Striving for Transformation
I’m not a runner. I’ve never been a runner. After I finished chemo treatments in 2013, though, I decided I wanted to run – to feel the wind on my face and breathe deeply. I downloaded a Couch to 5K App, and I signed up for a 5K. It was June. I decided that I would repeat each week of the program until it was easy before I went on to the next week’s pace. Surely by October, I would be ready. Over those months, I gained a new appreciation for Paul’s marathon metaphor.
“This one thing I do,” Paul wrote, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal.”
What lies behind Paul? He was born Jewish, to the Tribe of Benjamin, a descendant of Jacob’s youngest son with Rachel. He was named Saul and circumcised when he was 8 days old. He was a Pharisee, an interpreter of the Jewish Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. He also zealously went house to house, arresting anyone, men and women, who belonged to the Way. He was righteous, blameless, under the law. He hadn’t broken any of God’s commands. He believed that he had crossed the finish line. He believed he was right with God. Until, when he was on his way to Damascus to arrest and take back any followers of the Way to Jerusalem, he was blinded by radiance that asked, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (arm over eyes) “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
And he did. He was so transformed that he took a new name, Paul, and he realized that all of his credentials and righteous works were nothing but rubbish. They didn’t earn him God’s favor. Whatever gains he had, any progress he thought he had made toward pleasing God was completely overshadowed by knowing Jesus as his Lord. Paul wrote to the church at Galatia, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
Now that he has accepted Christ – he wants to know Christ fully, so fully that he sees the world through Christ’s eyes, and experiences and interprets the world with Christ’s mind. Paul wants to see like Jesus; think like Jesus, so that he can share in the power of sufferings, his resurrection and eternal life with God. Paul is striving to be like Jesus, and he knows he hasn’t arrived, no one has.
The race isn’t over until the finish line has been crossed. Many slack off, fall back – Paul offers himself to the church at Philippi as a pacer. Pacers run alongside runners for a portion of the race to urge them on, keep them steadily meeting their goals, and help them keep going to the finish line. Use my example to pace your race, Paul offers, and look to others who are running who live according to the example of Jesus and of us.
I started by saying that I am not a runner. I finished the Couch to 5K, but not without a lot of grit and grind, and focus on the goal. Paul warns the Philippians, and us, that there are many who won’t finish the race because of two hazards along the way. Some won’t finish the race because their god is their belly – their motivating goal is their comfort and security, to know that they will have enough of whatever they desire today, and for the rest of their tomorrows. Others won’t finish the race because they glory in their shame because their minds are set on earthly things – their motivating goal is their success, their pride, their earthly legacy.
I finished the 5K, but I didn’t run the whole race, and I wasn’t transformed into a runner. Paul is warning the Philippians and us that we might accept Christ, we might believe that he is Lord, but that doesn’t make us runners, and it certainly does not take us over the finish line.
New Testament scholar Earnest Saunders cautions, “the change Scripture speaks of is not to be confused with the rearrangement of society’s furniture when a new house is called for. Or applying band-aids when surgery is needed.” Striving toward transformation means acting with the attitude of Jesus, and seeing Jesus in every person with whom you interact. In 1998, I began a practice of looking into the eyes of the person standing in the median or on the ramp with a cardboard sign and thinking to myself, “Hello, Jesus” and then deciding what to do.
Martin Luther, the priest who nailed on the church door at Gutenberg the 95 Theses of protest of the exploitative ways the Catholic church had adopted and instigated the beginning of the Protestant revolution, prodded his congregation to truly live the way of Jesus instead of saying “Lord, Lord” and still living like the rest of the world. On Christmas Day, 1543, he preached, “The inn was full. No one would release a room to this pregnant woman. She had to go to a cow stall and there bring forth the Maker of all creatures because nobody would give way. Shame on you, wretched Bethlehem! The inn ought to have been burned with brimstone, for even though Mary had been a beggar maid or unwed, anybody at such a time would have been glad to give her a hand. There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: “If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the baby! I would have washed his linen! How happy I would have been to go with the shepherds to see the Lord lying in the manger!” Yes, you would! You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at that time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem. Childish and silly thoughts are these! Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor. You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.”
How do we live like Jesus? It requires training. It requires practice and determination and digging deep when we want to “just not.” It requires making eye contact and praying, “Hello, Jesus” as we see the news, not just as we see victims, but as we see perpetrators. It requires praying for our enemies by name and then remembering to see Jesus in them: “Hello, Jesus,” and letting our hearts be changed.
Jesus, over and over again saw people struggling, and every time he was moved by compassion. Striving toward transformation means not only putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes, but imagining Jesus in every person’s shoes. Are this person’s shoes what you would to provide for Jesus? Are they good running shoes for Jesus? Or, were they used, when he got them? Inherited maybe, passed down generation to generation, or genetic? What color are those shoes? Did they come with holes, discrimination, assumptions? Are they worn by their history, required to rise above if they are ever to run? Were the laces taken out? Should they be returned? Do those shoes hurt? Striving toward transformation means helping every person get in the race by providing what they need to run, like we would provide for Jesus.
Jesus, when he saw an injustice, did not turn away. Striving toward transformation means engaging and challenging powerful who are exploiting or oppressing those with less power so that they can run the race and not be held back or weighed down. You don’t have to be a politician or a powerful person or well-connected to make a difference.
I started my Couch to 5K at my back door. I walked down my driveway and started running through my neighborhood. Striving toward transformation means imagining Jesus living in every neighborhood. Asking ourselves, “What would I hope for if Jesus lived in this neighborhood? Clean water? Good schools? Safety? Air quality? Food and produce availability? Healthcare?” And start acting on your answers. Email, call, write your representatives. Start running a little bit at a time – donate to help build a cistern in Mexico, or go help build one; donate school supplies, or go tutor a student. The first step is just to see and acknowledge that we are not living the way God wants us to live. And then, start striving to.
It is hard, uncomfortable, punishing grit and grind. If it is like my Couch to 5K experience, you will be coaching yourself to keep going, one more step, the whole way. It requires suffering, dying to self and sacrificing for others. Paul says, “I mean to press on toward the goal, where the prize waiting for me is the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Does he mean heaven? No. He goes on to say that the Lord, King Jesus himself, will come from heaven to earth, in order to transform the world and us, so that we are resurrected and glorified. Going to heaven when we die, for Paul, is not the goal of our striving, living on earth as it is in heaven is our goal. The ‘upward call’ of God is to the resurrected life. Like an athlete imagines the glory of crossing the finish line and the exhilaration of achieving the goal, setting our minds and hearts on Christ as our example, we run the marathon of life, forgetting what lies behind – our successes and our failures – pressing on to the goal of living a transformed life here and now on earth – today, tomorrow, and all the next days – the way God longs for us to live. Amen.