Tuesday, March 17, 2009

January 4th, 2009

…….Began to think about the beginning of the new creation, which is figured in the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ which we will celebrate tomorrow, and Tuesday, and Wednesday, and actually through next Sunday. We come to an Epistle reading where the Holy Apostle describes to us the end of his work. St. Paul is writing to Timothy, who he calls his beloved son. He had baptized him. Timothy as well had been ordained by him as a deacon and priest of the church. He writes to Timothy telling him to do the work of an evangelist, that is to say to continue to spread the Gospel as Paul had spread the Gospel. And the St. Paul speaks to him intimately. This was a letter sent by St. Paul to one man, but the Church circulated the letter because it felt that the teaching was universal. When St. Paul says, “I am now ready to be offered up” the word his is using is “to be sacrificed.” St. Paul knew that his martyrdom was very near. He doesn’t say this with regret. He doesn’t say, “My time’s been cut short. I can’t continue my evangelical work because the Romans have me imprisoned and are going to kill me. It isn’t fair. Somebody should come up with some remedy.” He simply says, “I am about to be offered up. I am about to be sacrificed. And the time of my departing this life is at hand.” And then St. Paul describes what it is in which he has confidence. He says, “I have fought the good fight. I have completed the course. I have kept the faith.” It’s fascinating. Paul, who was raised in Tarsus, who was a Roman citizen, who was very familiar with Greco-Roman culture, but who was a Pharisee of Pharisees, this Paul was able to draw images from Hellenistic life and apply them to Christian life. He was also able to draw images from agriculture and from military science. He was a man who knew many things.

“I have fought the good fight” refers to one of the events in the pentathlon, which was wrestling. If one were a really good pentathlon participant he could win three events out of the five, and he could avoid what was called “the event that involved sand,” that is to say, graveling, wrestling. But if the score were two to two, then he would have to contend with his opponent in a wrestling match, in a fight. And you know that this wrestling match is figured in our Orthodox baptismal rite. Nowadays, when we baptize a child – at least in the Slavic tradition – we make crosses with the oil of gladness on the forehead and on the chest and back and on the hands and feet, and then we put them in the water. But Greek godparents will say, “I baptized that child.” And people will say, “Well, you’re not a priest.” What they mean is, they immersed the child in oil. We pray for the person who has been anointed and for those who have participated in the oil. Why? In the early church, that anointing before baptism was a complete anointing of the entire body before going into the water. The entire body. That’s one reason we had deaconesses – because if women were being baptized, the deaconess would anoint the women. And if there were no deaconesses, the women wore a modest white robe and they were anointed the way we do with children now. But the oil was put all over the body, and the analogy was that a wrestler, when he contends in the arena, greases himself so that his opponent cannot get a grip on him. And so now, in this contention with Satan, our bodies our oiled so that we can say, “I have fought the good fight.” We’re ready, through the water, to contend with the devil, to put him down, to win the prize.

And then he goes on to say, “I have finished the course.” You probably remember the first Olympic event was just one race. If a person that race, from all the cities in Greece, then he was given a laurel crown. Not a $10,000 prize or a shoe sales contract. But when we returned home he was literally the toast of the town. Some cities would knock a hole in their city wall to let him come through, saying, “With such heroes as this, we have no need of walls to protect us,” and for the rest of his life his fellow citizens provided him with everything he needed – with food, and clothing and shelter, and honor, and dignity - because he had brought the crown of glory to that city. Well St. Paul says, “I have fought the good fight, I have won the pentathlon. I have fought with Satan and been victorious. I have finished the race.” He doesn’t say, “I finished number one” because this is the mystery of the new kingdom, of the new dispensation, that it is not that you are the only one who wins the race but that you are one who completes the race that makes you worthy of the crown incorruptible, of the crown of righteousness. Now a lot of Christians, they come to church on Sunday and it makes them feel better, and then they’ve got this kind of latent expectation, “Well, if I come more often than my next door neighbor, if I give more money than those stingy people at work, that when I die, I’ll go to heaven.” But St. Paul doesn’t say, “I went to church once. I filled my offering envelope.” He says, “I have finished the race.” All of life, brothers and sisters, is the race. It is not that we have to run the fastest, or that we have to run the hardest. It is that we finish the race that counts. I remember watching that race in China where that young Romanian lady – who by the way is from Boulder, CO who won first place – she couldn’t talk to anyone on the sidelines, so she didn’t know if anyone was in front of her, or how close behind her anyone was, and so she ran like the devil was behind her. And I was so proud of her. She ran and ran, and I kept thinking, “She’s going to wear out. She’s running too fast.” But God had given her the ability to run hard, and she did. But what made me equally proud, was all those other ladies including the ones from China, who finished eighth or 20th or 33rd, but who also completed the course, who finished the race, who ran the marathon. They didn’t have to. They could have said, “Oh the race is over, I’m going to get a drink.” I told you, many years ago (maybe twice), about the cubana – the man from Havana who was the fastest man in town, who when they had the Olympics in St. Louis went to Miami and ran, all the way to St. Louis. And he entered the Olympics, and he was accepted as the representative if his country, the only one there from Cuba. And he started the race, and he took off, and he was leading the pack. But along the way, one of the runners injured his leg and fell to the side, and a guy coming along in a Model T Ford picked him up and said, “Do you want me to drive you to the arena?” And he said, “Yeah, I want to see how this finishes.” So he drove up to the arena, and the man got out of the car and feeling a little better, he decided to sprint into the arena. And the whole arena burst into applause, and the gentleman from Cuba, the man who was leading the pack, said, “I’ve lost the race.” And he sat down, and he quit, and then somebody came to him and said, “Look, the race isn’t over. Someone else has now won first place, but you can be second.” And he said, “If I can’t be first, I’m not going to run.” You see, this is the precise example of what we are NOT called by God to do. We’re not supposed to worry about what our place is in the pack, how important we are, how esteemed we are, even how fruitful they are. Priests are not supposed to judge themselves on whether they end up pastors of enormous churches, or whether they’re in small communities; and lay people are not supposed to judge themselves on whether they end up wealthy, and esteemed, and powerful. But we’re supposed to judge ourselves on whether we keep running the race. EVERYDAY. So St. Paul says, “There is laid up for me a crown of glory” – not a crown of leaves, a crown of glory – “which the Lord, the Righteous Judge, will give unto me at that day.” And then he says, “but not unto me only, but unto all who persevere in loving His appearing,” who continue day by day to love the Lord their God, with their heart and soul and mind, their neighbor as themselves, to be evangelists, servants of the kingdom. So, we honor Holy Apostle Paul, who has said of his sufferings in his life as an apostle, that he bears in his body the very same marks as those that afflicted the Lord Jesus – the stripes with which he was beaten with canes with whips, the bruises and tears from being stoned twice – and we should glory in our suffering and rejoice in our difficulties, for to those who persevere through difficulties is given even a greater crown. The only way of making your crown brighter is to face greater hardships, greater suffering, greater difficulties and not to relent. To persevere in spite of them.

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