I think the Apostle Paul was a runner. Across different letters he compares the Christian life to running a race and uses the metaphor of crowds cheering us on, Jesus championing us, the need for perseverance, and so on. He writes, in one of his letters:
“Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that slows us down and the sin that so easily entangles us. Let us run with perseverance the race God has marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the champion and perfecter of our faith.”
This great crowd of witnesses are the heroes of faith that have gone before us, who ran the race, and completed it. The Greek word for witnesses is ‘martys’ which literally means ‘those who testify’ and it is from where we get our word ‘martyr’.
In the Anglican and Catholic churches we celebrate Saints days, and although it is a word used for all Christians that are holy and set apart for God’s work, Saints are also special Christians that we honour for being or doing something special.
This week, in the church calendar, we remembered Saint Lawrence. In his late twenties, in about 250AD, Lawrence was one of the youngest deacons serving in the cathedral in Rome. The Roman Emperor Valerian wanted to get his hands on all the treasures of the church and to prevent this from happening, Lawrence gave it all away to the poor. This incensed Valerian so much that he had Lawrence brought before the authorities to give account. When they asked where the treasures were, Lawrence motioned to all the poor, broken, and marginalised, and said, “These are the true treasures of the church!” This act of defiance led to him being executed.
It is humbling to think of those Christians that have gone before us, that held the faith and carried the baton so that the gospel message — the love of Christ — could be handed down to us.
Have you ever heard of the parlour game ‘Telephone’? It is the one where children form a circle and a message is whispered from child to child around the circle to see if it stays intact! The message usually gets distorted or corrupted along the way resulting in lots of giggles and laughter. Well, I can tell you that if you whisper into the first child’s ear, “If this message gets to the end I will give every member in the circle a bar of chocolate!” I can guarantee that that message will make it to the end unedited!
The message of Christ has been passed down to us by a “great cloud of witnesses” and it is now our turn to hold the faith, carry the baton, to run the race, and live the Christian life.
When you run a race there are two things that prevent us from running: the things that weigh us down and the things that trip us up. The things that weigh us down are things that happen to us, typically things out of our control such as bereavement, loss, pain, hurt, sickness, loneliness, financial difficulties, mental health issues, and so on. The things that entangle us are typically things we bring upon ourselves such as unforgiveness, bitterness, anger, jealousy, selfishness, greed, and so on.
Paul reminds us to, “throw off everything that slows us down and the sin that so easily entangles us,” and to do this we need to do three things:
- Run the race with perseverance.
- Follow the markers placed for us.
- Keep our eyes fixed upon Jesus.
There is often little we can do to throw off the things that weigh us down. There is no “getting over it” or magic pill that takes the pain away. Sometimes runners get something called a ‘stitch’. It is a painful cramping in the side of the abdomen. When this happens the runner must not stop because stopping does not take the pain away. Instead, you must persevere and run through the stitch. In the same way we must persevere and run through the pains of life — those weights that slow us down — remembering that we do not journey or run this race on our own. Not only are we able to be inspired by those that have gone before us, but we are being cheered on by those around us too and we need their ongoing prayers for God’s strength, as well as their practical support and encouragement.
Secondly, in the race of life we must follow the markers set out before us and one of those markers is the way of forgiveness. There was once a newspaper article about a hungry thief who grabbed some sausages in a meat market, only to find they were part of a string fifteen feet long. Tripping over them, he was hindered in his getaway and the police found him collapsed in a tangle of fresh sausages from which he needed to be disentangled! In the same way, sin tends to entangle us until it brings us down, therefore, we must “throw off” the sin that entangles us and we throw off sin by turning to the forgiveness and freedom that comes through Jesus.
And finally, we must keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. Have you ever watched a baby learning to walk? As long as they keep their eyes fixed on a parent it toddles its way across the carpet, but as soon as it looks down at its little wobbly legs it falls down. When you run a race you focus on that finishing line, when the pain and effort will be over, when you can fall in a heap filled with endorphins and be congratulated by your fellow runners and family. Jesus is at the finishing line. He has run the race ahead of us and he won! He is cheering us on. He is championing us.
This week may you be inspired to persevere in your own Christian race, be strengthened through the pains and struggles, know the forgiveness of Christ, and fix your eyes upon Jesus. I am reminded of the song I sang as a child,
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.