Sermon: Running the Race

If you are able, join me in turning to Philippians 3:12-21. Philippians 3:12-21. Philippians is in the New Testament – Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians. Philippians 3:12-21. Before we hear God’s word, please take a moment to pray with me: 

Father, give us ears to hear your word,

give us hearts to receive it in faith,

and give us feet to run the race you have set before us. Amen. 

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: 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. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. 

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

True Confession: I do not like to run. Olga and I have tried. We have done the couch to 5k training program and worked to run a 5k race. We did it, but I honestly have never experienced the runner’s high and find no joy having my feet pound the pavement while I struggle to breathe. Yet, there was one time. Olga and I were running the Tulip Time 5k in Holland, Michigan. We were not fast, not by a long shot. But we were moving. Suddenly, we turned around the corner and saw the finish line. All our friends had already finished and started cheering us on. With the finish line in front of us and the people cheering on the side, I found I could run. There was such a sense of joy and accomplishment when we crossed that finish line – not enough to want to do it again, but still. 

Run. Run. In the first section of chapter 3, that we looked at last week, Paul spoke of the wondrous call to know Christ, to gain Christ, to be found in Christ. We heard about the fundamental transformation of what matters in life that takes place when we come to know Jesus. We heard again and again these words of Paul, I want to know Christ, and we were invited personally to answer the question of whether we wanted to know Christ personally. But having heard and responded, having come to know Christ, what do we do now?

Run. We run the race. It’s in verse 13: 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. The picture we are given of a life lived in Christ, knowing Christ, is of an athlete running a race, speeding and straining toward the finish line. Church, what do we do now that we know Christ? We run the race set before us. 

Of course this is a picture, a metaphor. Thank the Lord that this does not mean that every Christian should take up the hobby of running. But the shape of the Christian life is like a race. There is a starting point, there is a path, and there is a finish line at the end. 

In giving us the picture of running a race, we are also given two reasons we run and two instructions about how we are to run. Two reasons to run and two instructions about how to run. 

Why do we run the race as Christians? We run because we belong to Jesus and we run to sake of heaven. 

First, we run the race as Christians because we already belong to Jesus Christ. It’s verse 12: Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Paul speaks of the need for progress in our faith, for action and growth. He tells us that even he, the apostle, has not reached the end, had not reach full maturity and perfection in the faith. So he runs, he presses on to make the faith his own, to live a life worthy of the gospel of Christ, because Christ Jesus has made him his own. He runs because he belongs to Jesus.

He runs, he works, he strains in his Christian faith because of grace. By God’s grace, Paul, and all who know Jesus Christ, are adopted into the family of God. Instead of the guilty verdict we deserve because of our sin, we are declared innocent because of the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. Instead of being cut off and like strangers to God, we are brought into the family, called children and beloved. To use the analogy from later in this passage, instead of being citizens of this world, we are citizens of heaven. This is already true of all who believe and belong to Christ. 

Identity precedes action. If we know who we are, we will know what we are to do. I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. When we are in Jesus, when our identity is in Christ, we are free to live for him. We are free to run, not to earn our place, but because our place has already been earned by Jesus Christ. We are free to move and live and act, not out of a desire to find ourselves or make ourselves worthy, but instead out of the sure knowledge that who we are is already secure in Christ and we are already worthy because Christ has claimed us as his own. We run the race as Christians because we already belong to Jesus Christ.

What difference does this make? It makes all the difference in the world. Running without grace, running to try and make yourself, to secure your identity, or prove yourself worthy is running with an anxious heart racing and heavy footsteps. It is the running of life with a hundred pound weight on your back that only gets heavier the farther you go. Many of us have spent time running like that – perhaps in our career, in school, in our family. We work and work and work, we do and do and do, we run and run and run and it is never quite fast enough, never quite good enough, never quite satisfying enough and the weight gets heavier and heavier until it crushes us. But running with grace, running knowing that who you are is secure in the grace of Jesus, is running with a full heart and light on your feet. The burden of making yourself by your own choices is gone, the monkey is off your back, you know who you are and whose you are, so you are free, not only free from sin, but free to live for Christ, to run for him. 

Why do we run the race as Christians? What motivate the Christian life? Grace. The grace of God in Christ Jesus by which Jesus Christ makes us his own becomes the starting point and motivation for why we spend our lives living for Jesus. What does the catechism say? What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful savior Jesus Christ. We run because we already belong to Jesus Christ.

But we also run with our eyes fixed on heaven. Verse 13 again: 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. The Christian life is a race run with a goal. There is a finish line. It is not a casual jog through the woods where you just see where you might end up. No, Paul’s picture is of an Olympic race with an athlete straining forward with their eyes fixed on the finish line. In a similar way, Christians live and run for Christ with our eyes fixed on heaven. We keep our eye on the prize. Again, not in order to earn it, we already said we run with grace, but because every effort is needed and anything less would be ingratitude. We run, we live with our eyes and our hearts fixed on eternal life in heaven, where Christ is. 

It is a bit like learning to drive. Gloria and Zoe, this is what you have to look forward to in a couple years. When you first learn to drive, you constantly hear ‘Keep your eyes on the road.’ You keep your eyes straight in front of you and focus on staying in your lane. Because, what happens if you don’t? For an inexperienced driver, when you suddenly see a car in the next lane you start looking at it and all of a sudden you start to steer toward it. You see a billboard on the road and as you read it you start drifting to the right. It’s dangerous. 

Keep your eyes on the road. You might learn to notice things around you, but the basic advice stays the same – keep your eyes on where you are going, because we tend to steer toward where we are looking. 

In the Christian life, we also steer toward where we are looking. If our eyes are on the prize, if our vision is captured by Christ and his heavenly dwelling, then that will shape the direction of our life. But if our vision gets distracted, we will find ourselves veering off the path into a ditch. I think this is what Paul is talking about when he says, For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.

There are those who claim the name of Christ, but live as enemies of his cross because they have let their eyes drift from the goal and steered their life into the ditch of letting their worldly appetites rule them and flipping the values of God’s kingdom into the values of the world. 

Why do we run as Christians? We run because we already belong to Jesus, so we run free for him. But we also run with our eyes fixed on the goal of heaven, fixed on Jesus and the eternal life he promises. 

But how? How are we to run this race, live this life as Christians? We are given two instructions. We run as citizens of heaven and we run with everything we have. 

First, Christians run as citizens of heaven. Verse 20: But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. We just talked about how we run with our eyes fixed on heaven, avoiding letting our eyes wander and our steering slip and put us into the ditch. Yet, being heavenly-minded will not keep us from being any earthly good. The opposite, in fact. As Christian, we live both straining toward heaven, but also as those who already find their citizenship in heaven. Because we belong to Jesus Christ, heaven is our true home. We run the race and run hard, but we are running for home. 

But belonging to heaven, being citizens of heaven is going to mean living very differently than citizens of this world. It is no accident that Paul uses language of citizenship in Philippi to talk about the Christian life. Philippi was a Roman Colony. As such, many – if not most – of those living in the city had Roman citizenship. They lived in Philippi, but were citizens of Rome. Most of the people in the Roman empire were subjects, not citizens. They were conquered people, who paid tribute and had certain benefits from living in the empire, but they were not citizens. A citizen had rights, had privileges. Paul had Roman citizenship and invoked it at various times in his missionary journeys. Roman citizens had to be treated differently by the authorities. It was a privilege to live as a citizen of that city, even in the provincial parts of the empire. Roman citizenship gave privileges and called for your allegiance. To be Roman, at that time, meant your primary allegiance was to emperor and empire. It was the emperor and empire that gave you protection, that delivered you from harm. Caesar himself was often proclaimed as Lord and Savior of his people. 

In a city where everyone took great pride in being a Roman citizen, of being a citizen of one city while living in another, Paul tells the Christians that are true citizenship is in heaven. We who belong to Jesus live in one city but our true citizenship is in another. Not Rome. We do not look to empire or emperor – ancient or modern – for our protection and deliverance. Instead, we serve the true King. We belong to a different homeland, whether we live in Canada, Qatar, or Kenya. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. We have a different set of allegiances, pledging our life to Jesus. 

Being citizens of heaven is going to mean living very differently than citizens of the world. Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.By imitating Paul and those who walk according to his example, we will be walking in the way of Christ. It will mean loving our neighbor and our enemy. It will mean turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile. It will mean the kind of humility, joy, and putting others ahead of ourselves that Paul has spent so much of this letter talking about. Our heavenly citizenship will lead us deeper into loving our neighbor, even if it can put us at odds with the world at times. 

How do we run this race? We run as citizens of heaven. We live with our allegiance firmly on Christ and with our feet firmly set on his ways, on the way of the kingdom of heaven. But also, lastly, we run with everything we have. It’s verse 13 again: 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. Out of grace and toward the goal of heaven, we press on. We run to make it our own. We run with everything we have. No turning back, no holding back. 

In the movie Gattaca, there is a scene where two brothers are racing in a swimming contest. It’s a fascinating movie if you haven’t seen it. One brother, Anton, was genetically engineered to be superior, to be perfect in every way. Taller, smarter, faster, stronger. Doctors adjusted his genetic traits in the womb to make an improved human specimen. The other brother, Vincent, was born normally – with the random assortment of genes he naturally got from his parents. In one scene – a flashback – the brothers are swimming out to sea, pushing each other harder and harder, when suddenly Anton, the supposedly superior brother, stops, gasping, and looks back, the shore now in the far distance. He can’t go on if he is going to make it back. Eventually, Vincent ends up saving Anton from drowning and when they finally get back to shore and lay there on the beach, the superior man, Anton, questions how it was possible for his normal brother Vincent to have beaten him – him – in this contest. Vincent looks at him and says, “This is how I did it, Anton: I never saved anything for the swim back.” 

Vincent swam with everything he had, saving nothing for the return swim. 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. How are we to run this race, to live this life as Christians? Hold nothing back, save nothing for the return swim. 

Friends, brothers and sisters, Christ has secured our identity and our future through his cross and resurrection. He has made us his own. So let us run. Let us run with our eyes fixed on heaven where Jesus is and with our feet firmly in the way of the kingdom in which we are citizens. But let us run holding nothing back and saving nothing for the return journey for the joy of crossing the finish line and hearing ‘Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master.”

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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