February 16, 2020: “In Paul’s Footsteps, Part 2: Running the Race”

Thanks to all of you who helped with our Blessing of the Animals yesterday! What a joy-filled experience of God’s creation and the amazing ways we love our animal-friends. We had all kinds of animals – dogs, cats, fish… Showing us how expansive love is. 

One of my favorite characters from a recent movie, is the character of Dory from “Finding Nemo” series. Dory is forgetful and often loses track of what she is doing, who she is talking to, or what her intentions were… But when lost or fearful or forgetful, she returns to her catch-phrase and reminds herself.. “just keep swimming.” 

When we are experiencing hard times, times when we forget who we are and what our intentions were, it is helpful to remember to “just keep swimming.” This is what my semicolon tattoo is all about: a semicolon is used when a writer could have used a period and ended the sentence. Instead they use a semicolon and continue the thought, continue the story. The semicolon project is a way to remind all those who are struggling – don’t end your life and your story here, just keep swimming. 

Our message in the scripture today is a “just keep swimming” message from the apostle Paul to the church in Corinth. So before we get to the scripture, let’s remind ourselves about Paul. Who was he?

Paul was a devout Jew who had already reached the highest levels of his ancestral religion. After the death of Jesus, by his own admission, he was persecuting those following this new way of understanding Judaism, those who belonged to The Way (as the Christian movement was known in it’s beginning). He was known as Saul, until his conversion on the Road to Damascus in which he encountered a Resurrected Jesus and was forever changed. 

Paul’s message to the Corinthian church is not – win the race. Win at any cost. It is not that people will be separated into winners and losers. It is not to look upon others as losers. It is a message of perseverance and persistence. A message of PREPARE, PERSIST, PERSEVERE. A message of “just keep running…”

Our scripture lesson today from the First letter to the Corinthians, chapter 9 is a familiar one, detailing Paul’s advice to the Corinthian church to “run the race in a way that you may win it…” Let’s look at our scripture to get an idea of the message of Paul in his letter and Paul’s message to us, in this time and place.

1 Corinthians 9.24-27

24 Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. 25Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. 26So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; 27but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

First we must understand a bit about the context of the letter. Paul is in the middle of the discussion outlined in chapter 8  –  “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak” – and in this discussion, Paul uses the example of the Greek Games, of the runner who strives to win the prize. Paul explains that a runner goes into strict training, that is, they exercise strict self-control, self-discipline, so that they exercise “mastery over themselves”  (Not exactly how I would say it, but the point is made clear…) The runner trains hard, says Paul, with their goal in mind. They don’t just run around aimlessly. Similarly the boxer focuses his punches on the punching bag rather than play at “shadow-boxing.” (1) Paul is using this example to remind the Corinthians, self-discipline is good. Self-discipline can help us train our minds and our bodies and our spirits to focus on what is important, to keep our “eyes on the prize”, to keep us motivated to endure the long race before us.

So how do we know when we’ve reached the prize? The prize  – according to Paul – is the message of the gospel: salvation. As Jesus notes in the gospel of Matthew 24.13-14:

13But anyone who endures to the end will be saved. 14And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.

The goal of our work – the goal of Christian living, the goal of the gospel, the goal of Jesus himself – is to bring about salvation through the Kingdom of God.

Now, the Kingdom of God is the mission statement of Jesus: the purpose for his preaching, the vision infused into his healings, his teachings, his actions towards others, the positive change in our collective direction: from darkness to light, from destruction to growth, from despair to hope. As theologian Walter Rauschenbusch describes it: “Instead of a society resting on coercion, exploration, and inequality, Jesus desired to found a society resting on love, service and equality.” (2)

That is the goal. That is the end result of our work. And “The one who endures to the end will be saved.”  The word translated “endure” is hypomeno, which means “to hold one’s ground,” “to stay where you are,” “to stay behind.” It seems to imply “keeping one’s position in spite of pressures to move away from that position.”(3)

But endurance is much more than just standing still, remaining unchanged in an ever-changing world. Endurance requires a certain flexibility, to be able to move and change with the circumstances presented to us: to discover new aspects of our faith, new revelations God unveils to us; to adjust to new lessons we learn, new friends we acquire, new challenges we face. Endurance is not remaining unchanged: endurance requires us to keep going, keep moving, keep running the race, through the challenges and difficulties, tests and trials of our faith.

And we don’t have to run alone. Life is not an individual sport. Life is a team sport! And thankfully, we have on our team  – God! And God’s people.

* Running  – and running together – is a wonderful metaphor for the kind of endurance Jesus was encouraging: the Tarahumara community is a group of indigenous Mexican master racers who live in relative obscurity in Chihuahua, Mexico. They have gained attention by their amazing athletic ability: their natural propensity for long-distance running. Long-distance running is used for transportation and communication, but also has ceremonial and ritualistic aspects. They have been known to run 160km to hunt down an animal such as a deer – the animal gets tired and slows down and the Tarahumara runner finally catches up long enough to overcome his prey.

The Tarahumara run together, not as lone runners, but as a group, always alternating between bursts of velocity and recovery, fast and slow. While he was imbedded with the Tarahumara, author Chris McDougal received some advice about his running. They told him, “You’re not going to win, so just relax. If it feels like work, you’re running too hard.” 

“Humans are built for endurance, not speed. We’re awful sprinters, compared to every other animal.” McDougal said. (4) We’re built for endurance, for long-distance living, but we want to be sprinters, we want to be the Usain Bolts of Christian life – to hurry up and just get to the end, but Jesus tells us that’s not really the point. We must press on, adapting to the road we are on, adapting to the stumbling blocks in our way, alternating between times we need to speed up and times we need to recover, sharing the burden with those who are running with us, enduring through the challenges to reach the final goal. As Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians,

“Brothers and sisters… one thing I do, forgetting what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13a,14)

As we seek to participate in the great vision of Jesus, as we seek to be a part of the coming of the Kingdom of God – a community in which all people are cared for and nurtured and loved – may we too endure the challenges to come. May we too endure the questioning and doubts, temptations and trials to our faith. 

“But anyone who endures to the end will be saved.” As Jesus said in Matthew 24, “And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.

May we endure to the end, may we run the race that is before us, sharing the triumphs and the burdens we encounter on the road to the Kingdom of God.

  1. Found on  http://www.lectionarystudies.com/sunday6be.html
  2. Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis, New York: Harper Torchbook, 1907, 70.
  3. Brian Stoffregen, Mark 13: 1-12, found on CrossMarks.com

4.   Chris McDougal ,“The Myth of the Lonely Long-Distance Runner”, Time Magazine, by Claire Suddath, June 01, 2009