Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, 8 October, 2023, the Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost.
Readings for this Sunday (Proper 27A): Exodus 20:1-4,7-9,12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
“forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:13-14)
Today’s homily focuses on Paul’s sporting language in Philippians 3 and asks if we should likewise live our Christian lives as if we were athletes. Hopefully my conclusions will be reassuring.
I once celebrated a wedding where these verses from Philippians were chosen as one of the readings. I knew the bride and groom from a running club we belonged to, and we all wore running shoes along with their wedding attire and my vestments. This couple were committed Christians, and they told me they wanted to take their faith lives as seriously as they took each race day.
While I thought that their attitude to running was altogether admirable, I confess that I took race day somewhat more casually. If I could run most of the way, then good, but if I had to walk for a bit and catch my breath that way, then that was also good, even if it meant a slower finish time. As long as I could cross the finish line under my own power, that was all that mattered to me.
I’m not sure that the Apostle Paul would have accepted my casual approach to race day. Paul’s main point in the second half of Philippians is to urge followers of Jesus to live their new lives as Christians with intensity. Having described Jesus giving up all his divine glory and authority so that he might serve us, as we heard last Sunday, Paul then turns the tables by urging the Philippian Christians to likewise turn their whole lives to serving Jesus.
Paul uses his own life as a model of this total devotion and dedication. All of his pride in his learning and in his piety as a Pharisee, he says, are so much “rubbish” compared to his new life given to him by Christ. All his efforts as an evangelist, all his sufferings as a prisoner, he says, are now dedicated to his goal of winning the reward which is “the resurrection from the dead”.
Likewise Paul expects his fellow believers to match his intensity. Not only here in Philippians, but elsewhere, Paul frequently compares the spiritual life to an athletic event, something the ancient Greeks, who invented the Olympic Games, would have well understood. He tells the Corinthians to discipline themselves and run hard so that they receive an “imperishable” wreath (1 Cor 9:23-27), and he tells the Galatians that they were “running nicely” until they got confused by false teaching (Gal 5.7).
Earlier in Philippians he tells the church to keep “striving side by by side with one mind for the sake of gospel” (Phil 1:27) which could be translated as “keep playing together on the same team”. A favourite Greek word of Paul’s for the faith life is agon which can mean athletic contest, though it also gives us our word agony, which I frequently experienced as a runner.
So how are we meant to understand Paul’s athletic language and apply it to our lives? Our we meant to live our faith lives with the same intensity? Now I now that there are some among you, especially some golfers, who are quite competitive.
However, I suspect that when it comes to our faith lives, most of us don’t think of ourselves as spiritual lives. We try to be generous with our time, treasure and talents, we come to church when we can, do what we can to help out. However, if the spiritual life is like running, most of us aren’t interested in the full marathon. We would rather do the three kilometre run/walk/cycle fun event while hoping there are still good donuts and T-shirts at the end.
And maybe that’s as it should be. If there’s a danger in Paul’s athletic language, it lies in thinking that there’s only so much room on God’s medal podium. The idea that we have to impress God with our spiritual dedication is deeply at odds with some of the parables we’ve heard lately. The parable of the workers in the vineyard has all he same wage despite unequal efforts and hours worked. It would rather be like the first place and last place runner at a marathon getting the same gold medal. Likewise, last week’s parable of the two sons suggested that the son who took his time to do his father’s will was the good son, which suggests that God doesn’t mind if we take our time getting over the starting line.
Which is all to say that it really all comes down to grace. Some saints can be elite competitors, like the self-sacrificial overseas missionary, but most saints are quite ordinary, humble Sunday school teachers, warbling choristers, folk just lightly resting their eyes during the sermon. God’s love is poured out in equal measure on us all. Jesus died to save us all.
Which means that we don’t have to think of the spiritual (or material) life as a striving for rewards. Because Jesus isn’t waiting at the finish line to judge us as winners or losers. Rather, Jesus is walking and running alongside us, every step of the way with us.
Perhaps the most important verse in today’s reading is this: “I press on to make [the goal] my own; because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil 3.12). If our lives are races, then they started when Jesus chose us and backed us, before we ever took a step forward. For most of us, this was at our baptism as infants, though for some it was later, when we first heard Jesus calling us. And we run the race of our lives, not in some epic blaze of glory, but in the daily round of the ordinary hours and minutes.
Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest and writer, has written about how we can find God no in our spiritual strivings bit in the ordinary business of getting through each day. She writes:
“[B]efore we begin the liturgies of our day – the cooking, siting in traffic, emailing, accomplishing, working, resting – we begin beloved. My works and worship don’t earn me a hing. Instead, they flow from God’s love, gift, and work on my behalf. I am not primarily defined by my abilities or marital status or how I vote or my successes or failures or fame or obscurity but as one who is sealed in the Holy Spirit, hidden in Chest, and beloved by the Father.” (Liturgy of the Ordinary, 20).
I had a running coach who said that anyone who could get out of their front door deserved to call themselves a runner. Likewise I would say that anyone who can get through the day and remember at some point that they belong to Jesus, that person is a Christian.
Yes, our lives can be a hard slog. Putting bread on the table and getting through the day can feel like a race in itself. Caring for grandchildren, or for an aged parent or ailing spouse can be exhausting. Maintaining an old church can be a grind. Encouraging the crabby or sorting through the chaotic stories of the mentally ill can be an ordeal. But remember that before you woke up to do any of these things on any given day, you were already chosen by Jesus to do these things. Jesus runs the race with you every day, Jesus believes in you, and he will give you the strength to finish. Amen.