Compete According to the RulesFr. Barnabas Powell
I love a line from the Paraklesis to our parish saints, Sts. Raphael, Nicholas, and Irene: “We entreat you, O Martyr of Christ, who with Nicholas and Irene for His sake competed according to the rules: Save us from injuries by our unruly opponent, through your earnest prayers to our tender-loving Lord.” The good Monk Gerasimos Mikragiannanites wrote this Paraklesis to our patron saints and I love how he contrasts the saints, who “competed according to the rules” as opposed to the evil one who is the “unruly opponent.”
And life really is about that contrast! Some work to follow the wisdom of the timeless Faith and those who insist that their own insights and wisdom are sufficient to have a happy life. It isn’t really difficult to see which side is right! Those who humbly embrace the wisdom of the Author of Life and take their life choices based on His wisdom (after all, He made us!) are infinitely better able to face the challenges of this life in a healthy manner, no matter what life throws at them!
But how? How are we to “compete according to the rules?” As usual, it all has to do with Jesus Christ!
Look at our lesson today in 2 Timothy 2:1-10:
Timothy, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Share in 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. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hardworking 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.
Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descended from David, as preached in my gospel, the gospel for which I am suffering and wearing fetters like a criminal. But the word of God is not fettered. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain salvation in Christ Jesus with its eternal glory.
Timothy was the spiritual son of St. Paul and he became the leader of a community that was started by St. Paul. St. Timothy would become the first bishop of Ephesus. St. Paul is helping his spiritual son with several principles meant to have Timothy take responsibility for his choices and fulfill his ministry. He lays out for Timothy the “rules” to competing well.
Notice how Paul speaks to Timothy. He tells him to be “strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” Paul often puts “Christ” in front of “Jesus” to reinforce the unique anointing (The word “Christ” means “anointed One”)) of Jesus as the expected Messiah. Being strong in the grace of Jesus means staying confident and dependent on the strength and ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Savior. Jesus is the conqueror of death, Jesus is the Risen Lord; Jesus is the Son sitting at the right hand of the Father in heaven. The grace of Jesus Christ is the power the Lord uses to empower those to whom He gives His grace to transform them; to make them able to live up to their created potential, and to follow the wisdom of God for life.
The next wisdom to be able to live with the consequences of our choices and “compete according to the rules” is to square our shoulders in the face of suffering. But Paul tells Timothy that this suffering is “as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” Avoiding suffering might make sense but the reality is we do suffer in life. If our suffering is meaningful then it is endurable. If we value our comfort over our responsibility then we will do anything to avoid suffering. But if I am going to be truly free in Christ Jesus then I am going to face suffering with the sure truth that Christ will carry me through the suffering! Avoiding suffering to a point makes sense, but escaping into the delusion that I can avoid all suffering and still be a strong spiritual “athlete” is simply a fantasy! IF I have the courage and humility to see suffering, not as something to be avoided at all costs, but as the weights in the spiritual gym meant to strengthen me, then no suffering is worthless and all my suffering is filled with potential and meaning! This is a real life-changing perspective!
Finally, Paul tells Timothy that dealing with the consequences of my choices is like being an athlete and a farmer, which means I am willing to train and work hard and then be patient as I wait for the results of my faithfulness to bear fruit. This analogy of athlete and farmer is such a useful word picture to teach me the freedom of a follower of Jesus rests in my willingness to be trained, practice, be disciplined, and run my race well. If I follow the “rules” to compete and to plant according to wisdom then I reap the benefits of a life well lived! I am also called to work the soil of my heart so that the Word of God finds my heart a welcoming place to be planted deeply and then bear fruit as I tend the garden of my heart as a faithful “farmer!”
On this feast day of St. Haralambos, we remember a martyr for the Faith who lived such a life “according to the rules” that he bravely faced martyrdom at the age of 103! He was a Christian priest in Thessaly in the 3rd century!
Today, your life as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ means you don’t hide from reality. You are mature enough to see the word of God active and free in your life to transform and continue to form your life every day to be “like Christ.” Being Orthodox on Purpose is all about living in the reality of Jesus Christ!
P.S. O wise Haralambos, you were proven an unshakable pillar of the Church of Christ; an ever-shining lamp of the universe. You shone in the world by your martyrdom. You delivered us from the moonless night of idolatry O blessed one. Wherefore, boldly intercede to Christ that we may be saved.