Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 31 March 2019
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
2 Timothy 4.6. I have fought the good fight.
It would be good to be able to say that, wouldn’t it? To look back and think, yes, I did life quite well. I’m not sure we could chose the passage for our funerals, it might seem a little presumptuous, to say, like St Paul,
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Except it is more likely we can’t say any of that, now that we’re four weeks into Lent, and all our Lenten resolutions have collapsed as they did last year. I think our difficulties start when we see our faith in terms of us winning and losing, marking our behaviour, when our religious observance is a decision taken in our minds, not discovered in the heart. For we cannot change ourselves, we know that. We are changed; it is a spiritual gift of the Christ heart, His Sacred Heart, which we set out to uncover in our lives.
But we would be right to keep it personal, our responsibility, our own predicament. We can’t shrug and blame the church when we wander from the faith. The Second Letter of Paul to Timothy is a remarkable personal testimony. There is little doubt now that the letter was actually written by another or others after Paul’s death. The organisation of the Church Paul is writing to is too advanced for it to be contemporary with Paul himself. That should not worry us. This is as close as we are going to get to the mind and concerns and prayers of St. Paul. Paul writes from prison, sure of his coming death. He stresses the need to pass on “sound teaching”. The aim of the second letter to Timothy is to promote Paul’s teaching as the sound teaching, and the document itself would prove the primacy of Paul’s influence to anyone who questions it. But it raises a question for two for us in this citadel of Anglo-Catholicism. I like the bit about “itching ears”, don’t you? We might add today the itchy fingers on the mobile phone, finding new teachers, or anyone, whose views we can accept, whose outlook we approve. Now I know you’ve already heard this verse, but you haven’t heard it in the Jerusalem Bible translation. “The time is sure to come when, far from being content with sound teaching, people will be avid for the latest novelty, and collect themselves a whole series of teachers according to their own tastes.” This isn’t about other people. Isn’t this what we do all the time? Here, and in every other church. We suit ourselves. Is he or she sound? Not a pretty question, and one that always leads to trouble. Yet it must have been a concern for the readers of the Second letter to Timothy. There we are at the birth of Christianity, when for the first time the ‘faith’ becomes a body of beliefs, so they think they have to get those beliefs right, and so it has been ever since.
But that’s not how St Paul saw faith, and I want to take us back to fighting the good fight. The good fight is the good fight of faith, a trust in Jesus Christ as our personal saviour, both as individuals and as a community or church. Jesus is our Saviour, that is to say the initiative to save us from ourselves comes from Him, from God, not from us deciding what the sound teaching should be. The story of Paul’s conversion is about that; the light strikes him from outside, unexpectedly. The only difference between our view, say, and the more evangelical view, is that it’s not news to us, because at our baptism we were formally admitted to the community of all those who, in the words of the letter to Timothy, “have loved the Lord’s appearing”. But that was some time ago, and we have conveniently forgotten what it all meant, and are now “wandering into myths” as the Letter says, to suit ourselves. But the discovery of the risen Christ at the heart of a life changes everything. There is now no space, no difference, between Christ and me. God’s Creation is not divisible. Believing in Christ is not simply to affirm Him as the Son of God, nor to assent to sound teaching in principle, it is putting on the mind of Christ, as Paul says. It is Christ who rescues us from the habit of dividing humanity into those who are sound or unsound, right or wrong, for us or against us.
We’ve had a very busy day here; fortunately endurance is another Pauline quality. And do we fight the good fight? The metaphor was taken from the Games so popular in Rome, but it’s more than a game, isn’t it? Thomas Aquinas said that what is new about the New Testament is the grace of the Holy Spirit operating in the heart. We don’t choose this, but we say yes to it. We literally keep, or accept a life of faith as our life. That is how we fight the good fight, and finish the race.