Training in Godliness

In high school, I was a runner.  I ran on the cross-country team and did some middle-distance running in track.  I ran in true team and at sections.  I trained regularly.  I knew all the drills and work-outs.  I had a favorite pair of spikes and rotated my training shoes.  I ran a lot, but more than that, I thought of myself as a runner.

1 Timothy 4:6-12

In high school, I was a runner.  I ran on the cross-country team and did some middle-distance running in track.  I ran in true team and at sections.  I trained regularly.  I knew all the drills and work-outs.  I had a favorite pair of spikes and rotated my training shoes.  I ran a lot, but more than that, I thought of myself as a runner.

When I left for college, I stopped running regularly.  Eventually, I stopped running entirely.  But I still thought of myself as a runner.  After my freshman year of college, a group of friends and I went on our yearly camping trip.  While we were at the beach, it started raining.  We realized we’d left our car windows open and things out back at the campsite, so a few of us popped up to sprint back to the site and get things covered.

The site was an easy mile and a half away.  And I still thought of myself as a runner.  So I took off alongside a couple of my friends.  I was hardly off the beach before I was huffing and heaving.  Within a half mile I was barely jogging.  By the end, I staggered out into the campsite to find that my friends, who were actual runners, had gotten there long before me and already taken care of everything.

As it turns out, it didn’t matter if I thought of myself as a runner.  What mattered is if I had actually been running.  I hadn’t been training, so I wasn’t able to run.  Because I was not running, I was not a runner no matter what I thought of myself.

“Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”  This letter is attributed to the Apostle Paul, and in it, he compares a life of faith with physical training.  He writes to his student, the young, promising leader Timothy, to encourage him to stay faithful and keep training.  These are the things you must insist on and teach, Paul writes to him.  Don’t just teach these things, do them, just as an athlete continues to strive for a faster time or a higher score.  It’s not enough to think of yourself as a godly person.  You must actually live that way.

Maybe you’ve heard the old saying: going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you a car.  And it’s true.  Too many of us have seen people call themselves Christians, regularly coming to worship, but never seeming to live out that faith in meaningful ways.  Because of this, we’ve started to downplay the importance of spiritual practices like coming to worship.  It doesn’t matter if you show up on Sunday, we say to ourselves.  What matters is what you feel in your heart.

But we hear something else in this lesson today.  We read that faith requires our constant practice and training.  Look, it didn’t matter what I felt in my heart about being a runner – what mattered is that I didn’t run.  If I don’t do the thing, it’s not part of who I am.  The same is true for Christian faith.  You have to actually do it.  There are things that faithful Christians do to continue practicing their faith, to grow, to be challenged, to voice their doubts and fears, to be held accountable – this is what it means to be Christian.  If you’re not doing it, it’s not part of who you are. If you are not training in godliness, it’s not you.

And for some of you, the shame bells are ringing.  It’s been a long time since you’ve been in church, or you don’t remember the last time you actually prayed, or you don’t even think you’ve ever, like, read a whole page of a Bible much less the whole book.  I am not standing here to accuse you of not being a Christian.  We are Lutheran, and part of our faith tradition is the belief that no action of our own creates our salvation.  We are saved by Christ alone, through his grace alone, through faith alone.  I don’t decide that for you.  No one else gets to decide if you’re Christian enough.  That work belongs to God.

But I am here to tell you that if you want that faith to mean anything to you, you need to work it.  You need to train it.  You need to develop your faith muscles and help your heart grow strong.   You do this exactly the same way that you learn to play piano, or hockey, or how you become an adept public speaker, or a savvy chess player, or any of the activities in which people might excel.  You have to practice.  It takes a true commitment of your time, energy, and attention.  If it’s going to be worth anything to you, you have to invest in it.

Not one single person excels ever in anything without practice.  If you are going to face a challenge, whether it’s a big game or a big concert or a big test or a big project, you are going to have to have adept, honed skills.  It’s true for faith as well.  Even those saints of faith who seemed to miraculously just get it worked hard in service to others, in daily devotion, and confession to keep learning and growing and challenging.  If you want your faith to mean anything to you, especially in those times when life gets hard – and if it hasn’t happened for you yet, trust me, life will get hard – if you want faith to actually apply to your life, it is your work to be ready.  You have to be dedicated to your faith practices.  I come to you with no guilt, no shame, no finger-wagging, no blame – only the truth.  Meaningful Christian faith requires, as Paul says, training in godliness.

Throughout the summer, our Sunday sermons are going to focus on these spiritual practices.  We will talk about everything from prayer to worship to self-denial, and they will all be classic ways that Christians throughout history have kept their faith meaningful and strong.  They are things you can do anytime, anywhere, however is most meaningful to you.  Some of them are going to be really hard for you.  Some of them will be so easy for you that you’ll be tempted to think you’ve got this faith thing on lock.  But all of them work together to help you see where faith meets life and for it to mean something for you.

Seniors, when you move on to whatever is next for you, it’s going to be very, very easy to set these faith practices aside.  After all, how do you have time for Sunday worship when you have to study?  How can you work in volunteer hours around practice times?  How can you be expected to pray when you can barely get to work on time?  I promise you: when you keep practicing your faith just as much as you practice everything else, you will learn just how valuable a life of faith is.  It’s your work.  It’s hard work.  You can do it.

And it’s not just upon graduation from high school that we face these choices.  We face them every day.  Every day is a new opportunity to learn, grow, be challenged, and find hope.  God is at work in your life, and the best way to see it in good times and bad is to train yourself to do it.  Don’t think of yourself as a Christian.  Do Christianity.  Be a Christian.

Because God gives us all the tools we need, and we are free to put the faith God gives us into practice.  For that gift, thanks be to God.  Amen.

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