Pursuing the Kingdom

Today

On the whole this is not a pleasant, peaceful time.  All you have to do on any given day is turn on the T.V. or open Facebook or glance at the news on your computer.  Just this week, Charlotte erupted in violence in the wake of a police shooting—one more city in the list which includes Ferguson, Missouri, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Baltimore, Maryland.  This was on the heels also of a local Gas crisis, which follows terrorist attacks in New Jersey and New York.  And this all happens in the midst of quite a heated and vitriolic election season where the demonization of anyone who disagrees with someone else has become the norm.  As we continue to zoom out, we see a world that continues to reel from the brutal advance of radical Islam, where corruption and persecution are common, where poverty and suffering affect 1.2 billion people who live in almost unimaginable poverty.

We, American Christians, seem to respond as a deer in the headlights of oncoming traffic.  We seem stuck.  We loudly lament the breakdown of marriage and the family, the loss of once commonly-accepted Biblical norms.  We wring our hands and shake our fingers at the world around us while much of the time we are hardly distinguishable from it.  We seem to be frozen, stunned, by the seismic societal shifts, often conflating our politics and faith into an unhealthy alliance to supposedly correct it.  But all the while, in our hearts and minds we know that we are deeply entangled in the very issues we criticize.

When you look us, objectively, you often find that many Christian’s behavior is virtually unaffected by the faith they profess.  For instance, in regards to abortion, LifeWay research found in that 70% of the women who had undergone an abortion self-identified as Christian.1 Among Christian couples who attend Church regularly, the divorce rate is 38%.  About 1/3.  Often these are cases of infidelity.2  Porn.  The great unspoken plague among us.  Surveys vary, but the latest I found showed a full 64% of Christian men view porn at least monthly.3  In terms of giving, a place where Christians are clearly called to excel, Christians gave at a higher rate during the Great Depression than they do today.

In his excellent book, How Should We Then Live?, Francis Schaeffer said:

“As the more Christian dominated consensus weakened, the majority of people adopted two impoverished values: personal peace and affluence.   Personal peace means just to be let alone, not to be troubled by the troubles of other people, whether across the world or across the city.  Personal affluence means an overwhelming and ever-increasing prosperity –a life made up of things, things and more things –a success judged by an ever-higher level of material abundance.”5

On and on we could go with this.  My point is simply 1.) We have to acknowledge that we live in the midst of troubling times. And 2.) That many Christians, perhaps unknowingly and sometimes perhaps willingly, have embraced the same lifestyle and values of this troubled world.  We have forgotten Jesus’ words in Matthew when he says, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness…” (Matthew 6:33, ESV)

That’s the bad news.  Here’s the good news, this is nothing new.   It’s been the great temptation of God’s people from the beginning.  And it is something St. Paul is addressing in today’s reading from 1 Timothy.

Timothy’s Charge

Paul’s first letter to Timothy is centered on the idea that the Gospel should lead to practical, visible change in the life of believers.  Timothy was a young leader in the early church whom Paul had left in the city of Ephesus to lead that local church.  So Paul’s instructions here are very practical and while addressed to Timothy, I believe we can glean some assistance in reorienting our lives toward a pursuit of the Kingdom of God.

Today’s reading begins as Paul wraps up a similar discussion with Timothy about the state of the world and a false pursuit of peace and affluence.  He tells Timothy and us what our orientation should be:

“But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness and gentleness.  Fight the good fight of the faith.  Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” (1 Timothy 6:11-12, ESV) 

Let’s unpack that a bit.

Remember Your Identity

The first thing St. Paul reminds Timothy to do is to remember his identity.  Remember who you are.  “But as for you, O Man of God…”  Immediately we see that there is to be a difference, a distinction, between the person of God and everyone else.

I think many of us would do well to remember who we are.  We are the people of God, the servants of Jesus Christ.  In the Baptismal service we see this in the Thanksgiving over the water when the priest says, “We thank you Father for the water of Baptism.  In it we are buried with Christ in his death.  By it we share in his resurrection.  Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.”6

In 1 John 3:1 this is highlighted when he says, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”

You are a child of God.  Think about that for a moment.  You are not just a random convergance of cells, an accident of the cosmos.  Whoever you are, in whatever state of life you are presently in, if you are Baptized, you are a child of God.  The image the Bible uses is one of adoption.  Anglican theologian J.I. Packer says:

“Adoption is a family idea, conceived in terms of love, and viewing God as father. In adoption, God takes us into his family and fellowship –he establishes us as his children and heir.  Closeness, affection and generosity are at the heart of the relationship.”7

This relationship with God, this identity as an adopted child, the privilege of serving Him, and being wholly loved by Him, is our real identity.  We must root our life in that reality above all else.

Flee/Pursue

After reminding Timothy of his identity, St. Paul tells him to “Flee these things…”  The “these things” are the things that are in opposition to the Gospel life and his identity as a child of God.  Earlier in Chapter 6 some of these items are listed.  They include those who teach a different Gospel, those things that are not Godly, having a desire for controversy (something we see and experience a lot these days).  He also lists, envy, slander, and an unhealthy desire for wealth –or as Francis Schaeffer called it personal affluence.  Of course we could add much to this list and in other places Paul does.  The key is that, as the child of God, we are called to flee these things.  We must let go of our tacit embrace of the world’s values and norms and flee their influence upon us.

Instead, St. Paul urges Timothy to, “pursue” other things.  He says, “Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.” (1 Timothy 6:11b, ESV)

The word translated “pursue” means to “run after” or to “chase”.  The problem with many American Christians I think is that we assume the Christian faith is simply something the we acquire through osmosis; that somehow we either have it or we don’t.  So we wait for some sort of spiritual motivation or some divine revelation. Therefore, many Christian despair because it seems like nothing is happening.  It’s like expecting to get into shape just because you buy a gym membership.

The problem is we think the apex Christian life is a state of being. It’s a state of doing.  It’s a way of living!  Listen to St. Paul: Flee this!  Run after that! These are all action words!

Mark Batterson puts it really well.  He says, “When everything is said and done, God isn’t going to say, ‘Well said…’ or ‘Well thought,’ or ‘Well planned.’  There is one measuring stick, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  Faithfulness is not holding down the fort.”8

Look at the things we are called to pursue, “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, and gentleness.”  (1 Timothy, 6:11b).   These are what we are called to “chase after”.  Think of the great Christians you know, whether we’re talking about your grandmother or Mother, now St. Teresa.  Think about any of the great Saints of the Church.  Is there any doubt that they chose to pursue these?  This is the great secret.  Spiritual vibrancy and maturity does not come first.  Those things are the fruit of the pursuit, the result of chasing after these things.

These characteristics form a flow of life within us.  Righteousness, a state of heart in mind in harmony with God’s law, leads us to godliness which produces faith, love, steadfastness, and gentleness which are traits in keeping with a life of authentic faith.

Fight the Good Fight

I mentioned the action words “flee” and “pursue” and in the next verse St. Paul makes it even clearer when he tells Timothy, “Fight the good fight of faith.” (1 Timothy 6:12, ESV).

The great J.C. Ryle underscores this in his book Holiness.  In it he says, “The true Christian is called to be a soldier…He is not meant to live a life of religious ease, indolence and security.  He must never imagine for a moment that he can sleep and doze along the way to heaven.”9 

What or with whom are we fighting?  In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer we have a wonderful statement which highlights this essential truth.  As the sign of the cross is traced on the child’s forehead the priest says, “[We] do sign him with the sign of the Cross, in token that hereafter he 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 as Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto his life’s end.”10

We have largely lost this language and this attitude and traded it for a much more passive attitude.  The Bible knows and teaches nothing of this passive approach to faith.  If we are going to be faithful, if we are going to mature and grow in our discipleship, it is going to require a fight.  The fight will be against our rebellious sinful nature, against the pressure of the world around us, and without question against, as it says in our current Prayerbook, “Satan and spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God”

Conclusion

We live in a world that is full of physical difficulties, trials, and danger.  We see it on a daily basis and it is reported in gruesome detail twenty-four hours a day.   What we do not see reported, and what St. Paul is warning Timothy about, are the spiritual dangers that surround us.  Spiritual difficulties, trials, and danger are around us daily as well.

St. Paul tells Timothy, and us, to flee those things that draw us away from the life we are called to live as children of God.  As His children we are to never forget whose we are, and flee the things that are opposed to our Father.  Likewise we are to pursue, to chase after, those things that are in line with His will.  Make no mistake, it is a fight.  It always has been for every true Christian.  We will have victories and defeats.  We will succeed at times and fail at times, but we must continue forward and never despair.

In the midst of a difficult and dangerous world, you and I, the Children of God, are to seek first His Kingdom regardless of what faces us in the kingdom of this world.

In St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he says, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise, but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.”11

Here’s one more thought from J.C. Ryle.  His words from almost 150 years ago ring as true as ever:

“Let us remember that the eye of our loving Saviour is upon us, morning,  noon, and night.  Let us remember the thousands of soldiers before us have fought the same battle we are fighting, and come off more than conquerors through him that loved them.  Christ’s arm is quite as strong as ever, and Christ’s heart is just as loving as ever.”12

So my friends, remember who you are.  Remember whose you are. You are an adopted and loved child of the King.  Join together and encourage one another to fight the good fight. AMEN+

 

NOTES:

  1. http://www.christianpost.com/news/70-of-women-who-get-abortions-identify-as-christians-survey-finds-150937/
  2. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/factchecker-divorce-rate-among-christians
  3. http://www.covenanteyes.com/pornstats/
  4. http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/church/what-would-happen-if-church-tithed
  5. Schaeffer, Francis How Should We Then Live (50th Anniversary Edition, Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2005) page 205
  6. Book of Common Prayer, 1979, page 306
  7. Packer, J.I. Knowing God (Intervaristy Press, Downers Grove, 1993 ed.) page 207
  8. Batterson, Mark Chase the Lion (Multnomah, Colorado Springs, 2016) page 4
  9. Ryle, John Charles Holiness (Banner of Truth, 1877, 2014 ed) page 77
  10. Book of Common Prayer, 1662, page 178
  11. Ephesians 5:15-16
  12. Ryle, 90

 

 

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