About midway through the race, the veteran runner noticed a novice in front of him begin to falter. His breathing was irregular and labored; his steps lacked rhythm. Eventually, he stumbled off the course and fell to the ground where he lay exhausted.
After the veteran finished the race in quite a respectable time, he jogged back to where he had last seen the novice, to check on him and to provide him some encouragement. The novice was sitting up now, but still defeated in body, mind, and spirit by the race.
As the two runners talked, the veteran eventually asked the novice about his training regimen, about how he had prepared for this race. The novice admitted that he had never run before and that he had done no training. He had recently watched the track and field events on the Olympics coverage and had become inspired to run, though he never got around to running. He had even read a couple of books on the sport and bought an expensive pair of running shoes. He had registered for the race, showed up, laced on the shoes, and responded to the starter’s pistol along with the crowd. And he had died midway through the race.
I wonder if anything like this ever really happens? Is anyone really foolish enough to enter a grueling race without training? And if he does so, does he really expect to finish well, or even to finish at all?
Let’s look at a related scenario; in this one I’ll give a real and personal example. Some thirty-five years ago, I studied and practiced karate, usually five days a week, two or three hours each session. I was a black belt — as was my wife who was/is much more dangerous than I ever was! — and I was an instructor. Fast forward to today. Now, I have a black belt; it is hanging in my closet. But, I no longer am a black belt. I have not kept up the disciplined practice necessary to retain those skills I once had. I am still very dangerous, but mainly to myself; I would certainly hurt myself if I tried some of the techniques I took for granted three decades ago.
At the heart of both of these examples lies the issue of identity. The novice runner pretended to an identity he did not actually have. In my case, I have relinquished an identity that I once had through lack of discipline.
Training to finish well
In our first session we discussed the importance of identity, of knowing whose we are and of letting that identity given to us in baptism — and not by our culture and not by ourselves — letting that identity given to us in baptism determine who we are, how we live, and how we run the race of faith. In this session we will focus on the development of that identity. Baptism is birth; now we must grow. Or, to keep with our race analogy, baptism, and the identity it bestows on us, qualifies us for the race and gets us to the starting line. But it is practice — disciplined training — that gets us to the finish line. The early Christians and the Desert Fathers had a name for this disciplined training: askesis, asceticism. We often think of an ascetic as a gaunt, haggard, worn-out someone suffering from too little sleep and too little food, someone weakened by abuse of the body. But that is not the Christian way at all. A Christian ascetic is someone who has devoted himself or herself to those disciplines and practices designed to strengthen one for the race of faith. These are the champion runners and ultimately the elders of the faith. What does their training, their askesis, look like?
We have spoken about spiritual elders, about those who are finishing the race well. You may be blessed to know some of these saints. Some of you are among them, the spiritual elders here at Apostles, though you are likely too humble to think of yourselves in that way. We have had several here who have now gone on before us, and we have several still with us. I’d like you to think about an elder or elders you have know. Or, if you have not known one personally, think about your image, your vision, of a spiritual elder.
What are the spiritual characteristics of these elders that set them apart, that mark them as elders?
This is what we want to look like when we grow up, what we need to look like to finish well. They haven’t developed these characteristics automatically or accidentally or without effort. This is the result of disciplined training of body, mind, and spirit — training that is motivated and empowered by the Holy Spirit. So now we need to ask:
What kind of practice/training produces this kind of person, the kind of person who is finishing the race well?
Before we try to answer than, before we look at these training disciplines, we may need a word of theological clarification is needed, especially for those who might be concerned about works righteousness. These disciplines are not works we do to acquire or ensure salvation. Nor are they primarily our works. Paul writes this to the Ephesians:
Ephesians 2:8–10 (ESV): For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
And this to the Philippians:
Philippians 2:12–13 (ESV): Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Taking these texts together, Paul says that salvation is a gift of the Lord, by grace through faith. But, the gift is intended to produce good works (cf James) — works which the Lord himself has established. It is through these works that we work out (express, develop, and mature) our salvation. Even the will to do these works and the power to accomplish them is from the Lord. So, while there is no room for laziness or negligence in our spiritual efforts, there is also no room for pride in our spiritual disciplines, no concept of earning God’s favor. Article XIV. OF WORKS OF SUPEREROGATION, makes this explicit:
Voluntary Works besides, over, and above, God’s Commandments, which they call Works of SUPEREROGATION, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety: for by them men do declare, that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for his sake, than of bounded duty is required: whereas Christ saith plainly, When ye have done all that are commanded to you say, We are unprofitable servants.
We do not make God beholden to us by our spiritual disciplines and training. But through our spiritual disciplines and training, we work out our salvation with fear and trembling: according to the will of God, empowered by the Spirit of God, to the glory of God.
Now, we know our identity given to us in baptism. We also have a vision of spiritual eldership. Further, God has given us the desire to work this vision out in our own lives, and he will certainly empower us to do so. The question remains: How do we work this out so that we might mature in our baptismal identity, grow into spiritual eldership, and finish the race well?
What kind of practice/training produces this kind of person, the kind of person who is finishing the race well?
Though Scripture is filled with answers to this question, three passages seem particularly clear, succinct, and helpful for our discussion.
Philippians 4:4–9 (ESV): 4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness [Note: gentleness is a better translation than reasonableness.] be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Colossians 3:1–17 (ESV): 1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Ephesians 5:15–21 (ESV): 15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
What are the imperatives, the training regimen for the face of faith, contained in these texts?
• Rejoice (always)
• Pray (in everything) with thanksgiving
• Think on good things
• Practice imitating the saints
• Seek the things above (live as a citizen of heaven and prioritize heavenly things)
• Put off immorality, impurity, passions, evil desire, and covetousness
• Put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, and LOVE
• Dwell in the Word, and let it dwell in you
• Sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
• Give thanks (in all things)
• Use time wisely
• Seek the Lord’s will
• Practice mutual submission
Though it doesn’t appear specifically in these passages, there is one other discipline/practice that runs throughout Scripture and fills every page of St. John’s Revelation — in some sense the most important practice: worship. The truth is simple: we become like that which we worship.
All of these things should be part of a rule of life for all Christians, but certainly for those who are training to finish the race well. As a practical starting point, we should conform our lives to the Duties of the Laity expressed in the ACNA Constitution and Canons; this forms a fundamental rule of life on which we can build.
If we want to finish well, we must train properly; we must discipline our bodies, minds, and spirits. There are certainly other important disciplines that we have not mentioned or said much about: fasting, silence, service, alms-giving, for example. But the ones we have mentioned are enough for a lifetime of work. Two things remain, and they fall both to you individually and to us as the Body of Christ: (1) to work out, with fear and trembling, what these disciplines must look like in our given situations, and (2) to begin. It is never too late to begin; it is never too late to begin again.
The French novelist Leon Bloy wrote this:
“The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.”
As I get older, I think about that more than ever, and I am more than ever convinced that it is true. Becoming a saint is a matter of dual agency between God and man. Another French novelist, Emile Zola, expressed that truth in this quote about artists:
“The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift if nothing without work.”
I cannot be a saint without the gift of God’s grace, but I will not be a great saint — an elder — without the disciplined work of the Spirit with which I participate.
Let us pray.
Go before us, O Lord, in all our doings with your most gracious favor, and further us with your continual help; that in all our works begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy Name, and finally, through your mercy, obtain everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.