Are you familiar with these decals or stickers? (26.2 or 13.1) You might see them on the back of a car or truck. They are the distances for a marathon (26.2 miles) and half marathon (13.1 miles). People might put them on their vehicle as an indication that they have run a marathon or half marathon, or to make people think that they have completed one of those long-distance races. However, some people have responded to those stickers with their own stickers (2.62) or (0.0). I’m not sure which category you fall into when it comes to long-distance running. Maybe you are an avid runner or more of a leisurely stroller, a marathoner or more of a run-only-when-chased type of person. Whatever the case might be, the words of Philippians 3 remind us of the race of Christian faith that each of us is running. The Holy Spirit entered you in this race when he created faith in your heart and you have been running ever since. So let me ask you, “How is that race of Christian faith going?” Are you tired or worn out, are you distracted sometimes finding yourself looking back instead of looking forward, do you feel strong and well trained? That’s what these words from Philippians 3 lead us to consider today as we look at the race of Christian faith.
The Apostle Paul thought that his race for heaven was actually going pretty well. That might not surprise you because after all he was an Apostle of Jesus and someone who wrote nearly half of the New Testament. But I’m not talking about the time when he was a Christian. I’m actually referring to the time BEFORE he was a Christian. That’s right. Before Paul was a Christian, he was convinced that he was doing all the right things to win heaven. He followed a super strict religious training regiment that was based upon his obedience of God’s commands in addition to a whole bunch of other things he and others had developed which they were convinced would make them right with God. In fact, Paul provided a list of those things that he had at one time been convinced were winning for himself heaven. Take a look at his “trophy case” and listen to his list of accomplishments. “Of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church, as for righteousness based on the law, faultless” (Philippians 3:6). Paul had turned his family and nationality into a reason God should award him with heaven. Paul had turned the Bible into a rule book that if he just did enough of the right things, God would certainly award him with heaven.
The only problem was that while Paul may have been achieving the standards that HE had set for heaven, Paul was not living up to the standard that God had set. God makes the standard for heaven very clear in Leviticus 19:2 “Be holy because I the LORD your God am holy.” As hard as Paul tried, perfection was a standard that not even Paul could achieve. It was like running on a treadmill and thinking you’re actually going to arrive at a different place. It just doesn’t work. You’re not getting anywhere!
Then Paul met Jesus, or maybe more accurately, Jesus met Paul. Jesus showed Paul a different way of gaining heaven, of gaining the perfection and righteousness that God requires for heaven. Jesus showed him a way that actually worked for imperfect people, for sinners like Paul. This was what Paul referred to when he writes, “Not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:9). Jesus took Paul off the spiritual “treadmill” of trying to obey God in the hope of making himself right with God and reaching heaven on his own, and Jesus said, “Stand here. I have something to give you.” And Jesus gave to him the perfect life that he had lived for Paul. Jesus gave to him the forgiveness of sins purchased at the cross with his suffering and death. Jesus gave him the righteousness that Paul needed to gain heaven. With the righteousness Jesus provided, Paul had won the prize of salvation. And what did Paul need to do to receive this? Nothing. He simply believed that what Jesus said was true, and the prize of heaven was his.
No more spiritual treadmill for Paul. No more trying to achieve heaven on his own. No! Now Paul was going to be running with a new purpose. He was going to be running the race of Christian faith. The struggle of this race would not come from trying to GAIN the righteousness God requires for heaven. Instead, the struggle of this race would come, in a sense, from keeping the righteousness that Christ had given to him through faith. The struggle would come in staying focused on the finish line of heaven, identifying the distractions along the way, and continually recalling the eternal value of what Christ had given to him through faith.
Dear friends, that is the race of Christian faith that you and I are running. Like Paul, Jesus took us off the spiritual treadmill, that so many people in our world today are still running on, convinced that the type of lives they live will in some way get them to heaven. But the truth is that none of those things get a person any closer to God. Life on that spiritual treadmill is fooling and frustrating. But like Paul, the Holy Spirit has shown us the way of Jesus, the only way to getting to heaven. Jesus has given us the righteousness that his perfect life and death on the cross has won for us. We do not “run” the race of Christian faith to gain heaven. Instead we run in gratefulness for the God who has given us haven through faith in his Son Jesus. Is it a struggle? Sure it is. Because as Paul continues to remind us throughout this section, we haven’t crossed the finish line yet. We’re not in heaven. But Paul does give us this encouragement. He says, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13,14).
Last week I was at a high school track meet. You can usually tell the inexperienced long-distance runners because they take off quickly and as soon as they are leading the race what do they do? They start looking back. You can hear the coaches screaming, “Don’t look back! Just keep running!” Looking back naturally slows you down. You can easily become over-confident thinking that you’re so far ahead that you begin to slow down. Or you look back and see how close everyone is and you become paranoid, thinking that it’s just a matter of time before you get passed. Not to mention that when you’re looking backward you can’t see what’s in front of you. Looking back is just a bad idea for any runner.
Did you notice what the first thing that we’re told not to do as we run the race of Christian faith? “Don’t look back!” or as Paul puts it, “Forgetting what is behind.” Why would looking back be detrimental for the Christian? We might turn around to look at things from our past that we’re proud of, thinking that they might just be good reasons for God to reward us with heaven. We might even begin setting up our own religious “trophy case,” a resume of reasons for God to reward us with heaven: 3rd generation Christian, was confirmed, member of a church, faithful spouse, trying to be good parent, helpful to those in need, trying to do the right things. Before you know it, what have we started to depend on for our confidence of heaven? We’re looking back at ourselves and what we’ve done, instead of looking to Jesus and what he has done for us.
Or maybe we might turn around to look at the things from our past that we’re not so proud of – things that we’ve said or done that have hurt the people in our lives. We still find ourselves staring back at those sins, because in some way we feel the need to, despairing of the forgiveness that Christ says is ours. Again, there we are looking back at ourselves and what we’ve done, instead of looking to Jesus and what he has done for us.
Can’t you hear Jesus calling out like that track coach, “Don’t look back! Keep running!” We so easily lose focus, staring back at ourselves as if our crossing the finish line for heaven completely depends on us, what we have or have not done. Dear friends, forget what is behind and look to Jesus. In fact, run to the empty tomb of Jesus on Easter morning and hear again what we will hear in just a couple of weeks, “He is not here! He is risen!” Jesus has risen from the dead to announce that he has crossed the finish line for you. The race for your salvation has been won Jesus, and Jesus has given that victory to you through faith. Heaven is yours! As you consider what Christ’s resurrection assures you of, it strengthens you in the struggles of living in a world that sees very little value in Jesus and his Word, that tries to convince us that the race of Christian faith is just not worth it. When running the Christian faith calls for sacrifice and loss, when we face rejection and ridicule for what we believe and what we do as followers of Christ, it is the resurrection of Christ Jesus that empowers us, as the empty tomb announces, “This is how much Jesus loves you. Jesus gave his life to win heaven for you. This is how powerful Jesus is. Not even death could prevent him from winning heaven for you. You are forgiven. You are valuable.”
Dear friends, keep on running, with the confidence that Christ Jesus gives to you, that one day the race of Christian faith will be over, and you will finally cross the finish line to “win the prize for which God has called you heavenward in Christ Jesus.” I look forward to standing with you at that finish line one day. Amen.