The Reverend Elijah B. White
October 12, 1980
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
“How am I doing, as a Christian?” Our forefathers knew how to answer that question; they knew how to assess their progress in the Christian vocation, how to inventory their spiritual condition and its tangible fruits in daily living. We
can profit from doing the same. This morning I’ll outline an 8-point spiritual inventory from our Second Lesson. It’s not a complete fitness checkup, but it’s a start.
In his Writing to Timothy in the Second Lesson today (2 Timothy 2), St. Paul uses three different illustrations for the individual’s approach to life as a Christian (uses same 3 in I Cor. 9):
(1) “Take your share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier on service gets entangled in civilian pursuits since his aim is to satisfy the one who enlisted him.
(2) An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.
(3) It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will grant you understanding in everything.”
Let’s do that, think over these three analogies! They can shed useful light on the approach, the attitude, to enrich, strengthen, further our lives as Christians.
First, the soldier on active service. What are the characteristic attitudes of a good soldier, the qualities of character which make him a “good” soldier? These certainly include (1) concentration, (2) obedience, (3) sacrifice, and (4)
(1) Concentration. Am I concentrating on practicing my Christian faith? Paul spells this out, noting that “no soldier on active service gets entangled in civilian pursuits.” Without question, we Christians are on active service; we are on the front line because the front in the conflict between good and evil, right and wrong, God and the Devil, fellowship with God versus loneliness locked into oneself − the active front line lies in each of our souls. We are the front line: just as a front-line soldier must concentrate on his soldiering, so a Christian must concentrate on his Christianity. Certainly, we live in the everyday world, we make a living, we’re involved with many people − we are inevitably engaged in these pursuits − we’re not to be entangled in them; in every activity we are to live out and demonstrate our Christian faith.
(2) Obedience. Am I obeying the Christian rules of the road, and going beyond this minimum behavioral pattern into creative love? A soldier’s earliest training teaches him unquestioning obedience to authoritative command − because the time may come when prompt, instinctive obedience can save his
life and the lives of others. The soldier in the midst of battle can’t see the overall picture: the commander, (at least our commander), can. Christian duty is obedience to the word of God, and acceptance even of that we may not “understand” at the time. Kipling has a sound warning: “If you question the reason for every command, And boast what your service is worth, Angels may
come for you, Willie, my lad, But you’ll never be wanted on earth!” Very sound − though whether angels will come for a Christian “barracks-room lawyer” is questionable.
(3) Sacrifice. Do I sacrifice my own pleasure, to better serve God and my fellows? It often happens that a soldier’s duty is not so much to attack the enemy, as to put his body as a living wall between the enemy and those whom he loves. His task is self-sacrifice for those he defends. A good soldier is willing to lay down his life for his friend, for his country, for (as Paul says) “the one who enlisted him.” You and I aren’t likely to be called to lay down our lives in the practice of our Faith − but we are called to live our lives for it, to sacrifice using
our time, talents, and treasure for our own pleasures, to sacrifice self-indulgence in order to help others. A good soldier cannot be self-serving.
(4) Loyalty. Am I loyal to Christ in all I do? Or am I only selectively Christian? When a Roman soldier joined the army, he took the sacramentum, (in Latin, “that which binds or obliges a person”) the oath of personal loyalty to the Emperor; in Holy Baptism we make our sacramentum (renewed in Confirmation and Reception), our vow “that hereafter we shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under His banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto our life’s end.” We have sworn our loyalty: are we living it?
Being a worthy soldier, then, is one illustration of the Christian life. St. Paul next notes that “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.” What characteristics of a successful athlete can we add to our
Christian inventory check-list? Certainly (1) self-discipline, and (2) obeying the rules.
(1) Self-discipline. Am I doing things the right way, or the easy way? A good athlete keeps his training schedule, working out every day whether he “feels like it” or not, arranging every day’s activities around his work-outs: do we arrange our days around our spiritual exercises, prayers and Bible study? An
athlete in training not only does what builds up abilities, but avoids what debilitates in the way of foods, beverages, late hours, and the like, no matter what “fun” they are; do we avoid the many pleasurable temptations that can debilitate our spiritual fitness? I mentioned the soldier’s discipline to outside command;
we need also the athlete’s self-discipline, to be in constructive command of our selves.
(2) Fairness. Do we abide by the golden rule, to play fair with others as we would have them play fair with us? Paul knew that being in top shape is basic for an athlete, but isn’t enough: he has to play by the rules, or be disqualified. Our
individual spiritual fitness isn’t enough; we’re to use it in doing right by others. As St James puts it, “faith, without works, is dead.”
Finally, Paul writes that “it is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.” He’s speaking of tenant farmers, reminding us that we are tenants in and stewards of God’s world. Our glory lies not in possessing but, as the old hymn says, in doing the job, “bringing in the sheaves” of our Master’s harvest. Like a good farmer, the Christian must be ready to work at any hour − when the time’s right, do it. Cows and mares have a way of giving birth at the most inconvenient hours − just as people need help, tragedies occur, accidents happen, death strikes, loneliness grips and we are given chances to help
at times that may not suit us. Like a good farmer, the Christian knows that the only time to do is right when the task needs doing − not, “when it suits.”
And lastly, like the farmer, having taken timely action, we must learn the patience to wait. More than most workers, the farmer knows there are few quick results: you plan, you plow, you seed, you fertilize, you spray, you pray − and you wait. The farmer waits a whole growing season, the breeder waits years − and Christians need this same patience. How often we sow the good seed of the Word in the hearts and minds of others, with no immediate result. A teacher often has to teach, and see no difference in the pupil; a parent often has to seek to train, to
guide, and see no difference in the child. Another example: You may be friends with a pagan, and it may be years before any result is seen − but how often it does happen, that when there comes some overmastering temptation, some terrible decision, some intolerable effort, then to his or her mind comes some word of God, some flash of remembered teaching or example, some phrase planted in heart or mind years and years ago – and the years of teaching, the guidance, the discipline, the friendship, bear fruit, bring honor, where without that early seed there would have been dishonor, bring salvation, where without it there would have been ruin.
Like the wise farmer, the Christian must learn to sow good seed in word and deed, and then wait − for God to give the increase.
Here, then, is a starting, incomplete but suggestive check-list for our spiritual inventories, based on Paul’s images of the good soldier, the successful athlete, the wise farmer. Ask, as a Christian, am I practicing: Concentration; Obedience; Sacrifice; Loyalty; Self-discipline; Fairness; Timely Action; Patience?
If I’m not, I resolve to start − now.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.