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"Running to Finish"

A Sermon by the Reverend Matthew B. Reeves
Parkville Presbyterian Church, Parkville, Missouri
The Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, October 24, 2004

Texts: 2 Timothy 4:6-18

 

"Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope, to Timothy, my loyal child in the faith..."

So begins the first letter to Timothy, a young pastor of a burgeoning Ephesian church, from Paul, a seasoned pastor still captivated by Godís grace for Jews and Gentiles alike. For a sixth and final week we are blessed to be copied on Paulís messages to his loyal child in the faith. In the first chapter of the first letter weíre told the reason Paul sends instructions: "so that by following them, [Timothy] may fight the good fight, having faith and a good conscience."

But when the second letter comes, things are different. Itís enough to compare the greetings in the two letters to know times have changed. Paulís "loyal child in the faith" is now "my beloved child." The same Paul once beholden to "the command of God" now views his apostleship as being "for the sake of the promise of life." An arrest. Time in a prison. Desertion by friends as he stood trial in Rome. There is a good fight that is fought, but itís not commended to Timothy. The fight belongs to Paul. The instructions and exhortations found so often at the end of Paulís letters are conspicuously absent in 2 Timothy. Instead, Paul offers moving testimony: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." Paulís life gathered into three clauses. One sentence. A one-verse life witness.

Of course, Paul is no stranger to testimony. Itís a hallmark of Paulís letters that he canít speak of Godís grace of Jesus Christ without bearing witness to his experience of it:

1 Timothy 1:16 "The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinnersóof whom I am the foremost."

Galatians 2:20 "The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and give himself for me."

Phillipians 3:8-9 "I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him."

Paul considered himself a walking sermon illustration of the grace and power of God. It wasnít unusual that for him to point to his own life as an example of what it meant to live in Christósomething most of us would shudder to do. Now he writes to Timothy from prison and he offers his life last time, a life "already being poured out as a libation"ópoured out as a sacrifice to Godófor the time of has departure has come.

The testimony of a life. The story our life speaks when it comes to a close. Itís not something we consider very often, all of us who can feel our lives are poured out in too many places and over too many cares. Whether youíve got 15 years or 80 behind you, when you gather up those years, whatís the one-verse story it tells? Except when we sense our time is running out, except when weíve been jolted awake to our mortality by a loved oneís untimely death, our consciousness of life can be little more than the class project due next week or who to pick up on the carpool route or how Iím going to get all the leaves collected before brush pickup. But it doesnít take many semesters or oil changes or seasons before youíve got a life that bears witnessóthat says something about who you are and whatís important to you and where want to go. The question is, do you know what your life is saying, and is that what you want it to say?

***

Some of you know Iím a runner. Itís a blessing that for people like me who are too impatient to play golf, too skinny to get buff, and too shy to find a tennis partner, thereís always running. Someone once commented to me that she doesnít know why anyone runs, since every runner she sees appears to be in agony with every step. But I love it. Iím not super fast and I donít run super far, but I truly enjoy running. Recently I bought a book on running, thinking Iíd find ways to improve by learning from runners better than me. Like most books on running, the one I purchased includes a number of training programs that suggest different workouts and distances to run in preparation for a race. In my book these plans are organized by the runnerís goal race time. Do you want to run a 5K in 17 minutes or 30? Pick your plan. A 10K in 40 minutes or 70? You decide how fast you think you can run or the time you want to beat and choose a program to help you do it.

Now each of the races also has a plan called, "Race to Finish." Like it sounds, the "Race to Finish" plan isnít designed to do anything more than prepare the runner simply to finish the race. The workouts arenít as hard, the training distances arenít as long. No one who follows this program has any hope or desire to win the race. The goal is merely to train so as to get from the starting line to the finish line without collapsing. As reasonable as this sounds, Iíd like to know how many runners have actually followed this "Race to Finish" plan. After all, the whole point of racing isnít just to finish, but to finish as fast as you can, as far in the front as you can. Are there really people who enter a race just for the sake of finishing?

Perhaps it depends on how long the race is. Even if it takes you 10 minutes, most anyone who can walk or propel themselves in some way can finish the 100 meters. But if youíre lining up for a marathon things are very different. This past Olympics one of Americaís best runners didnít complete the course. Iíve never run a marathon, but if I do, youíd better believe my goal would be simply to finish. If youíre running 26 some odd miles, you donít set off like a sprinter or youíll be on your face before mile five. When youíre running a marathon, you gather your heart, your mind, your soul, and your strength to be in it for the long haul.

When the baptismal waters splash your head, youíve crossed of starting line of a race surpassing marathon length. The course of faith spans distances and terrain unknown. Those who live in the name of Jesus embrace a life journey thatís not a short, easy jaunt. More often, itís a long, challenging trek. A spiritual marathon of extreme proportions. Save for Jesus himself, we see this no more clearly in all the Scriptures than in the life of Paul. From his encounter with the risen Lord on the Damascus road to his final letters from a Roman jail, we see a life of hardship and turmoil. Todayís text read like an autobiography. It calls to mind his church plants in Galatia and Thessalonica. It speaks to his experiences of betrayaló"Demas has deserted meÖ" "Alexander the coppersmith did me great harmÖ." "At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me." As his life winds down, Paul offers Timothy words that speak to its whole:

"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." Looking out from his prison cell, he views an earthly life thatís all past and not much future. Scanning itís contours, with all the peaks and valleys, Paul can say the central fight of his life was the good one, the course he raced was the right one, the faith he held was held in earnest.

What does it take to finish lifeís race with an affirmation like that? Of the people I know, I get the impression that most arenít interested in dying rich or famous or wildly successful, so-called "winners" in the game of life. They just want to cross lifeís finish looking back and saying, "I lived well, and the life I lived Iíd live again." What does it take to claim that?

***

 

Thereís a saying not much used anymore that the job of a pastor is to teach people how to die. The first time I heard this was in seminary and I thought there could hardly be a grimmer job description. Itís not surprising this saying has gone by the wayside, but it is a shame. Itís one of the great mysteries of the faith that God has chosen to work in such a way that the life we truly seek first requires our death. Throughout his life, Paul proclaimed the secret to living is found in dyingónot only at the end but all along the way. So he wrote to the Romans, "consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God." Paul said to the Colossians, "Set your minds on things that are above, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God." He proclaimed to the Corinthians Christís triumph over the grave and exclaimed, "Why are we putting ourselves in danger every hour? I die every day!"

The reason why is Paul came to know what truly constitutes life. He commended to Timothy and itís commendable to us: "Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead. That is my gospel for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal."

"Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead." Christ suffered death; Christ was raised to life. This was Paulís testimony in word and life. Itís our testimony too. From font to casket to glory, Christ raised from the dead is our life story. If life in Jesus is like a race, there is a way in which itís baptismal start already contains the heavenly finish. The same waters that seal us with Christís saving death give assurance of glorious resurrection. From the sound of the gun, weíve already got one foot over the finish line.

Thatís way Paul is the runner who, beneath the strained face of lifeís troubles, has a heart thatís leaping for joy because he knows the crown reserved for him. Heís come to learn that Christ is more than enough not only in the life to come, but in this life as well. Heís found the greatest lesson in life is a lesson in dyingógiving up the struggle to make our own way and being found in Christís way. Paul offers up a life that tells the grace of Christ is enough for us, that the race of life isnít ours to finish by grit or gumption because our strong Christ lives to carry us through.

A life testimony. A life lived in one direction, in one holy name day after day after day. Running the race of faith doesnít take apostolic heroism. Keeping life-long faith is mostly about rising morning by morning and retiring evening by evening, on bad days and good, with the remembrance that Jesus is raised from the dead, that our life is bound to his, that there is nothing greater in heaven or on earth than knowing Jesus Christ our Lord. You put enough of those days together, and it isnít long before you have a life that really says somethingóa life that one day will proclaim,

"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."

Amen.


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