s letter to Timothy, his protégé, this morning are those kinds of words.  Words with a final kind of authority and power for the hearer – for the listener.  In fact, Paul uses almost the same phrase of his own “fight” a few chapters later, at the end of his second letter to Timothy, at the very end of his life:
“I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4:7)

The Apostle here is using the words of struggle and conflict, of contest and commitment, of his own life and ministry and of the life and ministry of his junior apprentice, who by this writing was likely a full time pastor in Ephesus, we believe – and who later became the Bishop of Ephesus.

Paul is clear throughout his writings that the walk of faith is not an easy “way” through life.  It is a calling to “share in the sufferings of Christ” – Paul says that he “made complete” the sufferings of Christ for the sake of the Church, Christ’s Body.

Are there aspects of your life that seem to be a “fight?”  Let me ask it another way, are there any aspects of your life that DON’T seen to be a fight? Struggle seems to characterize much of what we encounter in this life – especially in regard to the exercise of our faith toward God and our love toward one another.  And especially if we are as Paul urges Timothy in our reading: pursue[ing] righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.  This seems to be the content of the fight that Paul is after in his own life and in the lives of those he led in the churches.  For Paul, the “good fight” wasn’t considered to be the struggles he had while proclaiming the gospel, they were the inner struggles he had (and we all have) of living the gospel in its fullness in our own lives.

This list mirrors another that we are familiar with from Paul – the fruit of the Spirit:  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  The Apostle Peter has such a list as well:  faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection and love. And Peter follows these with the injunction that “if these qualities are yours and are increasing in your life, they will protect you from being ineffective and unfruitful in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ!” (2 Pet 1)

You see, my friends, the fight we fight is a fight of character.  It is this one fact that spoils all our enterprise, that spoils our government and our churches, our culture and our world – that we are “fallen” and given to vice and corruption, to selfishness and blindness – in short we are sinners – and we must come fully to this knowledge and to the end of our SELVES. Then we are ready to become like Him, but it is a fight!  A constant battle between the forces of life and the forces of death – a fight for our attention – for our focus!

The discipline of a race if often seen in scripture to describe that focus that is needed by the runner to finish the race successfully.  Paul uses this over and over:
[1Cor 9:24 ESV] 24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.
[Phl 2:16 ESV] 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.

And again, whether from Paul or one of his protégé’s, the words we have in Hebrews 12 ring in our ears on this note as well:
[Hbr 12:1-2 ESV] 1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

The writer to the Hebrews goes on and talks about the fight, the discipline of the Lord, and the sacrifice and suffering that is needed to finish our course.  Like the runner in the race, our view is on the prize, Jesus himself – the finish line is the character of Jesus itself that is displayed to us in his own sacrifice on the Cross.

We must focus on Jesus, the “author and finisher” of our faith in Him – no other focus will get us to the goal!  No other focus is the goal, not salvations, not meals delivered, not numbers on Sunday, not our net worth, cars, houses, boats, planes, or any such like.  Only a focus on Jesus himself will bring us successfully to the place of fulfillment and completion.

Keep the faith, baby!  It was a 60’s phrase borrowed from the bible, but the “faith” it spoke of was not the faith that Paul is speaking of!  The picture we have here is of someone who is in the storms of life and who has “lashed” himself to the mast of the ship, in the face of giant waves and overwhelming winds.  In our reading, Paul tells Timothy to “fight the good fight of the faith.” 

38 times in the NT we hear the phrase “THE FAITH” – used with the definite article, mostly in Paul and interestingly, mostly in these letters to Timothy! 13 of the 38 references are in just these two letters to Timothy.  Paul might be trying to make a point here!

For Paul, “the faith” is a distinct reality, into which we are introduced by God, when as he referenced both Timothy and Jesus, we “make the good confession.”  It is something that has definitive prarameters – boundaries – and out of which we may drift or fall.  So vigilance is required of adherents to THE FAITH, to make sure that they are still “in the way.”  We see this applied in Paul’s own life, in the way he talks about his own walk and “the fight” we mentioned before.  We see it in his warnings to Timothy and others under his care:

We see this most clearly in the middle section of his preamble in 2 Tim 1.  He writes to Timothy as he is impassioned with this care: 

[2Ti 1:5-13 NASB] 5 For I am mindful of the sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am sure that it is in you as well. 6 For this reason I remind you to kindle afresh the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands. 7 For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline. 8 Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God, 9 who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity, 10 but now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, 11 for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle and a teacher. 12 For this reason I also suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day. 13 Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.

We love the phrase in verse 7 so much that the rest of this has not really gotten much press or pulpit time.  But after verse 7 there is a “therefore!”  Better pay attention to what Paul is saying here:

  1. Do not be ashamed of the testimony of the Lord!
  2. Join me in suffering for the gospel according to the Power of God
  3. And this is that Gospel…
  4. We are saved by God, not through works but by grace
  5. We are called for a purpose by God granted us “in Christ”
  6. That purpose is revealed in Him: in his appearing (incarnation), his conquest of death (crucifixion) and his bringing life and immortality to light (resurrection.) This is the “good news” which is the gospel we preach.

Paul speaks a word about his own call here and then concludes this paragraph with this charge to Timothy: Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.

Friends, “keeping the faith” means just that.  Holding to the form of the testimony of the Gospel of Jesus, His life,  His death and His resurrection and the meaning of Jesus for the world and for each individual in it.  This is our own call in our own generation.  We are reminded, like Timothy, not to be timid or fearful, but to be powerful and loving and soundly self-disciplined in our thinking.  It is here that this battle for “the faith” is won or lost.  The battlefield is our own mind and heart.  It is in the vigil of maintaining our focus on Jesus that we “Keep the Faith”; that we “Run and Finish the Race”; that we, indeed, “Fight the good fight!” 

So let us keep on keeping on – keeping our eyes on Jesus, the Author and the Finisher of our faith.  For, just as Paul said, “there is a crown of righteousness awaiting … all who have loved His appearing.”  Have you loved His appearing?  Have you spent your days and nights looking for Him – waiting for Him – expecting Him?  Or has your focus been blurred or dimmed?  Has it been on other things?  Have you gotten your eyes off Jesus and onto the waves, like Peter did?  It’s easy to do.  But let us look to Jesus again, afresh, anew every morning – every moment, for His power, and His love and His purpose in our lives.

May we pray?

Lord Jesus Christ, we close our eyes to see you more clearly.  We bow our heads to look up into your face. We bend our knees to be empowered to walk in your way. We fold our hands to receive from your hand that which we are to give away.  Help us, Holy Spirit, to see Jesus, our savior and example of life – indeed to live in Him and He in us, by Your power.  Apart from Jesus, we can do nothing.  That is our confession, that is our testimony, that is our hope.

We look to you, Lord Jesus, and from your hand, receive all that we are and have.  Let us be your hands and feet, your eyes and ears, your mouth to speak your words.  Use us to touch, to heal, to speak in your Name, as we move through our life from day to day.  Grant us your grace and power, in Your Name and for the sake of Your Kingdom, we pray.

Amen and Amen.

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