Press On!

Philippians 3:4b-14

Press On!

I am not a runner.  If you ask me to cover a couple miles, I would be happy to walk it, swim it, or bike it, but I can’t run it.  My knees, my ankles, and every other part of me says “no.”  But that is not to say that I don’t envy those lean, sinewy runners who seem to glide an inch or two above the ground. I’m talking about people like Sarah and Kayleigh, Chris Munique and, I am told, Eddie Boyd in his younger years. Hats off to them!  When I watch marathoners on TV, I can see the determination, even pain, on their faces; they battle through heat, sweat, cramps, shin splints, tendonitis, and exhaustion.  YET, true long-distance runners cross the finish line with this facial expression that  . . . almost. . . looks like . . .  pleasure!  Go figure!

I wonder if the Apostle Paul was a runner?  If he got up each morning – or the few mornings when he wasn’t in jail– and lashed up his Nikes and headed out for a run?  His letters were certainly filled with allusions to running: “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,” “press[ing] on toward the goal, the prize.”    ‘Sounds like a page right out of Runner’s World:  “Stay focused, don’t look back, don’t let up, keep your eyes on the goal.”

I bet you didn’t know that the word “marathon” comes from the legend of a Greek runner-messenger whom we will call Philip (because I can’t pronounce his name in Greek). Around the year 490 B.C., the  gigantic and powerful Persian army landed on the plain of Marathon intent on capturing the city of Athens, just 25 miles away. The Athenians — outnumbered and outpowered—mustered all the soldiers they could and sent them out on the plain.  Meanwhile, the people in the city hunkered down, knowing that if the Persians made it to Athens, their beautiful city would be destroyed and they would all die or be taken prisoner.

That day, their little army met the Persians on the plain, and –against all odds– the Athenians won.  It was truly a come-from-behind, down-to-your-last-strike, total upset victory — the kind of news that sends people running with joy.

When the smoke had cleared, the Athens soldiers sent Philip,  a runner,  to carry the good news of the victory to the terrified residents of Athens. Philip ran the entire 25 miles across the plain of Marathon to the city of Athens, not once stopping for a food or drink or rest. When he arrived, exhausted, dehydrated, famished and weak, Philip burst into the city assembly, and with his last breath he shouted, “Rejoice! We were victorious!” But then he collapsed and died.

The poet Robert Browning, writing much later, imagined that Philip died with a smile on his face, that his heart gave out not so much from exhaustion as from sheer bliss — from pure euphoria at the victory, from overwhelming happiness at reaching his destination, from ecstatic joy at sharing such good news with the people he loved.  Perhaps –all the way home—he ran with that goofy, euphoric runners’ smile!  //

The Greek word that the Bible uses for the “gospel,” or the “good news,” was a word that referred to headline news, ticker-tape-parade stuff, Battle-of-Marathon-victories. Not just good news, but GREAT NEWS!  Like the birth of a first son, like a resurrection from the dead!  Great news, really great news, sends us running.  And the gospel, Paul says, inspires people to either run to it or away from it!

I’m reminded of the scenes surrounding Christ’s final hours on earth. There was lots of running:  Disciples running away when soldiers appeared to arrest Christ; Judas running into the night in shame; Peter running, embarrassed, from the governor’s courtyard.  Mary and Mary Magdalene running from the empty tomb to tell the disciples.  Peter, in disbelief, running back to the tomb to see for himself.

In his letters to the early churches, Paul uses lots of running imagery.  He imagines his whole life as a kind of long and arduous marathon — a 26-mile race.  And he imagines himself as a runner, hitting the wall yet straining forward to break the tape at the finish line, trusting that it is all worth the pain and the burn: “Forgetting what lies behind,” he says, “and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward … the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (3:13-14 NRSV).

The Greek word that we translate as “press on” in this passage has the connotation of chase, of hot pursuit, of even hunting down.  In Paul’s old life – when he was Saul — the news about Jesus first set him running, alright. He was running after Jesus’ followers, hunting them down.   According to Luke’s account in Acts, Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house, dragging off both men and women and committing them to prison. He was a persecutor of the church, on safari to bag Christians.  His zeal for hunting down and throwing Christians to the lions had won him quite a reputation.  Everyone knew that Saul was a fearless bounty-hunter.  His colleagues recognized his impeccable Hebrew pedigree, born of the lineage of Benjamin, faultless in the keeping of the law — a Jew among Jews — a blueblood.

Then suddenly, the old Saul isn’t hunting down this Jesus anymore; Jesus hunts down Saul.  It happens on the road to Damascus.  This powerful Jewish blueblood is struck down and rendered blind.  He can’t run anymore; he can’t see two feet in front of him.   And God says, in an audible voice, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”   It while thing is so upsetting that Paul can’t eat, can’t drink, can’t sleep.  In this condition, Paul meets and is cared for by one of Jesus’ people, Ananias. He comes to a sudden and irreversible understanding of Christ. He realizes he has been running in the wrong direction, for the wrong prize.

I recall a time when I ran – or rather marched—in the wrong direction.  It was a halftime show, when the whole band, including the clarinet section, was to make a right pivot and draw up ranks facing the end zone.  I was on the end of my flank, and when everyone turned right, I turned left – marching braving toward opposite goal.  My first thought was that I was right, and the whole doggone band had made a big mistake!    I was like the man driving down the highway whose wife called him on his cellphone to tell him to watch out, because she had heard on the news that there was a crazy person driving the wrong way down that same highway. The man replied, “You’re not kidding, honey — there’s not just one crazy person going the wrong way; I can see hundreds of them!”

There have also been times in my life when I’ve headed in the wrong direction with much more serious consequences.  Each time, I thought I was right, but then someone or something intervened to put me back on course.  There was always a Damascus Road moment, when God kindly but firmly told me to turn around.

Paul had always thought that he understood God’s law, and that these followers of Jesus had it all wrong. Now he realized that Christ wasn’t the enemy of the law; Christ was the fulfillment of the law, the reason behind it. The law was a means; Christ was the end. The law had been a wonderful map, but now God had done something even better, had brought the law to life by sending a faithful guide in Jesus, who embodied, in the flesh, what the law was all about, and who made it available to all people — all people.

This Christ, Paul now understood, could live within and through him, within and through God’s people, and enable them to be and do what they could never be or do on their own. What God wanted was not self-righteous legalists who measured their godliness by how piously they lived; what God wanted were sons and daughters who fulfilled the law because they had the heart and mind of Jesus.

With that realization, Paul did what you do when you find yourself marching in the wrong direction: he turned around, did a 180º, repented.  The stone that the builder had rejected suddenly became the cornerstone. Where he wanted to go was that way. Goodness wasn’t going to be found by going against Jesus but by following after him. Goodness was Jesus.

Paul now had a new prize that he was running, chasing, hunting after. “I want to know Christ,” he wrote. He had a new focus, and a new way of understanding his life now: life had become a Marathon of the Messiah. None of the old status symbols or scoring systems mattered.  It didn’t matter what school he had attended, or how many of his ancestors had arrived on the Mayflower.  What mattered now was running after Christ, knowing Christ, being like him.

And this is what Paul soon discovered, what we discover: that truly knowing Jesus does not rob us of our fun or make us miss out on life, but that it is better than anything we can imagine — that it is the pearl of great price, worth more than all the other pearls combined. It doesn’t make us less than who we are; it makes us more than who we are.

C.S. Lewis wrote that we human beings are far too easily pleased. We content ourselves with bologna when steak is on the menu. We fool around with little things like “drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.” Once you have seen the ocean, can you ever be satisfied again playing in a mud puddle?

So too Paul writes that even the things he has lost by following Jesus paled in comparison to all he gained — to the extent that he dismisses all those other things, good as they might be, as garbage or rubbish.   Paul is running toward a new prize now, a prize that is worth it.  He is running toward Christ. So “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the … prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

But there is something more. Paul doesn’t just run in a different direction now; he runs in a different manner as well. It’s not just about where he runs to, but how he runs — because he knows that all his life he hadn’t just been running the wrong way; he had been running in the wrong way.

Paul had believed that righteousness or goodness was something that he could achieve through his own efforts.  If he just gritted his teeth and tried hard enough, he would succeed. He just needed to have enough willpower.  In the words of recovering alcoholics, he was “white knuckling” it:  Trying hard to obey that law and to not break this commandment.    Being perfect in the Hebrew scheme of things was a grim and grueling guilt-wracked grind, a kind of never-ending death march where you had to justify your existence and self-esteem every day, a joyless jog up a never-ending hill in cold and rain. Paul had been running in the wrong way.

In the book “Born to Run,” author Christopher McDougall argues that most of us have been running in the wrong way — literally. We view running as merely a means to an end, like getting in shape or living longer.  We set our eyes on the 5 mile mark, or the 10.   When we run, we try to protect ourselves against injury and pain by padding our feet with the latest high-tech shoes.

McDougall looks to the Tarahumara Indian tribe of Mexico to show us a different way. The Tarahumara have honed the ability to run hundreds of miles at a clip without rest or injury. Part of this, McDougall says, is because when the Tarahumara run, they wear only very simple sandals, and so from a young age they learn to run upright, on the front pads of their feet instead of on the arches or the heels, the way our shoes encourage us to run.

But beyond this, the Tarahumara run the way they do because they understand that running is a way of life. It is part of what it means to be human, and at the heart of how the human body evolved in the first place. Why else would so many crowds of human beings get the crazy idea to get together and run for 26 miles, unless they were made for it, unless it was somehow in their DNA? The Tarahumara understand intrinsically that the human body is born to run. They don’t view running as a chore, as a means to an end or as only a battle of willpower, but as a gift, as a worthy end in itself.

There is a scene in the book where a well-known track coach is watching two Tarahumara runners compete in an ultramarathon of 100 miles through the mountains. The track coach is studying the runners, watching their technique, trying to figure out what makes them tick, and what lessons he can take back to his own track team. But what strikes the coach the most isn’t the Tarahumara’s technique; it is the joy with which they run. These Tarahumara runners race up one of the course’s most heartbreaking hills and they are still laughing, churning up the slope like kids playing in a leaf pile.

What makes the Tarahumara special is that they haven’t forgotten what it means to love the act of running itself.

Students of Philippians marvel at how joyful Paul’s letters sound, even while he is in prison. Paul is running the race, pressing on, straining forward for what lies ahead — and he is doing it laughing. He is running in a different way now than before. He is running with the freedom of someone who has nothing to prove.

This is not another battle he must conquer by gritting his teeth and trying harder — because now the Marathon-like news has reached him that God has already conquered, that God has already won the battle. Christ has done for him what he could not have done for himself. He no longer has to justify his existence by his achievements in the race through life; Christ’s sacrifice for him has justified his existence. Like Atlas finally shrugging the weight of the world from his shoulders, Paul finally gets out from under the weight he has been carrying.  Like a runner who has shed 50 pounds, he is ready to run with ease and joy! Paul runs toward Christ, not because he has to, but because he wants to.   A child of God, he is born to run.

He hits the hill with a smile, because forgiveness has set him free to lose or to fail or to disappoint but he is forgiven.  He runs this race sweating drops of joy, because he loves the act of running itself, runs because there is nothing better than knowing the beauty and love of Christ and letting it flow through you to others. He runs because all the course to heaven is heaven, because the Christ who is the prize at the end of the race is also, mysteriously, the pace-setting partner at our side, meeting us stride for stride.

Non-believers must wonder why we Christians keep pressing on.  Why we lash on our Nikes to attend church, read the Bible, study our Sunday School lessons, practice our choir music, devote hours to meetings, visit the sick, feed the hungry, plant the flowers, bake cookies for prisoners, make dresses for little girls we will never meet,  take on the burdens of others.  Sometimes they even see that goofy smile on our faces.  “What’s the matter with these people?” they must think!  “Who would find pleasure in that grind?”

How would you answer? Why do you do all that?  Why do you press on?

I asked myself that question.  I run to God because I want life eternal – both after I die and right now.  I run to God because there is freedom and joy in seeing God and serving God.  I run to God because He created me.  I run to God, because I can, because I was born to love God and others.  I run to God because Jesus is both beside me in the race and the prize at the end. I run to God because He is worth it.

Thanks be to God. Amen.