A Soldier, an Athlete, and a Farmer

The apostle Paul, for more than a month of Sundays, has been serving as our explainer-in-chief of any and all matters related to becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Here’s where we’ve been:

First to the Romans and now to us, Paul weaves a stunning daisy chain of faith and belief: We can rejoice in our problems and trials, for they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment.

In the midst of your pain and hurt, you can expect God to do something. For the Lord already has done something: By the blood of Christ, you and I have been justified – made right in the loving, gracious eyes of heaven. And since that is so, that same amazing grace will surely rescue us from the condemnation we deserve for the sin we commit – as much or more as that same grace will rescue and deliver us from our trials and temptations in fresh, new and surprising ways.

Then, first to the Corinthians and now to us, Paul strings a laundry list of qualities that define love – unconditional love: Love that’s always patient and kind, never rude, envious, or boastful. Love that never rejoices in wrongdoing but always in truth. Because such love endures, it becomes our legacy: The compassion, the empathy, the forgiveness – the grace, that we leave behind in the souls and spirits of others.

Next, first to the Galatians and now to us, Paul assures that Jesus is enough. When it comes to your salvation, your belief in Jesus as God’s Messiah is enough. Beyond that, you don’t have to do a blessed thing to earn a place of eternity with the Lord and the saints in light.

You and I are “freed from” as much as we are “freed to” – freed to love God, friend, neighbor, and stranger, and freed to produce fruit – the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The presence of those qualities is a reliable sign of who lives in Christ and a remarkable signal of where God’s Holy Spirit in Christ dwells deeply.

And this morning, first to his young protégé Timothy and now to us, as the story of God with us continues, Paul lifts up three images of what it means to become a devoted follower of Jesus Christ: a soldier, an athlete and a farmer – three earthy, relatable metaphors for living a spiritual life of discipleship in Christ.

I’m reading to you ancient-but-ever-true words from chapter 2 of Paul’s second letter to Timothy. Let the Holy Spirit ensure that the meditation of our hearts is holy, acceptable, and pleasing to the Lord God Almighty!

You then, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.

And what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well. Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; the soldier’s aim is to please the enlisting officer. And in the case of an athlete, no one is crowned without competing according to the rules. It is the farmer who does the work who ought to have the first share of the crops.

Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in all things. Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David– that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.

The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful– for he cannot deny himself. Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:1-15)

It almost sounds like the beginning of a joke: “A soldier, an athlete, and a farmer walk into a bar….” But it’s no laughing matter. Like an astute physician, Paul writes a prescription for living a wise life.

Far too often, we fall into the trap of reducing life and its many relationships to matters of “right” and “wrong.” We want to be correct, and we’re convinced that we’re right. We puff out chests and stand tall in the courage of our convictions, no matter how cherry-picked our facts or how feeble our lines of reasoning. Whatever the cost, we want others to recognize our correctness, our righteousness, and our strength. And we hold fast to our truth and want others to claim the same reality, however baseless and faithless our claims of truth-telling might be.

But for Paul, earthly living isn’t about being right, or correct, or stout. For Paul, life is about being wise and living smart. The world in which we live feels stubbornly opposed to wisdom, fact, and truth in its never-ending struggle for rights, or its fight for fairness, or its meting out of justice – all the while missing the reality that these worthy aims, fairness and justice, aren’t goals as much as they are byproducts, the holy results of heaven’s wisdom and unconditional love. But because folks often confuse results with purpose, we bog down in fruitless pursuits and meaningless bickering. Consequently, wisdom suffers; truth is fleeting, and justice is denied.

Thus Paul taps a soldier. Why? Because a soldier doesn’t forget a soldier’s purpose. A soldier understands that, if a battle is to be survived and its objectives reached, then she or he must remain laser-focused on the task at hand and disciplined in making choices and following orders. Opposing forces will attempt to lure soldiers away from their purposes and goals, but focus and discipline keep soldiers on task and pointed in the right directions.

Entanglements with other priorities are the greatest obstacles to wise living. Diffused energy always produces less; a divided mind always confuses, and a conflicted heart is ever paralyzed. So also with the focused disciplines of faith and belief, which don’t intend to make life hard (even though they sometimes do), but rather endeavor to counteract the division of the soul and conquer temptations that confuse the mind and distract the heart. Spiritual discipline leads to wisdom.

Paul next taps an athlete, like the soldier disciplined in action and never underestimating the effort it takes to stay on top of one’s game. The athlete knows that victory is a function of practice time and training time, good nutrition, and adequate rest. Everybody cheers the winner and revels in an undefeated season. But few of us appreciate the years of training, sacrifice, and discipline that an athlete devotes to winning the crown.

So, too, with a wise life. It takes the dedication of an athlete to run well the race of earthly life, never settling for “almost,” “close,” or “good enough.” Athletic dedication and strength of character provide the wisdom to cross the finish line of a well-lived life of discipleship!

And finally, Paul taps a farmer, never simply focused on the chores at hand and work of the day but appreciating the importance always training attention of the end result: the harvest. The farmer well understands that the harvest not only puts food on the farmhouse table but also serves the community and world beyond the fence lines. Consistently remembering the reason for the work steels a farmer from despondency and fatigue. So it is with the wise follower of Christ. Never forgetting the reason for one’s spiritual labor toughens the disciple for the hard work of growing and harvesting a bumper crop of wisdom.

In the end, discipleship is all about never forgetting and always remembering:

Never forgetting and always remembering Jesus Christ, enabled by the Holy Spirit to use our senses to fuel our minds and bring into our hearts the presence of who and what we are remembering, a calling to and letting in the very presence of our Lord and Savior.

Memories are who you are. If you altered or erased all memory of your experience, you would not be you. But there is also the act of remembering, which never considers memory simply as a library of precious moments and learning experiences. The act of remembering is making a choice – often unconscious and unintentional – to unearth deep memories and make them conscious thoughts, enthroning memories in our hearts and giving them rule over our bodies, souls, and spirits.

Again by the Spirit, we all possess this power of memory, and the way that we use that power profoundly shapes who we are and how we live, move, and have our being. When you think about some particular thing over and over — good or bad, maybe something you’re anticipating with glee or worried about with anxiety, your life seems to shape itself around that remembering. Even your routine tasks take on different characters because of that thing you remember.

For example, if someone has died or if you fear that someone might die, it’s not only that you can’t stop thinking about that person but also that your continual remembrance of him or her now colors all that you do. Or if some project or new opportunity lies in your future, when you keep remembering it, then your experiences and purposes become single-handedly oriented toward that one thing.

Memory is powerful. It makes us who and what we are, shapes how we experience life, and influences what we do and say.

And the acts of remembering in which we engage further shape it all. That’s why we have to take responsibility for our minds and hearts and become intentional about our remembrances. We often act as though whatever comes into our minds and even becomes an obsession are somehow beyond our control or influence. They are not. We have the ability to bring to remembrance things other than what is suggested by our unconscious or subconscious minds.

Remembering is what shapes the Kingdom of God. And Paul commands remembering Jesus Christ, risen from the dead. That thought — Jesus, risen from the dead — must always be in our remembrance. Because if and when you do remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, then who he is and his victory over death will reorder your life, transform you more and more into his image, and align your priorities with his.

Ancient words, every true!

To the One who remembers us all be all glory, honor and worship: To the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, September 25, 2022, as part of his current sermon series, “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God with Us.” Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Andrew Stephen Damick, John Frederick, and Barnabas Powell inform the message.

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