Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
I have a friend, a retired pastor, with whom I walk a couple times a week. My running days long behind me, I find walking boring, which is why I need a companion to ease the burden. We are both sports fans, so our conversations are not limited to church matters. We also both recently acquired new pets; he, a dog, and I, a cat. So the joys of sharing how our pets are adjusting to us have made our exercise less of a chore.
In my running days, I had a wristwatch that timed my mile splits. I always made every effort to better my total time each outing. Nowadays, my friend and I both have an app on our phones that counts our steps and times our walks. We’re not out to set any personal records, but it’s fun to know how we compare to our previous outing. And although our walks are not longer than two miles, that meager distance is somewhat of a challenge to us at our age. So the phone app is equipped with another helpful tool, a voice that offers us words of encouragement as we near our goal. “Almost there! You can do it,” it exclaims!
While the Apostle Paul gives no indication that he was an athlete, he uses sports images quite often in his letters. This may have been how he felt he could connect with his mainly Greek audience. He’s made references to boxers in other letters, and though here he doesn’t clearly make mention of runners, he implies competition in the “pressing toward the goal for the prize.”
This is the beginning of Holy Week, marking the final days of Jesus’ earthly life, before he was arrested, tried, tortured, and crucified. It is somewhat fitting that we read the letter from Paul to the Philippians this week because Paul himself was in jail as he wrote these words. Yet he is able to lay aside his personal concerns and focus on what really matters – a life in Christ.
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” [Philippians 3:10]
We began this six-week Lenten journey on Ash Wednesday when we received the ashes on our forehead, and were grimly reminded that we are dust, and we shall return to dust. As we know all too well, the past year has been a trying one for all of us, as we have been forced to make adjustments to situations that we haven’t faced in our lifetime. The reality of death lurks around every corner. And now the cross is within our sight.
Paul saw God take shape in the world and in his own life most concretely in the cross of Christ. In the cross, God dignifies and sanctifies all human suffering by promising to be there with us and for us. We, ourselves, bear that cross, as we struggle to be faithful in this world.
Paul invites us to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus,” by tying our suffering to Jesus’ own, and inviting us thereby to recognize God’s presence not only in the distant heavens but also, and even more, in the daily struggles of our lives.
This Lenten journey, difficult as it may have seemed for some, is a metaphor for life. We struggle, we endure, but we do not lose faith. We do not lose faith because we know that God walks along with us to the cross, and on the other side of that cross, on the other side of Easter, on the other side of Christ’s resurrection, there is promise of a new life.
And just as I have a partner to make my walk less burdensome, we walk along our journey in community. Together, we can do far more than we can accomplish individually. Together, we can face the struggles of our lives, rejoice in the triumphs, nurture our relationships, and encourage each other to care for those around us and receive their care in turn, using us and even our daily routines to love and care for the world and people God loves so much.
Like the app that pushes me with the words, “Almost there! You can do it,” Paul spurs us on by urging us to, “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus!”
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