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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
I am not a runner. I love to walk and I cross-country ski, but hitting the pavement as some of you do in early hours of the morning, over and over again, is something that I cannot imagine to be a good time. Perhaps if I was stand-up comedian, like Wendy Leibman, I could say, “Yes, I go running when I have to. When the ice cream truck is doing sixty.” Or perhaps I would run if I had the survival instinct of Kenyan distance runner Kip Lagat who explained why his native land produces so many great runners. “It’s the road signs that say, “Beware of Lions.”
In his farewell letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul speaks of running as well. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” In his three missionary journeys around the Mediterranean Sea, Paul covered nearly 10,000 miles, mostly by foot. Historical descriptions of the apostle portray him as lean and bandy legged. He was known to run- often to save his life. In his first missionary journey he was chased from one town to another. Interestingly, in his letter to Timothy there is no talk of winning the race, but rather he speaks of enduring to the end.
The apostle Peter went on missionary journeys as well, though he certainly didn’t cover the miles that Paul traversed. In scripture, he travelled to the nearby cities of Lydda, Joppa and Caesarea. Like the apostle Paul, Peter was imprisoned and then forced to run. According to Catholic tradition he travelled to Rome where established the church there. It was in Rome that the race for both apostles was drawn to an end.
Though Peter and Paul are regarded as the pre-eminent apostles, the two disagreed with each other on many of the finer points of theology. Peter had been chosen by Jesus to be one of the chosen twelve, while Paul had been appointed through a personal revelation. Peter sought to proclaim the good news to the Jews, while Paul became the apostle to the Gentiles. But on the same day in Rome, the two apostles were martyred. According to ancient tradition they were both executed during Nero’s persecution in the year 68 AD. Peter, as a foreigner who refused to be crucified as his master Jesus, was hung on the cross upside down, and Paul, being a Roman citizen, was beheaded. In the face of death, both could say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
And how about you? How is your race going? Whether we recognize it or not, we are all struggling to remain faithful to the gospel and to share the good news with others. Of course, you may not find yourself persecuted by the Roman emperor or tempted by the false gods of the ancient world, but there will be a day, when like Peter and Paul, your life will be tested. Hopefully, friends and family will study your life and say, “He fought the good fight and he kept the faith,” or “She finished the race and she kept the faith.” But maybe not.
My friends, like the apostles Peter and Paul, you too have been called to run the race. You have been called to live a life that offers encouragement and hope to others, especially in the face of adversity, but sometimes we may give up and give in too easily. This morning, let me offer you running strategy for finishing the race. First of all, Trust in the reward that is waiting for you., Second, Do Not Give Up on Yourself, Second, and Third, Don’t Give Up on God.
Let us begin with the reward that is waiting. Finishing the race doesn’t happen by accident. It takes a sense of desire. In many races competitors are disqualified simply because they don’t make it to the finish line. John “The Penguin” Bingham is both a serious runner and someone who knows how to motivate others to run a successful marathon. He has a simple secret he shares with runners. “As I stand at the starting line, I know that somewhere out there is a finish line.” That’s a good principle to keep in mind. Out there somewhere is a finish line for all of us. For the Apostle Paul it was a heavenly kingdom.
Perhaps that is what is lacking in your own race strategy. You have no vision of a finish line out there. You are running along just fine, with the wind to your back, and then a hurdle arises. Doubts and disappointments cause you to falter and lose heart. In these moments, my friends, do not lose sight of the reward that God has promised.
Paul himself knew that the dark prison cell walls, deprivation and suffering, and abandonment could push him to despair. Some of his faithful followers left him. But he trusted in the reward waiting for him. That unwavering commitment was essential to running that race of faith. My friends, the same is true for you. You can’t do it halfway. You must trust in the reward that God has prepared for you. There is a finishing line out there.
Second, Do Not Give Up on Yourself. Often in life, we give up too easily on ourselves because we believe that we don’t have what it takes to finish the race. We listen to the voices around us instead of the voice that is speaking from within. You can do it. In any foot race, your faith in your own ability to make it to the finish line keeps you going. When you lose faith in your ability to finish, you stop running and you collapse in a heap. Faith is what keeps you running physically and spiritually.
I recently ran across a list of great people in history who made it to greatness because they absolutely refused to give up. Even though they faced major discouragements early on, they would not quit. For instance, did you know that Beethoven’s teacher said that he was hopeless as a composer? Did you know that after Fred Astaire’s first screen test, the MGM testing director wrote this memo about him: “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” That the editor of the Kansas City Star fired a young cartoonist named Walt Disney because he said Disney couldn’t draw and wasn’t creative? That Albert Einstein couldn’t speak until he was four years old, couldn’t read until he was seven, and that his teacher described him as “mentally slow, unsociable, and adrift forever in his foolish dreams”? Did you know that Winston Churchill not only failed sixth grade but also went through a lifetime of defeats and setbacks and failures before he finally became the prime minister of England at the age of 62. His own words became an inspiration to the British nation during World War II, “Never, never, never, never, give up.” And I would add. Never give up on yourself.
God has gifted you with your own special talents. They may not develop in the time and ways that others had imagined, but do not give up. God will develop them and use them in the hour when that reserve is needed. In the meantime you must continue to exercise that gift and train that talent for the hour when will be needed most.
Finally, Don’t give up on God, but trust that he will be with you always. Running a race is never easy. It is a matter of body and soul and spirit. A life of faith is never easy either. It is not a sprint, but it is a marathon. I have known many faithful men and women, who in spite of who sickness and desperation, have finished the race and kept the faith. My own brother fought leukemia valiantly. At his funeral, the pastor compared his battle with cancer to Paul’s image of fighting the good fight. Yes, my brother fought. He was knocked down over and over again, and rose up again. Unfortunately, he lost his battle with leukemia, but he fought the good fight and he kept the faith. That was God’s true treasure.
He died peacefully, having finished the race, resting in the certainty that God would be faithful to his promise, and that he would watch over the family he left behind. The apostle Paul had experienced countless challenges and disappointments in his life. But even as he faced his own imminent death he could write to Timothy with confidence, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” He believed that that the loving God who had watched over him in the past, would continue to watch over him in his heavenly kingdom.
In the first congregation I served, some 30 years ago, there were many men and women who kept the faith. Eivind Hausken was a typically stoic and silent Norwegian whose conversation was seldom more than a stubborn but timid hello. He worked almost his entire adult life as a hired hand with never a home he could call his own. When Eivind retired at the age of 75, he moved into Minneapolis into a small care facility. He had a few pictures of his family scattered about he room. And along the wall there was a table and two chairs, and above the table one could read the familiar words of the Norwegian Table Prayer. “I Jesus navn, gaar vi til bords… In Jesus’ name we come to the table.” I once asked Eivind why he had two chairs when he always at his meals alone. “Oh, I never eat alone,” he answered. Jesus is always with me. Shortly before Eivind passed away, he became very ill and was hospitalized. I visited him in the hospital. Just as I was about to set down in the chair near to his bed, he whispered to me faintly, “Please don’t sit there. That’s Jesus’ chair.” Eivind died that evening. When the nurses found him his arm was rested outstretched towards his friend’s chair. In death, as in life, he kept the faith.
What was this old man’s secret to his finishing the race? Like the apostle Peter and Paul, he knew there was a finish line out there and a reward was waiting for him. He trusted in the gift of faith he had been given, and he was absolutely certain of God’s promises. Perhaps, most importantly, he had grown to know Jesus as his companion, savior and friend.
My friends, will the same be said of you one day? “You fought the good fight. You finished the race. You kept the faith. ” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.