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Let us run well the race that is before us

Even if you are not an avid runner the name Eliud Kipchoge might appear familiar to you (although it’s pronunciation may allude you). Eliud Kipchoge rose to international renown following his historic sub 2hr marathon he ran last year. The record-breaking accomplishment was the first ever in human history and regarded as one of the greatest athletic achievements ever. Eliud’s image crossing the finish line arms raised in triumph was headlines the world over and cause for massive celebrations in his native Kenya. A year removed from the run and the running community is still abuzz with what can be learned from this super-human runner. Every nuance of his performance has been meticulously examined, even down to the physics of his shoe choice. 

The apostle Paul regarded running a race as a useful metaphor to understand the Christian life. Paul’s well-known exhortation found in 1 Corinthians 9:24 is one such example – “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize “. In the spirit of examining a great runner’s technique I want to look closer at this scripture and see if Paul did in fact highlight “such a way” for us to learn from his own stride. Paul invited his readers to do just that a short read ahead of our passage– be imitators of me as I am of Christ 1 Cor 11. Experienced runners routinely analyze their technique looking for new methods in which to improve upon their form. Paul likened himself as a runner who had run a good race (2 Tim 4:7-8), so let’s examine this scripture for keys that will assist in our own running that can aid us in the rapidly changing season we find ourselves in, election not withholding. 

Good bible reading practice is to read the passages before and after our target text. This reveals that Paul’s running metaphor is at the tail end of what could be described as the actual “technique talk” of how Paul was running. Beginning at vs. 19 Paul states:

19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Transcend cultural polarization by prioritizing salvation

Paul identifies three groups within this passage – 1. The Jews, those under the law 2. The Gentiles, those not having the law. 3. The Weak, fellow Christians.

To be cautious of time for this article I want to focus in on the first two groups: the Jews and Gentiles. (Perhaps I will do another article on the 3rd group) Here we have two groups that simply couldn’t be further apart in every respect. The cultural differences were nearly insurmountable; clothing, holidays, eating habits, religious beliefs, family practices, coupled with the Jewish belief that Gentiles were born to fuel the fires of hell and you’ve got a recipe for some deep cultural divides. Now I know for myself living in Alberta, that as a rule, a large number of my neighbors and fellow citizens statistically hold to many of the same principles I do. I’m not talking about religious belief and practice; I’m talking about a common thread of ideals and shared perspectives. In this way there is an ‘ease’ or less obstacles in forming common ground acquaintances with people, and for lack of a better word I think it could be accurately described as “comfortable”. Paul’s run technique for me begins to become clearer as I observe that both Jews and Gentiles are laid out in the same way, as groups equally in need of the gospel. Paul, an ethnic Jew, and an Apostle of Christianity, which has its own roots in Judaism would have had so much in common with the Jewish camp, that the comfort would have easily facilitated a “home-base” kind of approach in which he could view and reach out to the Gentiles on the “other side”. Yet Paul understood that one could have a nation of Nicodemus’s and still have a nation headed to hell. He sees the lostness of both parties equally, “those under the law” vs.20 and “those not having the law” vs.21. Paul transcends the cultural blocs by prioritizing the salvation of both parties. And he does this by imitating what he sees in Jesus, who himself said: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk 10:45) Jesus was Paul’s model for serving others and laying down his own rights for the many he ransomed.

If you look at our own increasingly polarized culture, there are some definite parallels here. We live in a deeply political era where society is frequently defined between two progressively different poles – the right and left spectrum. Often Christians are grouped into the “religious right”, or “So-Con” bloc and I think if we’re honest we feel most comfortable here. Yet if are to imitate Paul we must learn to run “in such a way” that creates a distinction of the Kingdom of God that transcends any labels society tries to pin on it. And this is done by laying down our own familiarities and comforts in the service of others for the increase of the real kingdom. Now you may be thinking;  “are you saying I have to become a balaclava wearing protestor to identify with them?!” No, not at all, but it’s a posture of the heart that would be willing to talk and reach out to such a person in the love of Christ that transcends the political camps that seek to label individuals outside one’s groups as ‘enemies’ and hostiles.

When I am coaching new runners, I often use the axiom: “get comfortable being uncomfortable” as they progress in their required effort. In much the same way Christians today need to learn from Paul’s running technique to transcend the divisions of our time, forsaking the comforts of the familiar that we may to run well the race that is before us.

One last observation that comes to mind in relation to the thoughts I’ve shared is of Caesarea Philippi recorded in Matthew 16 and Mark 8. Caesarea Philippi was a city built at the foot of Mount Hermon and was a center for Idol worship in the Gentile world. A massive temple to the fertility god Pan stretched up to the height of the mount and could be seen from miles around. At the temples base was a cave with a natural spring that fed the Jordan called the “gates of hell” where citizens would sacrifice goats. This was a place that no self-respecting Jew would have ever ventured, yet it was here that Jesus took his disciples. The division between these two cultural groups would have been unmistakable. Picture a small band of Jews contrasted with the activities associated with fertility worship and the image of the massive temple with its cave opening as the backdrop. Its here that Peter’s famous statement declaring Jesus as the Christ prompts Jesus says to Peter, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it”. Jesus didn’t announce a new Synagogue and he certainly didn’t plan on rebranding the temple in Caesarea, He was going to do something that had never been done before – His Church! Here again is this principle of transcending the polarization that exists within various cultures and of which Jesus envisioned His church to embody. Let us run well the race that is before us: being imitators of Jesus and Paul as members of His church and likewise laying down our own comforts for the sake of the gospel and increase of His kingdom.

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