Keeping the Faith
Christian faith is essentially forward-looking.
We remember the past with reverence, of course. Our readings are mostly ancient stories. The single most important part of our service is a sacrament of remembrance.
But we don’t remember the past for its own sake. We remember the past because it helps us to make sense of our lives today. It gives us direction. It guides us.
And we remember the past because it shapes our hope for the future. Christ is risen, and therefore we, too will experience resurrection. Christ ascended into heaven to be with God the Father, and we, too, look forward in faith to eternal union with God.
That’s why I tend to focus in my preaching on where we are going—towards God’s kingdom, deeper into God’s presence—and on what we can be doing now to continue moving in the right direction.
But what struck me in our readings for this morning was the Apostle Paul, at the end of his life, looking back at his ministry. The language is moving. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” I hope I will be able to say the same when I come to the end of my life!
And I’ve hopped that for a long time. I lived in New York city during my early twenties, and it was a great time in my life. I was young and healthy. I didn’t have much money, but I had enough, and I spent all of it on fun. I thought then that I could do and be whatever I wanted.
But I sometimes got overwhelmed by the possibilities. My friends and I were at the beginning of adult life. We had momentous decisions ahead of us. Who should we be with? Where should we live? What should we do? What kind of people should we be? It was exciting, but it was also scary and exhausting.
One day, when a friend and I were walking in Central Park, we saw two old men sitting on a bench, enjoying the day and each other’s company. We couldn’t know what those men were actually going through. But in our imaginations, they were a bit like Paul in our reading. They were looking back with satisfaction and gratitude for lives well lived.
My friend and I envied those old men. We wanted what we thought they had. We wanted it enough that I still remember that youthful moment of longing more than thirty years later.
Today, although much of my life has been lived, I haven’t finished my race.
Still, wherever we are in our life journey, there is value in pausing to look back, in surveying where we have been and who we have become so far.
When I look back, it’s not always with pleasure. There have been times in my life when I did not keep the faith in the way that I wish I had.
Mostly my regrets don’t bother me too much. But sometimes, in the middle of the night, they come back to haunt me. I’ll feel a fresh wave of shame for something I did, or failed to do, forty years ago.
Paul is a big help here.
As a young adult, before he met Christ on the road to Damascus, before he became the great Apostle, Paul colluded in the lynching of the first Christian martyr and actively participated in the wave of persecution that followed. Paul admitted those missteps earlier in this same letter. Paul called himself the chief of sinners (1:13-14).
And Paul’s sins were not limited to the time before he became a Christian. Even after his great vision of the resurrected Christ, Paul was often divisive and cantankerous. He knew that.
My guess is, Paul had quite a few moments of shame when he woke up in the middle of the night.
And yet Paul can still say he fought the good fight, finished the race, kept the faith.
Paul failed at times. Paul sinned at times. Paul knew firsthand how true the line in our Psalm is: “our sins are stronger than we are.” But Paul also knew, as the Psalm continues, that God “will blot them out,” that we are forgiven, that God enables us to keep going despite our sins. And so, Paul could look back at his life, warts and all, and see not failure, but the grace of God at work.
Our passage is an invitation for us to do the same: to look back at the painful parts of our lives honestly, to confess our failures and then to let them go, to focus on God’s grace at work through it all.
But our passage shows more than Paul letting go of his regrets. We also see Paul expressing legitimate pride in his accomplishments. Paul says that, “through me the message [of God’s grace] might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it.”
Now, I know that Paul can seem braggy. Paul can be braggy. Paul accomplished a LOT, but in our passage, Paul claims more than he actually did. Paul says all the Gentiles heard the gospel fully proclaimed through him, but of course that’s not true. Literally millions of people had not heard the gospel when Paul died.
But there is a value is acknowledging our genuine accomplishments, as long as we do it properly. We just need to remember that our accomplishments are not ours alone. Whatever good we do comes ultimately through the grace of God.
Paul knew that. In our passage, he writes “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength” for everything he did. Celebrating his own accomplishments became for Paul a way of thanking and praising God.
Our accomplishments are not as great as Paul’s. But we, too, at least some of the time, fight the good fight, run the race, keep the faith.
Naming our victories doesn’t have to be sinful pride for us any more than it was for Paul. Naming our victories can be a way both of glorifying God and of preparing ourselves to continue the race before us.
Just last week, I was talking to someone who reflected back on her life and marveled at how far she had come, how much she had grown and matured over the years. She wasn’t bragging. She was saying what was true, giving God thanks for it, and committing herself to continuing on the good road she is on.
We shouldn’t spend all of our time looking backwards. On this point, too, Paul shows us the way. Immediately after claiming to have finished the race, Paul looked forward in hope. As his life was coming to an end, he looked forward to eternal life with God, to “the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”
Paul’s hope is our hope, too. Paul is talking about us when he gives thanks for the crown of righteousness reserved for ALL those who long for Christ’s appearing.
Hold onto that hope. But also take a few minutes this week to follow Paul’s example of looking backwards. Offer your life up to God, the painful parts and the good parts. And thank God for forgiving your failures and for strengthening you for your successes.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
 Whether, and how, to relate 2 Timothy to Paul’s biography as we know it from other sources is tricky and interesting, but not relevant to this sermon.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan