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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 it is imperative we fully come face-to-face with the reality that this life is a competition! We are in a “race” to first know what our true “finish line” is AND to train for this race by knowing WHO waits for us at the finish line of our lives. But there is a way to compete that leads to finishing well and there is an “unruly opponent” that is bound and determined to get you off course and ruin your race. Knowing what the faithful “rules of competition” are and then exercising the discipline of a faithful spiritual athlete to run the race successfully is the wisdom preserved in the lifestyle of a Normal Orthodox Christian.

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 his 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 his 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!”

St. Panteleiom was born to a pagan father and a Christian mother. They initially named him “Pantoleon” which means “in all things a lion.” But this saint had a name change to reflect his Christian life and his vocation as a doctor. His mother made sure to raise him as a Christian and this young man became well-educated in the healing of diseases. But he did his ministry as an “Unmercenary” which means he served all regardless of their ability to pay, which is why his name was changed to “Panteleimon” which means “all-merciful.” Once he was able, by God’s grace, to cure a man of blindness calling on the Name of the Lord. When the man who was blind told how he was healed, he answered truthfully like the man born blind in the Gospel. The Roman authorities had the healed man killed for his faith in Christ, and then they arrested Paneleimon. After being tortured in an attempt to get this holy hero to renounce Christ, they finally beheaded St. Paneleimon in 305 AD.

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 Champion and Martyr of God, imitating the Merciful and bearing from Him the grace of healing, cure our spiritual ills by your prayers, and set free from the temptation of the eternal enemy those who ceaselessly cry out, “Save us, O Lord.”

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