Running a race, not a sprint but a marathon, is one of the most common analogies in the Bible for our life in Christ. Any runners here this morning? I’ve run a lot of races in my day. It’s easy to start a race, isn’t it. Finishing. That’s the difficult part. The mark of a good runner isn’t in starting races, it’s in finishing them. Well, as he closes his letter to the Ephesians, Paul, who knew how to finish well, encourages us to do the same. In fact, when he knew that his own leg of the race was nearing its end, he said “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). And Paul didn’t have an easy life. Look at how he described his life: “[I have had] far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:23-28). Most runners know that little voice inside their heads. Pops up especially in races and on long runs. It’s the voice that says “Why am I doing this? This is stupid. I’m not being chased. I’m not running to get anywhere. I’m just running. Quit and go eat a donut.” Paul knew that voice well. “This is stupid. Quit. These non-Jews aren’t worth the trouble. You’re saved. Who cares about anyone else? You don’t have to go through all of this.”
But it isn’t just the great ones like Paul who can finish their race well. Hebrews 11, the great Faith Hall of Fame, after listing the incredible obedience and faith and trust of giants of the faith like Able and Abraham (twice) and Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea on dry ground, and listing the conquest of Jericho says this: “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated – of whom the world was not worthy – wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” What is it that enables not just the great ones like Paul but these everyday Joes whose names we don’t even know, who didn’t write books of the Bible or walk with Jesus in the flesh, to remain faithful at incredible mental and emotional and physical cost to themselves? In his closing words in his letter to the Ephesian church, St. Paul tells us what enabled them, and him, and what will enable us, to finish well. Look at Vv. 21-22.
Paul understood the critical truth that this race of faith, the marathon of life in Christ, should not – in fact it cannot – be run alone. Even the great and fiery Apostle Paul, imprisoned and tortured multiple times for his faith and eventually martyred knew that he needed to surround himself with people who would encourage and help him. His friend Tychicus, whom he calls “beloved brother and faithful minister,” was one of many people, men and women, that Paul surrounded himself with. When Paul was arrested in Jerusalem, Tychicus traveled with Paul from Jerusalem to Rome, staying with him through his arrest and imprisonment, his appearances before kings and governors along the way, a tragic shipwreck, and finally his house arrest in Rome, where Paul penned this letter along with its sister letter, Colossians, and also Philemon, which was sent to a person named Philemon who was a member of the Ephesian church.
Paul’s friend Tychicus was the one entrusted with delivering these letters to Ephesus and Colossae. And Paul said that he would be able to answer questions not just about the content of the letters, he may have even been Paul’s scribe, but he could also tell them how Paul and the others were doing physically, emotionally, and spiritually. He was Paul’s beloved brother in Christ, and they knew one another well. Well enough that Tychicus could answer questions about Paul’s internal state. And Paul trusted him enough to place these three letters in his care to be delivered personally by Tychicus.
He was a true friend. These days lots of people like to say, “I don’t need anyone else. I find God when I’m alone out in nature.” It’s fine to take a hike or a walk in the woods alone to meditate and be alone with God. There’s nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all. But that should not, in fact it cannot be our only expression of Christian faith. Life in Christ was never intended to be lived apart from other people who love Christ. Now, just as some people say, “I don’t need the church,” others say, “all I need is the church” and they have no legitimate friendships with people outside the church. That’s not the point either. The point is that there should be some though, who surround us, who love Jesus and are walking with him and with us, who know us well, and whom we know well.
Several years ago I ran in the Elk Rapids Harbor Run 10k. I had a goal in my mind for the time it would take me to finish that was, I thought, realistic but also a challenge for me. In a race like that, where everyone is bunched up around the starting line, the elite runners are supposed to be in front, and then the great runners, and then the good runners, and then the not so good runners are farther back. These days they have you wear a chip in your shoe that starts your official time when you cross the starting line and stops when you cross the finish line. But it takes the first mile or so for everyone to actually get sorted out. There are people who think they are faster than they really are who get passed by faster runners behind them. Stuff like that. After a mile or two, after I settled in, I found that I was running slower than I wanted to be running, and I ended up falling in beside a guy who was running just fast enough to make me uncomfortable for the entire race. He asked what my goal was and I told him and he set roughly that pace for me until we were only about a mile away from the finish, then he left me in the dust. I made my goal that day, but without him encouraging me and running beside me, literally pulling me forward as I kept his pace, running side by side, I wouldn’t have met my goal. We were never meant to run this race alone.
Now, look at Vv. 23-24. Paul reminds us of the four gifts that God has given us in Christ: peace, love, faith, and grace. These are not things we are supposed to work toward. They are things God has already given us in Christ. The first is peace. You say, “Peace!?! What peace?” You can’t even drive across town peacefully anymore. People are always honking at one another, giving each other the one-finger wave. Anxiety has surpassed depression as the most common problem therapists and psychiatrists help people learn to deal with. I don’t feel peaceful. What do you mean I already have peace. But we have to remember that the peace God gives us isn’t always protection from the storm, it is peace in the midst of the storm.
The peace that God gives us in Christ isn’t the absence of feelings of stress or nervousness. It is first of all peace with God, knowing in a tangible way that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are right with God, and even that which can destroy our bodies cannot touch our souls. We are eternally safe in the hands of God, even as we face discomfort, trouble, and tragedy in this life, and nothing can change that. It is also peace with one another in Christ, even when we disagree about something. Peace isn’t the absence of conflict. It is the presence of wholeness and a pervasive sense of God’s presence, even in the midst of conflict – what the Old Testament calls shalom. Aaron’s benediction, from Numbers 6, paints a beautiful picture of this peace. It is a benediction I have often used, as have other pastors. “The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” Paul was stoned, beaten, whipped, imprisoned, robbed, shipwrecked, lied about, and often hungry and thirsty. That is not what most of us would call a peaceful life. But he had peace, because he knew he had peace with God.
And with peace, we are given love. The word love appears about 14 times in Ephesians, with 7 of those emphasizing the love we have for one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. Way back in chapter 1 of this letter, Paul commended the Ephesians for their “love toward all the saints.” Not just some. Not just the ones who look and act and smell like me. All the saints. Love some is easy. Love all is much harder to do. But aren’t I being a hypocrite if I show love toward someone I don’t like? Aren’t I lying, being inauthentic, if I do that? Absolutely not! It is never hypocritical to bend your will to fall in line with a command of Scripture. In fact, that’s exactly what agape love, the kind of love Paul has been talking about in this letter, the kind of love he tells us we are to have for our brothers and sisters in Christ, is. It is love when loving isn’t easy. It is choosing to love the unlovely.
And then there’s faith, and faith has two components. The first is our belief in God and in what he has done for us in Christ. The second is our willingness to place our trust in God because of what we believe. I can believe that an airplane can fly; and I can believe that travel by air is statistically safer than travel by road, but never climb on board. Fear can keep my feet planted firmly on the ground. It is only when I climb buy a ticket, and climb on board the plane and fasten my seatbelt that I am placing my trust in the belief that air travel is safe travel.
And then there’s grace. Grace is what God has done for us in Christ. Grace is the first word in this letter, and the last thought in this letter. Grace means that our salvation in Christ is a free gift. No matter how hard we work at being good, at doing good, we cannot earn our salvation. It is nothing more and nothing less than an undeserved gift of God. Grace is God saying, “I love you in ways you cannot even imagine, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. You cannot earn it. And you cannot loose it. You can only choose to accept it.” But accept it we must, for our response to God’s grace is our undying love. “Love incorruptible” it says here. Our response to God’s grace is a love that refuses to quit on God.
Community. Peace. Love. Faith. Grace. All because of and centered in Christ. This was Paul’s final word to them: God has never and will never quit on you. Don’t quit on him. It was God’s final word to them through Paul, but it wasn’t God’s final word to them. A generation later God would again speak to them, this time in a letter written by St. John who was in exile on the island of Patmos. It is recorded in Revelation 2:1-7.
There are seven letters to seven churches at the beginning of Revelation, and churches in every generation should study them and learn from them. The seven churches are pictured as seven golden lampstands, lampstands that are supposed to be shining the light of Christ into the darkness of the world. And in this letter, Christ is the one who “walks among the seven golden lampstands.” He is with his people, present among them, and he KNOWS them. Look at Vv. 2-3. All in all, things are going well. They are living in the light of Christ, letting his light shine in their city. They are patient in enduring persecution and trouble. They have a passion for truth and righteousness and have been able to identify and remove false teachers who were among them. Specifically, these false teachers were Nicolaitans, Christians who taught that since they were saved and forgiven, they could do whatever they wanted, and so they urged Christians to participate in the idolatrous and immoral practices of those living around them so as not to stand out too much.
So love isn’t just accepting everything someone says or does in the name of Christ. Love doesn’t sacrifice truth. It isn’t loving to allow someone to keep living or teaching a lie. Like the Berean Christians, we are to “receive the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things [are] so” (Acts 17:11). This church is getting a lot right. Look at the checklist. Good works. Check. Working hard for the gospel. Check. Patient endurance under persecution. Check. Passion for the truth. Check. Love for one another. No.
This is where God gives them a warning. They have lost their first love. God has affirmed their love and passion for him in this letter, so what is he calling into question? Their love for one another. They had lost the love that Paul had commended them for decades before, their “love for all the saints.” In their zeal for truth, their love was compromised. They were really good at subjecting everyone to the truth test, but they had lost their ability to love and care for those they found wanting. They had become suspicious and judgmental. The ability to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) is a mark of maturity in Christ. Not sacrificing truth. Not sacrificing love. Holding the two together. And they are two of the hardest things to hold together. Truth without love is harsh, judgmental, rude, and not of Christ. Love without truth is sentiment, mushy, wishy washy, and not of Christ. Truth with a heart; love with a backbone. That is what God calls us to show.
Now look! Look at Rev. 2:5. We might think that they had the important stuff right. But they are at least getting a B, right? They’ve got 80% of it right. How many of our churches today can say they’ve got 80% of it right? Probably not very many. But unless they get love right, Jesus said “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” Life in Christ is marked by truth with a heart, deep love for the lost and the hurting and those who get it wrong. Not perfectionism. And it is marked by love with a backbone. Love that loves so much that it is willing to confront when necessary, to uphold the truth. To speak the truth.
Today, if you go to the region where Ephesus was, you will find no evidence of those who follow Jesus. The birthplace of the New Testament church, the places where Peter and Paul and James and John lived and breathed, walked and taught, has no visible evidence of followers of Jesus. Why? Finishing well. You see, this race isn’t just a marathon. It’s a marathon relay, with each generation receiving the baton from the one before, running its own race, and passing it on to the one that comes after. You see, the race that Jesus started and Peter and John and Paul continued is still being run. And we will pass the baton on to the next generation. But only if we refuse to allow anyone, anywhere to run this race alone. And only if we pass on the gifts God in Christ has passed on to us from those who have gone before us: the peace, and the love, and the grace of God and our willingness to place our faith in God’s faithfulness and love him with an undying love. Let us pray.