We practise love so it becomes our guiding light, a constant refrain in our lives
Jonathan Rowe, 26 June 2022
Acts 12: 1–11; 2 Timothy 4: 6–8, 17–18; Matthew 16: 13–19
As we start our time with you, it seems apposite that one of today’s readings portrays not the beginning of Paul’s ministry but the very end – Paul in the final weeks, perhaps even days, of his ministry and his life. And he’s passing on accumulated wisdom to a younger leader, Timothy. I wonder if any of us perhaps imagine what we might say to somebody by way of advice at the end of our time. If we do, perhaps we might imagine that people would pay greater or lesser attention to what we might say.
But the Church of England certainly hopes that we will take note of Paul’s life and witness, and so today we celebrate the festival of Peter and Paul. An apostle to the Gentiles, Paul’s mission and ministry wasn’t an added extra, something he did in his spare time or when he felt like it. The gospel of Jesus Christ was all-embracing, changing the way Paul viewed the world, how he thought he should live and what he thought was important.
C. S. Lewis captured something of this when he said, ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else’.
The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, thought Paul, was the climactic fulfilment of the promises God had made in the past: it confirmed God’s faithfulness. And so it changed Paul’s priorities: his life’s purpose became sharing the good news that Jesus is Lord.
In his letter to Timothy, Paul uses vivid metaphors to describe his life’s work: ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race’. It’s athletic imagery from elite sport. In every age, professional sport is rather different from recreational activity or even a couch-to-5k, however professional and difficult that might feel to some of us. It requires rigorous training, self-denial, perseverance. All of these conjure up a picture of dedication which Paul uses to describe the ‘race of faith’.
It’s the nature of pictures that we can see all sorts of different things in there, but three things seem to strike me and appear prominent. First, the athlete needs to focus upon the goal. Second, regular training. Third, teamwork. And this morning I think it would repay our faith to examine each of those attributes of sport.
So first, keeping the end goal in view. Paul is clear about what he wants. Like an athlete in the games, he seeks a crown, a medal. Not in this case a laurel crown, but the ‘crown of righteousness’. Even right at the end of his race of faith, when he is subject to the court processes that will soon lead to his execution, Paul keeps an eye on his reward.
We can sometimes be a bit nervous, I think, about thinking of Christianity in terms of effort and reward. It seems to introduce something transactional into our relationship with God. We can, of course, behave like that: God, if you do this, alright I’ll do that; ‘You scratch my back …’, I don’t know how one scratches God’s back, but you get the idea.
Thinking of Christianity in terms of effort and reward … seems to introduce something transactional into our relationship with God.
But that’s not what Paul had in mind, because the reward that Paul seeks is an intrinsic part of the race itself. Perhaps an illustration will help. It’s exam season (although I understand just past exam season, which is a relief to some people, including in this room). So imagine, if you will, two students revising Spanish. One has been promised a new bicycle if she gets a top grade; the other is going to live in Spain. The nature of the reward for each student is different. A new bicycle has nothing per se to do with Spanish. But the reward for doing well for the student who is moving to Spain is to be able to immerse themselves deeply in Spanish culture. You see the difference between the two sorts of rewards.
And with Paul, the reward that Paul seeks is the same as the way he’s spent his life. He’s spent his life seeking God and living for God; his reward is to know God more fully. As he puts in in another letter, ‘To live is Christ, to die is gain’ (Philippians 1: 21). Paul seeks a crown, a reward for his life, which is also the purpose of his life.
And so he trains, our second point. How does one train for the race of faith?
It would be possible to start listing a whole load of dos and don’ts, and some people think that Christianity’s largely a matter of rules and regulations. But the metaphor doesn’t really allow us to think like that. No one becomes a great athlete by downloading an app and memorising the number of breaths to take each minute. That may help; but it’s not training as such. Training involves actually putting on one’s running shoes and running. So it is with training for the Christian’s race of faith.
The Spanish mystic St John of the Cross has a lovely phrase which points us in the direction of what we should do. St John imagines someone, like Paul, in the evening of life, facing a final examination, a weighing of what they have done with the days they have been given. He says, ‘In the evening we will be examined on love’.
At the end of our days we will be examined on how we have loved. Love is the measure of success for life. Love is the Christian’s and the Church’s ‘key performance indicator’. Jesus himself said that loving God and loving our neighbour sums up our obligations.
And so, training for the race of faith is done by loving God and loving neighbour. We train ourselves by choosing to love others in small ways each day. As we become more proficient in love, we can then try and love more fully, more sacrificially, more deeply. And when we forget or fail to love, we pick ourselves up and start again.
We practise love so that love comes to characterise all that we do and all that we achieve. Love becomes our guiding light, a constant refrain in our lives. And just as the knowledge and demonstration of God’s love is the mark of our journey, so it is our reward.
The final feature of Paul’s metaphor of the race of faith is teamwork. People speak of the ‘loneliness of the long-distance runner’. A marathon runner certainly has to put one foot in front of the other. In that sense they are ‘on their own’; no one else can do it for them.
But they are surrounded by others who guide, advise and encourage. That’s why – I don’t know whether you’ve noticed – when people win a race or win a match they thank their family and their supporters. The race of faith similarly is not a solitary affair: we do it together, as the church family.
That means with each other, of course. We might ask ourselves indeed how we could encourage one another in our faith in Jesus Christ each day. We could start today. And then we could do it again tomorrow. And the next day.
Encouragement is important. We all need some, perhaps especially after the long years of Covid, when many in church and society are feeling tired. I’m very aware of the burdens that people have been carrying in life and in the church. And I do pray that I will be an encouragement to you as Rector.
We are also encouraged by the faith of the people of God through all generations – what another New Testament writer calls ‘a great cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12: 1). That’s one of the reasons why we are celebrating the festival of Peter and Paul today.
In the letter to Timothy, we see a man who is very near the end of his journey. Whether that’s true for us or not, in time all of us will want to be able to say that we ‘have finished the race’. So let us keep our eyes focussed on Jesus Christ, practise love of God and neighbour, and encourage one another in our faith, so that we, like Paul, will be able to claim the crown. Amen.