For the Solemnity of St. Peter and St. Paul I wanted to write about a man who puts the fear of God in you while he encourages you. I have always loved the Apostle Paul, even though he scares me a little when I read his letters, since I fear he might step off of the page, sit me down on the bench and read me the riot act about my play and my need to get it in order, to suck it up and to get into shape. I do not have the sense that my life is particularly out of order, that I am completely out of shape, just that in comparison with Paul, you feel that there is always more you could (and should) be doing. Amongst these things I could be doing is working out harder, definitely working out harder and longer. Paul is someone who saw his vocation, his mission, his call – received in an apokalypsis (“revelation”) (Gal. 1:12) from Jesus Christ – as one that was never ending, at least until his race here on earth was run, and he uses a lot of athletic imagery to make his point:
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. (Philippians 3:12-14)
I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings. Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:23-27)
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7-8)
Note, too, that the athletic imagery of “pressing on,” “straining forward,””competing,” “exercising self-control, and “ fighting the good fight,” extends to Paul’s willingness to bring his "teams," or churches, into line. He asks the Corinthians, “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Corinthians 4:21). The Greek word rhabdos, translated as “stick,” was used by ancient Greek athletic trainers and referees to maintain order. Indeed, the more I think about Paul and this athletic imagery, the more echoes I hear of coaches I have known or seen . The best of them are demanding, cajoling, challenging and, yet, caring in their own harsh and demanding way.
In fact, the reality and truth of their caring is seen in the fact that what they demand, they also offer. Paul is not a coach who fans himself in the shade while he demands that his players work out in the sun. Paul is engaged in challenging his churches to work out their spiritual lives as he too is working out his spiritual life, indeed his challenges to us all come in the context of his own athletic training.
Now, this might not be the imagery for all people, not everyone is attracted to the notion of the spiritual life as battle, race or competition. Jesus, for instance, uses agricultural and pastoral imagery far more often than Paul. Jesus’ parables are chock full of seeds, planting, harvesting, birds nesting and lost sheep. Jesus’ imagery speaks of growth, development and watchfulness, signs of pastoral gentleness at the heart of the Good Shepherd.
Yet, most of us need a coach at various times, to push us on, to help us up, dust us off, to correct our shooting stance, to teach us new drills and techniques, and tell us to keep on running, not to give up, that we can do it. Sometimes these coaches drive you crazy with their demands, after all, how long can you push? But the reality is that most of us are capable of far more than we think and if we are properly trained, we are prepared for the battle that the spiritual life often is, when loss, pain, depression, death, addictions and crisis overwhelm us. Paul might remain the coach from whom you sometimes cower, from whose stern gaze you want to hide, but when the game is on the line and and you see him standing nearby, what a great relief. Paul is the coach who pulls you back to your feet and runs alongside you "urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:12) and letting you know that you can do it, you are worthy to finish the race.
John W. Martens
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