Sermon for 21 Pentecost Yr C, 24/10/2004
Based on II Tim 4:6-8
By Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“Fighting the good fight,
running the race,
keeping the faith”
I don’t know about you, but I never cease to be amazed by those Christians who have served time in prison. It is, I think, most instructive to us that many a Christian who has been imprisoned, was inspired and seized the situation not as a defeat, but as an opportunity. For example, during World War II, Lutheran pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, imprisoned for plotting against Hitler, wrote one of his most-loved books, Letters and Papers from Prison. Indeed, this book reveals how committed Bonhoeffer was to serving Christ. Another Christian prisoner, Martin Luther King Jr., also wrote a letter from a Birmingham jail, which reveals his faith convictions. And, South African Lutheran pastor, Simon Farisani, who was tortured in prison because of his Christian beliefs and practices, has also been a powerful public witness by proclaiming his faith.
In our second lesson today, we have one of the giants of the Christian Church, the, by now, elderly, apostle Paul writing, perhaps his last letter to the young pastor Timothy. Paul is writing this letter from a prison in Rome. He is keenly aware of the fact that he is going to be put to death very soon. However, he does not speak of death in a fearful or despairing, defeatist way. NO! He views his imminent death as a sacrifice saying: “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come.” He is pouring his life out, giving it up as an obedient apostle of Jesus Christ. Although he loves life, and has had an outstanding vocation by founding many Gentile congregations; Paul is quite prepared now to die for his Lord and Saviour. The word he uses here for departure, according to Dr. William Barclay, is a loaded one. It refers to freeing an animal after it has pulled a heavy load. It refers to being freed from a prison. It also refers to travellers moving onwards after breaking camp or sailors setting out into the open sea after being anchored in a harbour. Thus, Paul’s view of his death here is full of adventure and hope.
Reflecting on his life as a follower of Jesus, the aging Paul looks back with a confident and peaceful conscience, saying: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Once again, Paul expresses here a confidence and certainty about the meaning and purpose of his life as Christ’s apostle.
“I have fought the good fight,” says Paul. In our day and age, a lot of Christians are rather leery of speaking in this way. Such Christians prefer not to sing such hymns as “Onward Christian Soldiers” because they believe that these kind of hymns promote violence and war. However, the apostle Paul had no qualms about such military language, which comes out of the context of a Roman Empire filled with soldiers. For Paul, life in many respects was like a fight or struggle. Consider his following words from 2 Corinthians 11:24-28: “Five times I have received from the Jews forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.” Such a description of his life and ministry certainly reveals the sufferings and struggles Paul had to endure—no wonder he can say, “I have fought the good fight.” Such an account is an example to Timothy and other followers of Jesus, including us, showing how much Paul loved and served Christ.
Paul also says: “I have finished the race.” The language and image here, of course, is that of a Greek athlete running a marathon. The runner, in order to finish needs to be in excellent physical as well as mental condition. It requires a lot of commitment and training, and discipline to run and finish the race. The runner needs to be single-minded and persistent in order to finish the race.
Cyrus Field dreamed that he would one day lay a telegraph cable under the Atlantic and so improve world communications. He had a driving will-power and with his engineer brother he formed a deep-sea telegraph company.
He sailed to Newfoundland to start his work, but it was not as easy as he had expected. For 12 years he tried and failed, he suffered one setback after another. The ocean itself seemed to be against him when the cable broke just after engineers in Newfoundland and Ireland had seen a spark, and at one time he was on the verge of bankruptcy. People were unwilling to lend him money to be lost at the bottom of the sea.
It seemed impossible that Cyrus would keep trying, but he did, and on 29th of July 1866, after a last strenuous effort the cable was successfully laid. The two hemispheres were joined by a length of wire. 1
So it is with us too, like Paul and Cyrus Field, we need to be single-minded and persistent in order to finish the race. As with the case of an athlete who is committed to rigorous training and disciplined; so if we are going to be followers of Jesus commitment and discipline and training is required of us. That’s why worship, Sunday School and Bible studies are so important in helping us run and finish the race.
Then Paul goes on to say: “I have kept the faith.” At times, it must have been very difficult for Paul to keep the faith. Why not give it up and choose an easier, more successful way of life? Not Paul. He was blessed with a stick-to-it-iveness that could not be broken. No matter what, Paul stuck with being faithful to Christ. It is most instructive that the Greek word for “kept” means to guard that which is treasured. For Paul, faith was a rich, precious treasure—therefore he guarded it with his whole life. How much value do we place on faith? Is it a rich, precious treasure for us? If so, do we guard it with our whole life, like Paul did?
George Whitefield, who lived over 200 years ago, exhibited great devotion to Christ. After preaching several times one day, he went to his room completely exhausted. As he was preparing for bed, he was informed that a large crowd had gathered and wanted him to speak just once more. Summoning his remaining strength, he took a candle with him and said he would preach till it was burned out. The taper flickered its last about an hour later and Whitefield closed in prayer and went inside. The next morning they found him on his knees beside his bed—the flame of his earthly existence had glimmered and died. “Faithful to death,” he now awaits the promised crown! 2
There are so many things in this world that can entice us to give up the faith; that try to remove the precious treasure of faith. Yet, like Paul and George Whitefield, and countless others, we are encouraged to keep the faith right up to our end. For if we do, then, like them, we shall have nothing to fear, not even death. We, like they can live and die with confidence, and at peace, trusting that we have been and shall be in good hands—the hands of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
1 Cited from: F. Gay, The Friendship Book, 1986, meditation for July 30th.
2 Cited from: Emphasis, October 1983, Vol. 13, No. 5 (Lima, OH: C.S.S. Publishing Co., Inc.), p. 26.