Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2019 (Acts 20:17-35) – “Finishing the Course”

Panathenaic amphora depicting long distance runners. From Gardiner, E. Norman (1864-1930), Greek Athletic Sports and Festivals (London: MacMillan, 1910): 280, Fig. 51. Public Domain.

Originally Preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.

Have you ever run in a race?  I haven’t; I was never much of a runner in school.  I was more of a weight-training guy. But I have always admired people who can get up the gumption to go out and pound the pavement and put in seven to eight miles before work each day, and who run 5ks and 10ks and marathons.  Such running requires immense physical conditioning and training. It can take a long time to get to the point where you are physically fit enough to run a marathon. Someone who’s never run before can’t just get up and put in a 26 mile jog.  You can get injured or overtax yourself. And even if you are in condition, you have to work to keep yourself in that condition. Otherwise, you might end up like Pheidippides, the first marathon runner. His heart exploded when he made it back to Athens after running those 26 miles between the battlefield at Marathon and the city to deliver the news of the battle’s outcome.  Running, whether it be a morning warm up or the Marine Corps Marathon, is hard work.

“Le soldat de Marathon” (1869), by Luc-Olivier Merson (1846-1920). Private collection. Public Domain.

The Apostle Paul liked running metaphors when speaking about his work in the service of Jesus.  We all know his famous statements in 1 Corinthians 9: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Cor 9:24-27 NIV). We also remember his statement to Timothy: “I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7 NIV).  

We have another racing reference in our reading this morning:  “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”  

“That I may finish my course.”  ὡς τελειῶσαι τὸν δρόμον μου. The dromos, the racecourse, was central to life in the ancient world.  It was major entertainment; every town had its racetrack, either for footraces or for horse- and chariot-races (or both).  Racing was sort of the First Century world’s equivalent of NASCAR or soccer. Track and Field was a big deal, big enough that successful runners could win money and fame, and charioteers could win fame and acclaim for their teams (yes, they had teams–and even racing hooligans!).

“Paul preaches to the elderly of Ephesus at Miletus” (late 16th Century), by Giovanni Guerra (1544-1618). Private Collection. Public Domain.

Paul knew racing, as did everyone in his audience, and so Paul often speaks about “finishing the race.”  Here, speaking to the elders from Ephesus, he compares his life and ministry to running a race, a race which has start and a finish.  Paul is going to Jerusalem when he says this. He doesn’t expect to come back to see the people in Ephesus again, and he doesn’t know what God has in store for him there.  Little did he know that he would face beatings, threats, and ultimately arrest. But now, going into the unknown to Jerusalem, Paul tells the Ephesians that his race is now theirs.  They will have to run it, since they are now responsible for their own flocks in Ephesus, and he has done his best to prepare them with the Gospel, raising them up in the way they should go in their own roles as shepherds.  They will be faced with temptations and made targets by those with nefarious aims. Therefore, they, too, must keep themselves in top spiritual condition so that they remain strong in the faith, and so that they can protect those under their care.  They need to do this in order to keep the church in Ephesus alive.

But of course, there are distractions and enticements that can make finishing the race of faith difficult for believers in the church.  Paul’s Ephesians faced competing religions that demanded obeisance. The Jewish authorities sought to undermine Paul’s ministry and have him arrested for preaching about Christ.  The cult of Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt, virginity, and childbirth, especially, served as a major threat to the young church in Ephesus, and its adherents had attacked the church for its denial of Artemis’ goddesshood.  Ephesus was a major cult center for Artemis’ worship, and her followers had even forced Paul to leave the city. Other religions practiced by the Greeks and Romans were also about; Ephesus was a veritable melting pot. But there were other dangers from inside the church, too.

“Ephesian Artemis,” from the Naples Museum, Naples, Italy. Photograph by Giorgio Sommer (1834-1914). Public Domain.

Paul also knew that there would be those who would try to use the church as a way to gain fame or power, or who might try to defraud the church or use the church as a platform to preach their own ideas and philosophies, and so he charged the Ephesians to be watchful for such persons and to hold tight to what he taught them.  And then, of course, there are the “everyday” temptations and sins that the Devil uses to draw people away from the faith. Greed, sensuality, pride, hate–they’re all things that can harm the believer on his or her race of faith. They’re the potholes and rocks and branches that fall on the raceway that can cause a person to trip and fall, to stumble.  And without help or protection (and perhaps, we might say, without a good trainer), these enemies of faith can end a person’s race prematurely.

Even though it’s been nearly 2000 years, we Christians today still face these obstacles and pitfalls in our running of the race of faith.  We still see people who use the church for their own gain and who lead people astray in order to defraud them. We see wolves in sheep’s clothing using the church to conceal their crimes against other people.  Outside the church, just as in Paul’s day, we still see people in positions of power attempting to silence the preaching of the Gospel around the world, and we even see people in the United States using their positions of power and influence to belittle Christian faith or force Christians into crises of conscience.  And we experience the myriad temptations of the flesh common to all people, every day, that can draw us astray and shipwreck our faith if allowed to reign in our lives. How could Paul and the Ephesians–and how can we–run the race successfully? Who or what can keep us from stumbling?

Of course, we cannot run the race of faith successfully on our own.  No matter how much we train, our sinful nature will cause us to trip and fall, and those forces who wish to knock us out of the race will try their best to do so.  We cannot stay consistently alert of our own accord–eventually, we tire or become distracted and lose sight of the goal. So we must look to another one who can help us run; indeed, one who makes it possible for us to run: our Lord and Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.  He ran the race of life perfectly in our stead. Being both God and man, he did what we could not do. He lived a sinless life, and he died and rose again, indicating that he had indeed won the race for us by defeating the sin and death that threaten we who run. None of the various pitfalls that attack his church were able to touch him, and he thwarted all of their schemes in his running of the race of faith.  Because of this, he won for us the “everlasting crown” that Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians, and he won the completion of the course of a life of faith for us as well. This is what Paul looked forward to in our reading this morning. Christ had finished the course for him, and Paul had faith that his Lord had done this, so that he might finish strong in faith so long as he trusted him. And Christ has finished the race for us, too.  Though we are sinners, we can look to him at the finish line and forge ahead. He’s won the crown for us, and so when we trust him and fix our eyes on him, we share in his victory. Trusting in him, eyes fixed on him, victory is guaranteed.

This is what the race finished on our behalf looks like.
“Crucifix in a Classroom at Concordia Seminary” (2017) by Nils Niemeier.

But even then, how can we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus?  We’re sinners, after all, with all of the weaknesses that come with that.  How can we, like Paul and the Ephesians, keep ourselves watchful and in top spiritual shape to run the course in spite of the dangers?  In this race, Jesus has given us a coach who will aid us in our run, who runs beside us all the way, keeping pace with us and encouraging us as we run on.  This is the Holy Spirit, who helped Paul in his course; as Paul says, “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there.  I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me” (Acts 20:22-23 NIV).

“St. Paul Writing His Epistles” (ca. 1618-1620), by Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632). Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Public Domain.

Just as the Holy Spirit led Paul in the course of his ministry through dangerous situations and foreign lands, yet kept him in the faith and gave him hope, so are we preserved in the faith by the Holy Spirit.  He helps us to daily die to sin and rise in faith. He strengthens us to daily fight against the temptations of sin and the assaults of the devil. He teaches us to joyfully serve our neighbors and steward God’s gifts, and he leads us in being a neighbor to strangers and foreigners.  And he leads us in worshipping God through work, rest, and recreation. By grace, Christ frees us from sin and death’s certain defeat, and the Holy Spirit drives us on to complete the course, helping us to grow in faith and focus on the prize Christ has won for us: eternal life with him, forever.  

When we “commit [ourselves] to God and to the word of his grace” in light of our faith in the work of Christ, God “build[s us] up and give[s us] an inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32).  Our faith in Christ and reliance on the Holy Spirit to run the race of faith preserves us in the face of threats, challenges, and dangers. When you trust in Christ, you can strongly finish the course upon which God has set you.  So keep your eyes on the prize, and trust in your Lord! Your Good Shepherd will not forsake you. You will finish the course and receive an inheritance among all those who are sanctified!

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 17, 2019 (1 Corinthians 15:12-20) – “A Futile Faith? By No Means!”

“The Resurrection” (1886-1894) by James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum.

Originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.

In the name of Jesus, amen.

If you have spent as much time in the bowels of religious internet discussion pages as I have (a fact about which I am not proud), you will have often come across members of the New Atheist set— those disciples of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, among others— who claim that Jesus Christ never existed.  They’ll often parrot the former president of the American Atheists, Jon Murray, in saying things like, “There was no such person in the history of the world as Jesus Christ. There was no historical, living, breathing, sentient human by that name. Ever.”  Or they’ll say that the New Testament writers made Jesus up out of whole cloth and hoodwinked the whole world for 2000 years.  

Others of them claim that Christ is an amalgam of old pagan gods who supposedly died and rose again, like Adonis, Attis, Dionysus, and Horus, but the stories that apply a dying and rising quality to these gods often postdate Christ (in the case of Horus, they were totally made up by an archaeologist).  At least one New Atheist claim (coming from a software engineer in Britain) makes Jesus out as a hoax perpetrated by, of all people, the Romans in order to keep the Jews compliant. (I have not yet seen anyone put forward the claim by Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, John Allegro, that Jesus was actually a psychedelic mushroom— I am not making this up; it ruined his career.)  Furthermore, these people who think that Christ is a myth argue that the Bible cannot be a viable source of truth about who Jesus is because it talks about him as the Son of God. Surely, they say, such a thing is impossible. And so they try to cast doubt on the claims of Christians about Jesus, even though very few serious scholars of the New Testament, regardless of whether or not they are believers, actually take these claims that Jesus never existed seriously.

“If you’re not a god named Horus, you’re super, super, super bore-us….”

But the New Atheists aren’t the first to question the truth of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  The last two centuries saw a concerted hunt for the “historical” Jesus, which continues to this day. Prominent theologians and historians, including the famous theologian, physician, and organist, Albert Schweitzer, sought to uncover the “real” Jesus divorced from the shackles of Scripture and theological frameworks.  All came to the conclusion that the picture of Jesus put forward in Scripture couldn’t possibly describe the real man, that for whatever reason Jesus could not possibly have done what the Gospel writers and apostles say he did. They argued that Jesus must have been a prophet or a mystic or a rabbi or a rabble-rouser (or all four at once!), but that he couldn’t have possibly been the Son of God.  In the case of Schweitzer, he came to believe that Jesus was mistaken about himself, and that he died a failed prophet. But those hunting for the historical Jesus, whatever that means, discounted what Scripture says about him in order to create a portrait of a man who, to them, seems “likely” to have been real. The “historical” Jesus, they argue, didn’t rise from the dead. To them, such a thing is not historically possible or probable.  The “real” Jesus, they say, was just a man who died on a cross. End of story.

Paul, writing to the Corinthians in our epistle reading this morning, would have recognized these arguments against Christ.  It seems that similar arguments were already current in Corinth and were threatening the faith of the congregation there. Corinth, a port city, was home to numerous Greek cults and philosophies that were antithetical to Paul’s preaching of the Gospel— that Christ had died and risen from the dead as the first of a general resurrection.  The Greek and Roman pagans, by and large, did not believe in any such resurrection. For them, you died and went to the underworld, and maybe if you were really good, you got to live in the upscale part of it. People didn’t just “come back,” and if they did, it was only in the myths and under exceptional circumstances, usually when Hercules hauled you out of the underworld to complete a quest.  And the Epicureans, one of the philosophical groups present in the city, taught that death was nothingness and that life’s chief aim was to achieve freedom from pain. These groups denied the reality of the resurrection, and it seems that their teachings had made their way into the congregation at Corinth and some folks believed them. Paul had to impress upon the Corinthian flock the implications of not believing that Christ’s resurrection had occurred and that the resurrection of all people was coming.  Denial of this central tenet of the Gospel had very real consequences. We heard Paul lay out the argument earlier:

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope[a] in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 1:12-19)

Paul precedes all this with a catalogue of witnesses who saw the risen Christ and who attest to the truth of “the gospel…which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved” (1 Corinthians 15:1-2), namely that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (verses 3-4).  These include Simon Peter, the whole host of the apostles, nearly 500 other disciples, James the Greater (Jesus’ half-brother who headed the church in Jerusalem), and finally, Paul himself.  Yet even with all these corroborating witnesses, some members of the church at Corinth denied that the resurrection had happened, or could even happen. Was it merely a denial that God could raise the dead if he wanted to?  A rejection of miracles? Perhaps they had come to hold a belief that was current just across the sea in Ephesus at the time: that the resurrection was merely spiritual and that there would be no physical one.

Either way, the implications of a rejecting of the resurrection are clear.  Paul says that if the dead cannot be raised— if it is not part of God’s plan as some of these people in Corinth asserted— then Christ cannot have been raised from the dead.  And if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then Paul, the apostles, and all those who preach that Christ has been raised from the dead are liars, making God out to be a liar, too.  And if that is the case, then one’s faith in Christ is futile because Christ didn’t die and rise to save all people from their sins. If there is no resurrection, then death is still death, this life is all there is, and Christians are a sad and sorry lot who have been living a certain way based on a falsehood.  They have been denying themselves and struggling with the world’s enticements when they could have been eating and drinking and being merry with abandon because “tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32). And, regardless of the reality of the resurrection, for Paul, acting as if the resurrection is nothing becomes, for the individual, tantamount to making it untrue for oneself.  If you reject the resurrection and believe that Christ had died in vain, then his death is in vain— for you.

Friedrich Nietzsche, doodled while
I was in college reading
On the Genealogy of Morals

If you deny Christ’s resurrection and live as if it has not happened, then for you, this life really becomes all there is, and if you live as if this is it, then the meaning of Christian life is lost.  You become a nihilist.  And when you become a nihilist, you find, as Nietzsche writes in The Will to Power, “that the highest values devaluate themselves. The aim is lacking; [the question] “why?” finds no answer.” For if God did not send his Son to die for you so that you might be reconciled unto him and saved from your sins, then what is the point?  For you, there is no escape from sin and death, no salvation. For the nihilist, God becomes essentially unimportant— “dead,” if you will— because he no longer gives meaning to your existence, and you are faced with the task of becoming your own savior and your own god.  You must, following Nietzsche, impose your own meaning and will on the universe in order to give it sense. But this is a terrible burden, because how can the human intellect make total sense of what goes on in this fallen, sinful world? David Foster Wallace, the author of the cult classic, Infinite Jest, held that, in a world ruled by nihilism where God is essentially treated as dead, one had to find positive value even in the most evil circumstances and actions.  But there is a limit to all human understanding, and eventually, the burden of trying to ascribe positive meaning to the horrors and terrors of sin and death becomes too great, and you are left to fall into despair.

Nihilists. And cowards.

Most people in the western world today, it seems, are already functional nihilists.  We give lip service to the resurrection, but we act as if it is not part of our reality.  We live as if we will die tomorrow, and we seem to have convinced ourselves, on some level, that this life is all there is; that we can only live our “best life now;” that once death comes, that’s it.  And so we distract ourselves with material goods and pleasures, trying to mask or drown our fear with hedonism. We buy things to make ourselves feel better (I know I sometimes do). We seek happiness in creation rather than in the Creator, and we do this to our peril.  When we act as if Christ’s resurrection didn’t occur and that the resurrection of all flesh isn’t coming, we make idols of ourselves and our possessions and we ignore God, making him into a placeholder for whatever we want him to be. When we live this way, we may find ourselves indulging our sinful desires rather than fighting them, even calling sin a good thing.  We may even find ourselves rejecting Christ outright. And should we die thinking such, we will be dead in our sins. At that point, we will truly know despair.

“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” (1600) by Caravaggio (1571-1610), Sanssouci Picture Gallery.

But Paul provides good news in the face the despair that comes from nihilistic hedonism.  The resurrection happened.  It is a historical fact.  Paul says, contrary to those who believe that “we have hope in this life only,” that “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).  The Christian doesn’t place his or her trust in some myth that happened in a far-off dream-time, buried somewhere in a distant, primordial past beyond reckoning.  Christ came into the world, died, and rose again all within a real frame of time in a real place: in the city of Jerusalem in the province of Judaea during (depending on our modern dating) the 16th or 19th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, likely in the month of March.  And people saw him!  The Corinthian doubters who argued against the resurrection could go to any of the over 500 witnesses of the resurrected Christ and hear from them, first-hand, about the One who saved them from their sins.  And since Christ was indeed raised from the dead, then the coming resurrection of all the dead is itself a fact. If the Corinthian doubters needed more validation for Christ’s work, they could see that the words of the prophets spoke to what Christ had done.  Christ did what God had promised he would do. It really happened. The apostles devoted their lives to it. Only one of them, John, died of old age— the rest were martyred for their belief in the risen Christ. They would not have given their lives had things been otherwise.  They knew that Jesus had defeated sin, death, and the devil. He saved the world from sin. He did not die in vain.

Resurrection of Christ (1555), from a book of sermons by Georg III, Fürst von Anhalt (1507-1553). Pitts Theology Library Digital Image Archive, Emory University.

Because Christ rose from the dead, the doubters in Corinth had no reason to think that this life was “it.”  They did not have to numb themselves to the pain of a sinful world by adopting lives of hedonism or attempting to make themselves the masters of a senseless and violent universe.  They could take hope in an objective reality that God took on human flesh and died and rose for them. Their faith was not in some unknowable event— Christ had really done it. Their faith in him was not futile.

Despite the claims of those who argue that our faith is futile— the New Atheists, those who argue against Jesus’ being the Christ, those who argue that the physical resurrection is not a reality— we can point to the fact that our faith is in the One who did indeed die and rise again, even though we ourselves were not physically there to witness it.  “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).  We weren’t there, but we still have the testimony of those who did see and know him, and even if we did not have their testimony, it still would not change the objective fact that Jesus did what God said he would do.  Our faith is not in the testimony, but rather in the One who gives it validity. With the children we sing, “Jesus loves me, / This I know, / For the Bible / Tells me so.” And this is true. But just as the promise of the resurrection doesn’t mean much without the reality of Christ having died and risen, so it is with the testimony of Scripture.  Scripture is true because Jesus died and rose again. The Bible tells us of the love of Christ because he did indeed (and does) love us so much that he took our sins upon himself and buried them in his own death on the cross. Our faith is in the fact that he did it.

The dead waiting for the Resurrection. Apocalypse, Westminster c. 1250-1275 (Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 180, fol. 40v). From Discarding Images.

So when you find yourself feeling like there is only hope in this life; when you are living only for today and are indulging your senses because you think it will make you happy or give your life some kind of meaning that is otherwise lacking; when you feel despair because you cannot make sense of things or because your sins seem to be the defining feature of your life and you cannot or will not be saved, do not give up hope!  Christ, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep, died and rose again for you, so that you might live with him.  It really happened, and by virtue of your baptism, you have a share in the resurrection promise.  Trust in it! This life is not the only one. His death and resurrection give us a reason to live and to hope for tomorrow, because in him we have a tomorrow.  He has forgiven our sins and given us life. Christ is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep, and because of him, we can gladly say with Hosea and St. Paul: “O death, where is your victory?  O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).  Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57).  Amen!