“I have fought the good fight”
Sunday 27 October 2019
Today we have the last of four extracts from 2 Timothy which have been included in the Lectionary these last few weeks. If we were in any doubt that Paul considered himself to be close to death as he wrote this letter, today’s extract soon makes it quite clear that his circumstances are terminal in his eyes.
“As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come.” A libation was the pouring out of a drink in honour of Yahweh. And Paul provides us with the double image of being poured – and of course what is poured eventually comes to an end when the container is emptied, and the sense that his life has been one of total offering to God.
He then provides us with three further references to the fact that his end is approaching – “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
Interestingly, the Church has re-contextualised these statements in the Baptism Service. We now say to the newly-Baptised as they begin their life of faith in Jesus: “Live as a disciple of Christ: fight the good fight, finish the race, keep the faith.” For the newly baptised, they are words of encouragement, not statements of fact as they were for Paul.
I suppose it is testament to the outstanding life of Saint Paul that what he did, the Church has seen fit to make aspirational for the rest of us. But having said that, we need to be very careful that we don’t make out that saints are somehow built differently to us – that they are capable of things that we would never be capable of.
If we pause and think about it, we can probably think of people that we have known who will never be placed in the company of the recognised saints, but who did exactly as they were encouraged to do at their Baptism: “Live as a disciple of Christ: fight the good fight, finish the race, keep the faith.”
How did those people do it? How did Saint Paul do it?
I think one of the critical things required for any of us to live exemplary Christian lives is found in the second part of today’s reading. Paul tells us: “But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength”. If we have this abiding trust that God will always empower us to do that which he calls us to do, we enter a new space. We enter a space that no longer is dependent upon our poor efforts alone.
Paul expressed the same sentiment in a slightly different way in the letter to the Philippians where he wrote: “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me. ‘ (Phil 4.13)
If we need proof of this, we really only need to look at the behaviour of the disciples of Jesus. Throughout the gospels, particularly in the gospel of Mark, they are portrayed as dim, grasping, cowardly. It’s not too harsh to say that they are almost a waste of space at times. Despite the nearness of Jesus to them, or maybe because of it, they seem unable to rise to the challenge that Jesus constantly puts before them to be witnesses like him to the kingdom of God.
But how all of that changed after Jesus resurrection. This bunch of terribly ordinary people were, as we celebrate at Pentecost, filled with the Holy Spirit. They changed so dramatically from the timid group they were to the people who are responsible for the spreading of the gospel to all parts of the world to our very day. They could now say with Paul: “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me.‘ (Phil 4.13)
I think that this acceptance of our reliance upon Christ for our strength to live fully the Christian life is one of the really counter-cultural messages of the gospel. It was certainly not the attitude of the Second Temple Judaism that Jesus grew up in and was surrounded by in Galilee and Judah. The message of that Judaism was that it was up to the individual to live according to the Law, motivated and empowered by his or her own efforts.
We live in a culture that espouses individual achievement above most other common values. In large part, decision-making is about what is good for the individual – what is good for me. And the encouragement is to be seen as an individual achiever with little sympathy for those who can’t cut the mustard.
So this notion of reliance on Christ is just as counter-cultural for us today as it was for Jesus’ Jewish audience in his own time. The message of Paul, the faithful apostle who lived as a disciple of Christ, fought the good fight, finished the race, kept the faith, is that our strength comes through Christ, not through us.
The influential 20th century spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, expresses it this way: “Acts of service have to be an expression of the fact that God has come to us and dwells in us, and that God has already given us a life eternal because he has already given us his breath. We are already in God. We have already overcome in principle death and evil, and therefore can be free to live gratefully and to manifest our gratitude through our care for the neighbour, the people of God, and for the world. (from Following Jesus by Henri Nouwen)
The Word of God today encourages us to set ourselves in right relation to Christ, to accept Christ as our strength and our hope, not to rely on our own efforts which will never be enough to carry us through as true disciples. Let’s spend a moment in quiet personal prayer, asking Christ to make his strength manifest in our lives; asking Christ to empower us to live the lives of Christian virtue and example to which he calls us.
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen