Believe it or not, once upon a time—thirty-some years and twenty-some pounds ago—I was a runner. I ran for years before my knees played out on me. One of the things that runners always have—even when they’re training rather than racing—is a goal. To keep things interesting I was always trying to improve my time. I kept a log book, and every day I wrote down my time for various distances, depending on what kind of training I was doing. When I was in a race, there was always the goal of finishing faster than in the last race. I was a mid-to-back of the pack road runner, never good enough to be the winner of a race. The best I ever did was to come in third in my age group in a race at our 1981 annual parish festival. No big distinction in that achievement. (But I still have the red ribbon somewhere, the only prize I ever won for anything faintly athletic!) Mostly, I just wanted to do better than I’d done the last time out. If I did that, I was happy. Sometimes I’d pick out a guy about my age who was a better runner than me and try to beat him. I always had to have a goal.
I have a warm feeling for the Paul the Apostle. The letters he wrote, which now make up half of the New Testament, show us a picture of the man as a “real person” —a lot like us in many ways. He wasn’t perfect. He had big faults and weaknesses as well as remarkable gifts, and in his letters he was honest about all that. But he had great faith and a tremendous heart for God.
Because in his letters Paul sometimes uses imagery drawn from footraces, I think he must have been a runner himself when he was young.
Paul’s amazing encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus changed him completely. Until then, he’d been an enthusiastic agent of the Jerusalem Temple hierarchy in their persecution of Christians. But after Jesus confronted him on the road, he turned his back on that and became a disciple of Christ himself. He found a new, sharp focus for his life —and that was to become like Jesus. He wanted to live in Christ and for Christ to live in him. That became his goal.
In the passage we heard this morning from a letter he wrote to friends in Philippi, we hear Paul telling them that he didn’t feel like he’d already “arrived,” or that he’d already achieved his goal —and had become just like Jesus. But he was pushing for it: “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on to the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
This is good counsel for you and me. Press on towards the goal! The life of faith is like a footrace, and that race is a marathon, not a sprint —moving on, moving on — day by day, month by month, year by year, ‘til we reach the goal. If we don’t keep our minds and hearts on the goal, if we don’t stay focused, there are going to be many times when the going will be so tough we’ll want to drop out. We might get to the half-way mark and decide we’ve done enough. We might get three quarters of the way to the goal, take a look at how steep the last long hill is, and decide to stop right there.
The author Thomas Friedman says that to be able to make progress, to do the hard work and pay the high price that progress entails, nations need to “have more dreams than memories.” This applies to us as well, when we think about our spiritual journeys. We need to have more dreams than memories.
Some of us are well into our seventieth decade, and some are north of that. As we get older, we naturally have lots of memories. It’s normal for us senior citizens to think about times gone by. But we still need dreams! If we have dreams, we’ll have goals. If we have a sense of the possibilities that are there for us because of our faith, if we seriously “want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection,” then we’ll press on —no matter how old we are, and no matter how steep the final “hill” in this life might be. Paul said, “Forgetting what lies behind [including both previous failures and previous achievements] and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on to the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
As long as we live, we Christians are always “on the way.” Some of us may have already come a long way, but there’s further still to go. Our life-goal is spiritual. The economic crisis that shook the world in 2008 and whose aftershocks are still rattling nerves today showed that paper assets can disappear in five minutes. Tangible assets can vanish too. We can be “way up” today and “way down” tomorrow.
But if our life-goal is union with Christ, no material losses can grab that away from us. If your greatest peace and deepest joy is to be found in the Lord, then you’re going to be able to tap into that peace and experience that joy, no matter what happens to your investments or the value of your ranch down the road. Our race is the same as Paul’s was and our goal is the same as his, too: a goal for which he was willing to give up everything else--to gain Christ and be found in him. Jesus is our focus in this mostly uphill marathon we call the Christian life.
What should we do if our goal is to become more like Jesus? Number one is always to stay in training! No quitting! Back in the days when I was a runner, even though I was a mediocre athlete I was willing to pay almost any physical price to attain my goals. I’d get up at dawn and hit the road, running. I lifted weights. I watched my diet. For a two year stretch back in those days I ate NO sweets. Looking back, I can’t believe it. For a guy like me who loves cakes and pies and cookies, that was a sacrifice! But I’m not unique. Many of you have had parallel experiences with something you were committed to doing, and you know how essential commitment is, if you’re trying to reach a goal.
Christ is calling every disciple here—old and young alike—to a life of discipline and commitment, a life of striving for excellence. The Christian life is not supposed to be a ho-hum round of boredom or lackluster mediocrity. Jesus calls us to follow him on the upward way, to an adventure in which we’ll find fun, joy, and new possibilities, as well as serious and sometimes frightening challenges.
This race won’t be easy. To arrive happily at the end of our great marathon of faith, we have to keep our eyes on Christ —and never, never stop running.
Father Bruce McNab