Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Good Fight

The Good Fight
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11[1]
Like many of you, I still remember one of my first plane trips. I was 17, and I flew from Corpus Christi to Dallas to see my Great Aunt. I had received a neck injury in a car accident, and she was an orthopedic surgeon, so she insisted that she treat me. That flight was very relaxed. It seems that the airlines went out of their way to make people feel comfortable. The plane was only about half full. The whole experience made me think that this was the only way to travel. In fact, I remember thinking that to myself.
As many of you know, I recently flew to Calgary, Alberta, to visit my son Michael and his fiancée and her family. I can’t say those flights were particularly pleasant. These days the airports are jammed with people. It feels like you just about have to strip down to your skivvies to get through security. And then they pack you into the planes like sardines. Nothing like the relaxed and pleasant experience flying used to be. I can certainly understand why people who have to travel for their jobs are called “road warriors.” It seems like you have to fight for food, you have to fight for a seat on the plane, and then you have to fight for what little space you have. I’m glad I don’t have to do that much travelling!
I think many of us would say that life itself is a battle these days, not just travel. We fight to make ends meet. We fight to find a job, and then sometimes we have to fight to keep that job. We struggle with relationships to find the right person to spend our lives with, and then sometimes we have to fight to keep that relationship together. We fight to make a better future for our children, and then sometimes we have to fight to keep them headed in the right direction. And just about the time we think we’ve got it made, everything changes, the ground we’re standing on falls away from us, and we find ourselves fighting just to hold on until life settles into a new “normal.”
I think St. Paul knew how hard life can be. He had been through countless hardships, mostly because of his commitment to follow Christ and to proclaim the good news. Part of the message he proclaimed was the promise that one day Christ would return and finish the work of redemption. One day he would set right all the wrongs in this world. One day he would make all creation new again, as it was at the beginning. As you can imagine, that hope was something the early Christians clung to for dear life. In fact, they held onto it so tightly, some of them got their priorities confused and became almost obsessed with the idea that Jesus would return any day.
Paul reminded them, as Jesus had said before him, that their attitude toward that great day of restoration was to be one of watchfulness. He contrasts that with the observation that most of the people in his world were living as if they were either asleep or drunk. They had no sense that their life choices were self-destructive. They had no awareness whatsoever that there could be anything different or better than the life of satisfying their own selfish desires. When you think about it, it doesn’t sound like much has changed. It seems like many people in our world today are simply hurtling head-long from one day to the next, hardly giving any thought to what they’re doing or where they’re headed or what their future may be. And as a result, their lives consist of one tragic misstep after another. And they go on living that way, seeming not to notice the warning signs on the path they’ve chosen. They’re sleepwalking through their lives.[2]
The Apostle calls those of us who follow Christ to wake up from the fog and the haze of living like that, a life that he says is lived essentially in darkness. He says it this way, “for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober” (1 Thess 5:-6). Essentially, I think, what it takes for us to wake up and be watchful is to pay attention.[3] We are called to live intentionally. And throughout the ages, spiritual teachers have reminded us that one of the most important ways of doing that is to develop a discipline of prayer.[4]
But St. Paul also calls believers to wage the battle of life in a different way than most people do. It seems that aggressiveness, demanding our way, being assertive or even pushy, having a competitive edge, are all part and parcel of what we think it means to win the battle that life has become. Paul had a different idea about all that. He told the believers of his day to “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thess. 5:8). The Apostle knew that you can’t fight “the good fight,” you can’t wage the battle for God’s purposes in the world without using “the weapons of righteousness” (2 Cor. 6:6-7).[5] 
And here he returns to what seems to be the foundation for all Christian living: faith, hope, and love. We can invest our lives for God’s purposes only as we have the faith to trust that God will fulfill his promises of a new world.[6] We can fight the good fight only as we hold onto the hope that one day that new world will become a reality, and in fact it already is dawning in our lives today.[7] Only when we hold onto faith and hope can we take the risk of loving those around us, all those around us, even those who are difficult to love, especially those who are seemingly “unlovable.”[8] When we have the clarity to see through the haze so many in our culture are sleepwalking through and determine to live our lives in the way of faith, hope and love, then we’ll be “fighting the good fight.”

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/16/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, In the End--the Beginning: The Life of Hope, 82. He characterizes the “sleeping” that Paul refers to by saying “Our eyes are open but we don’t see; our ears are open but we don’t hear.”  He continues, “we no longer perceive the real world. We see only our dreams and think that our wishful thinking about reality is reality itself. But this again means that we don’t live wakefully in reality; we are asleep in the agreeable dreams of our fantasy world.”
[3] Cf. Moltmann, In the End, The Beginning, 84. He says, “The early Christians prayed standing, looking up, with arms outstretched and eye wide-open, ready to walk or to leap forward. We can see this from the pictures in the catacombs in Rome. Their posture reflects tense expectation, not quiet heart-searching. It says: we are living in God’s Advent. We are on the watch, in expectation of the One who is coming, and with tense attentiveness we are going to meet the coming God.”
[4] Cf. Moltmann, In the End, The Beginning, 83: “When we pray, what we are seeking is not our own wishes; we are seeking the reality of God, and are breaking out of the Hall of Mirrors of our own illusory wishes, in which we have been imprisoned.” See also Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, 43: “Spiritual wakefulness demands only the habitual awareness of him which surrounds all our actions in a spiritual atmosphere ....”; and Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, 68-69, where he says that is the “discipline of prayer” that helps us to come back again and again to “the active presence of God at the center of [our] living.” 
[5] Paul lists them as “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love,  truthful speech, and the power of God” (2 Cor. 6:6-7).  Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.4:7: he says that “the armour ... which the Christian is to take and put on is a freedom and power which is neither proper nor available to man by nature, which surpasses him in all its aspects” but it is nevertheless “appropriated to him as a freedom and power” which we must take up. He continues, “What a man puts on when he becomes a Christian is according to Col. 3:10 and Eph. 4:24 no more and no less than—after the putting off of the old—the new man who is created κατὰ θεόν* (according to God) or κατʼ εἰκόνα τοῦ κτίσαντος αὐτόν* (according to the image of the one who created him)” (translations added).
[6] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 337: “The expectation of the promised future of the kingdom of God, which is coming to man and to the world to set them right and create life, makes us ready to expend ourselves unrestrainedly and unreservedly in love and in the work of reconciliation of the world with God and his future.”
[7] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 107-109, where he discusses the idea that Paul “sets salvation ‘in the mode of hope’” by pointing forward to the resurrection of the death and the annihilation of death itself, but also sees the signs of this hope already in the healing ministry of Jesus.
[8] Cf. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 338: “Faith can expend itself in the pain of love, ..., because it is upheld by the assurance of hope” in God’s promised future. Cf. also Paul Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, 209: “As Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.--and the Buddha and Jesus long before them--realized, our best ‘weapon’ for changing the hearts of our oppressors or enemies is to love them. ... Only in this way will liberation come not just for the oppressed but also for the oppressors.”

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