Pastors Sunday Message

The Long Race

Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46

The history of my athletic achievement could be written in under a paragraph. Although I enjoy sports, try as I may, I wasn’t very good at them. My one excursion into varsity sports in high school was as a member of the swim team. It was the kind of team at my rural high school that anyone could join but not many did. I really enjoyed swimming and thought myself a real asset to the team.

As it turned out, I generally came in 2nd or 3rd, but never could make 1st. And so, the lesson I learned was just because you enjoy something doesn’t mean you will be good at it in athletic competition. Because I could not swim particularly fast, do the butterfly or backstroke, I was a breaststroker. They had the short races, which were basely a sprint, but the longer races were a matter of pacing oneself. Those were the ones I struggled with. My memories from those swim meets was pain in my gut, water on my face, and the overwhelming desire to press on and finish every race no matter what. I never won, but I always finished.

The Apostle Paul, no doubt, knew the pain of the race, and the overwhelming desire to finish no matter what. Paul suffered consistently for his missionary efforts. Add to his persecution a physical ailment that constantly plagued him…And Paul was probably a near expert on perseverance in the face of suffering. Paul’s relationship with the Philippian church began during his second missionary journey. After initially sharing the gospel with them, Paul continued to minister to them personally and through correspondence.

Although Acts describes Paul’s frequent contact with the Philippians as efforts to encourage them, I cannot help but think that Paul was also encouraged by the relationship. While many early believers and churches struggled morally and theologically, the Philippians were faithful—personally and within various groups. They supported and partnered with Paul financially, and partnered physically with individuals from the community, joining Paul to help him.

As a person who has served several churches during my life, I can relate to Paul’s feelings for the Philippians. There are times in ministry when the people I was called to serve and teach, served and taught me. The lesson to be learned is that we never stop learning. These brothers and sisters in Christ during my past and up through the present continue to encourage me throughout my life.

Paul had that kind of relationship, I think, with the Philippian Christians. He had taught them and then moved on. With great mutual love and respect, I can imagine that Paul wrote to them with fervency and passion to encourage them in their faith. He did not want them to forget the lessons that were taught to them; although scholars differ on the exact time and place, many presume that Paul was in prison as he wrote this epistle. Throughout the letter, it is obvious that Paul’s situation was dismal. Paul was not sure of the outcome, and, whether he would be released. Paul no doubt felt the need to encourage the Philippian Christians as he faced the real possibility that he would not see them again. He wanted their strength and faithfulness to continue regardless of his outcome. Paul also wanted to share his own faith that his death would be victory as he joined Christ.

In our lectionary text, Paul continues his spiritual pep talk to the Philippians. As he likely considers his own mortality, Paul shares with them where his own confidence lies and encourages them to consider the same. Paul shares his own impressive pedigree, one in which many have put their confidence, as one considered loss compared to his faith in Christ. (This reminder would have been good news to the mostly Gentile Philippian church.) Paul then describes his spiritual goal to know Christ better and become more like Christ even in suffering, death, and resurrection. Verses 12-14 carry me back to the last lap of a 200yd. race with my face burning, gasping for air as it pierced my lungs with every breath. I remember cramping arms, legs, and stomach, and all the backs of all my competitors barely in sight. No, I have not finished yet. Press on. Strain toward the goal.

Paul must have felt that he was on the last lap of a long race that he just desperately wanted to finish. He didn’t know what his earthly outcome would be or what would count as success, but Paul knew he had to press on. Even more, Paul wanted to make sure that his Philippian brothers and sisters kept their eyes on the prize of Christ Jesus and pressed on, straining toward that goal no matter what.

As twenty-first-century Christians living in the United States…We will most likely not endure the type of persecution experienced by Paul and the other first-century Christians, but let us reflect on the words of Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer who chastised the church in his book “The Cost of Discipleship.” His argument that the church had become the dispenser of cheap grace still rings loud. Cheap grace demands nothing in return for God’s costliest gift. Jesus simply said, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” The twenty-first-century church in the United States needs a conversion. We need conversion from believing that we can put things right, and that we are in control. We need fresh abandonment to God, who can work in us all possibilities. God can set us free from having to know where the Spirit is leading the church, and give us renewed conviction that God’s abundant love holds us.

The future is completely uncertain—we don’t have a written rule book for successful churches or living in this day. No, what we have is the risen Christ. If we are truly serious about taking hold of that for which Christ took hold of us, however, then the race is hard and long. There are few in their Christian walk who honestly sprint easily through their lives as Christians. There are even fewer who sail above the hurdles of life with the ease of a great athlete. For most of us, our lives as Christians consist of one long race. There are times when we are strong and confident and able to run ahead with ease. There are times when we get that little burst of energy we need at just the right time to overcome our opposition. There are other times, however, of pain and discouragement, and real doubt about the outcome of the journey. There are times when life makes it hard to breathe, and one more step seems unbearable.

The parable of the landowner and the wicked tenants continues the theme of Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man. “The last will be first, and the first will be last” (which gives those of in the back, hope,) it is a notion that challenged the general religious economy of Jesus’ era and continues to challenge that of our own time. This parable points a finger at the religious elite of Jerusalem.

As the story unfolds, the Pharisees know that Jesus is speaking about the unfaithful history of Israel…Who refused the witness of prophets, killed God’s messengers, and now deny the witness of Jesus, whom some have called the Messiah. The heart of the parable is the wicked and violent way that stewards of the law and the temple have failed through the centuries to acknowledge God’s clear message of justice and righteousness. Now the Son of Man has come to give a clear message, and the attitude is still the same. These men of power will not stand much longer for this kind of teaching.

So as much as I am reminded of my short athletic career by the Philippians passage. The gospel of Matthew assures me that I will get there, because when I close my eyes there is one major difference. When I envision the race I’m swimming, hard; but it is not a cheap grace because I am doing all I can to bring about the fruition of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

If we hear the message of Paul to the Philippians, then we know we’re not there yet.Press on. Strain toward the goal. Keep your eye on the prize. Through the pain, the agony, the sweat and the aches, I can see a loving Christ kneeling at the finish line with open arms of love and grace, even if we’re the last one there!