A sermon for October 27th 2019 (Year C Proper 25) at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio. Readings include Paul’s letter to Timothy, in which he reflects on fighting the good fight, finishing the face, keeping the faith, as he faces his impending end in Rome.
This week’s hymnody is a trip down memory lane for me. “Fight the good fight” (Hymnal 1982 #552) is a hymn that I haven’t heard or sung in decades. I remember learning it in elementary school. We sang it to a different tune – one that was light and not much like a fight song.
The language of fighting is not the language that I would choose for my own prayer or worship. We’ve known each other long enough now that you might guess that I’m something of a pacifist, at least most of the time.
So I found myself wondering what it meant to Paul to fight a “good fight.” You may not know that in Arabic, that phrase is translated as jihad – a shock to western ears, perhaps; a sign of how complicated the world has become. What defined the good fight for Paul, as he sat in his prison house in Rome, awaiting the penultimate judgement of the empire, his almost certain martyrdom, still supremely confident in the final judgement of Christ?
The good fight, it seems, is not necessarily one that one would win, at least in the eyes of the world.
While Paul was responsible for the planting and nurture of countless churches in numerous cities and countries across the empire, and while his legacy remains with us today in the form of his letters, his theological influence, and the descendants of those many churches, he ended his life almost certainly in martyrdom, having failed to persuade the powers that be of his justification, of Christ’s Resurrection.
But Paul, walking through the valley of the shadow of death, was not disappointed. As a Jewish man deeply familiar with that psalm and its promises, he was claiming his reward, and planning his habitation in the house of the Lord, forever.
We know surprisingly little about Paul’s life. He is introduced in the book of Acts as a young man, going by the name of Saul at this point, and intent on the destruction of the new sect of Christianity. Instead, he finds himself confronted on the road to Damascus by a theophany, an in-breaking of the direct, discernible, and unmistakable presence of God in the person of Jesus, who demands to know why Saul is persecuting him. (Elsewhere, Jesus has spoken of his identification with the suffering, the hungry, the imprisoned, the persecuted (Matthew 25).)
Henceforth, Saul considers himself to be an apostle, an eye-witness of Jesus’ power and resurrection, and one sent out to preach that Resurrection to all people. He argues, according to Acts, for the extension of the gospel beyond the confines of the synagogue and the Jewish community to the Gentiles.
A.N. Wilson, the secular, not to say sceptical, historian and biographer, suggests that were it not for Paul, we would not know the stories that most influenced us growing up. If Paul had not broken Christianity out of the Jewish mold, Wilson argues, then it would have remained a minority, Jewish sect, and we would be as sketchy in our knowledge of Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, Jonah and the big fish, Noah and the ark as most of us are with the Maccabees, and the story behind Hannukah (Wilson, 14).
We owe our conversion and our entire culture, our knowledge not only of Christ but of the God of Abraham, Isaiah, and Esther to Paul; hence his confidence in the face of the executors of the emperor.
Paul has come a long way from the zealot youth who nodded approvingly at the execution of those whom he considered dangerous heretics and irresponsible infidels, who even volunteered for persecution duty. He has learned finally what the prophets had been telling him all along: that God’s loving-kindness extends beyond our reckoning, and that true religion loves mercy, does justice, and is overall humble, not seeking to outdo, outrun, nor second-guess the righteous love of God.
For the sake of that righteousness, Paul has endured with gladness (or at least without losing faith) shipwreck, snakebite, arrests, imprisonment, abandonment, assaults, and exile.
The good fight, Paul has learned, is the one that he doesn’t mind losing, so long as he may keep his martyr’s crown, so long as he has hold of the hem of Jesus’ robe.
After all, Jesus himself faced the same judgement of the empire, and the same ignominious, criminal execution at its hands. His enemies thought that it was a defeat. They were wrong.
It’s interesting to wonder – and we will never know, in this lifetime – what Paul’s role was in that event, whether he did, in fact, participate in the first persecution of Jesus in the flesh. Paul never mentions having seen Jesus before his vision on the road to Damascus, and it is commonplace to assume, as my old teacher E.P. Sanders does, that the two men’s paths had never crossed (Sanders, 10-11).
But Wilson notes that at the time that we first encounter Saul in the book of Acts, he seems to be employed by the chief priests as some kind of a police officer. Is it too much to imagine, Wilson wonders, that he might have been in that same job a couple of years earlier, when the police force of the chief priests arrested Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, when they flogged him before handing him over to be crucified (Wilson, 54-55)?
If so, Paul’s fight is also one with his own conscience – the unflagging campaign to claim for himself the extremes of Christ’s mercy declared even from the Cross, his forgiveness even for one who participated in his crucifixion. It might explain why the man was so driven, throughout his biblical career, to fight for the gospel of Christ’s salvation, the redemption of the Cross, the reality of Resurrection.
We know so little about Paul’s real life and inner workings. We have only hints, letters to communities we cannot see, reports from journeys we can barely imagine. But his experience of grace, of conviction, conversion, repentance, reassurance; his lifelong fight to embrace the grace offered to him even on the road to Damascus – that is a story we can understand.
We don’t want to fight. We know that we are as divided now as the world through which Paul travelled. On the anniversary of the murders at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, we continue to reckon with the inheritance of anti-Semitism, which would make no sense to Jesus or to Paul, but which is perhaps our very Christian original sin. We continue to use “Pharisee” as a curse word, while Paul was proud of rabbinical education, his background immersion in the timeless stories of God’s covenant with God’s people. We are suspicious of unexpected friendships. We have forgotten how to love our enemies.
But if we take Paul’s model for the “good fight,” we find one rooted in love; one that involves repentance; that lets go of success or worldly outcomes in the service of love; but that persists, “sticking to its guns” (strictly metaphorically speaking) in the face of injustice; one that stands strongly in defence of those outside of the camp; one that involves personal investment and self-sacrifice, as all good fights must. We are encouraged not to be afraid to take on the unwinnable battles.
If we learn anything from the ends of Jesus’ and Paul’s lives, it is that we are always to be defeated by the abiding and abounding mercy of God, which the empire still fails to recognize, which the world still fails to reward.
We each have a holy war inside us. It reflects the hope and the struggle of our prayer: thy kingdom come, thy will be done. The good fight is the fight to maintain hope in the face of certain despair, and the promise of life in the face of certain death. It is the determination to do what is right at the expense of what is profitable, even when the world sees it as wrongheaded and foolish. It is an obstinate insistence on the value of forgiveness, and the staunch resistance against injustice. It is the declaration of the gospel to those who might otherwise never know that there is an alternative to the world’s win or lose strategy; because after the Cross, after the tomb, after the death even of all that is holy, in the morning, there is Resurrection.
But the good fight surrenders to the superior firepower of the Holy Spirit, the heat of love, and the overwhelming might of a peace that passes understanding, for all who rely on their own strength will be humbled, but those who humble themselves before the Prince of Peace will overcome.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, evermore. Amen.
E.P. Sanders, Paul: A Brief Insight (Oxford University Press, 1991)
A.N. Wilson, Paul: The Mind of the Apostle (W.W. Norton, 1997)
Featured image: Conversion of St Paul on the Road to Damascus, by Hans Speckaert [Public domain], via wikimedia commons