There’s at least twice in the New Testament I can easily identify Paul using the image of the race and runner. The first time is in today’s passage of scripture in which he writes the well known words, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." (2 Tim 4:7) The second is one of my favourite passages of scripture Hebrews 12:1 - 2 “Therefore since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely to us, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”
Runners, especially long distance runners, are quite remarkable. The commitment required to train involves an investment of time and a high level of dedication. I often see people running in cold, rainy, damp weather. I’m amazed at the dedication the people I see running in the winter. A friend of mine runs marathons and he talks of it as being both a physical and mental challenge. The physical part is pushing past the exhaustions and the mental aspect is the ability to stay the course, to keep focused on the goal and to know when to give yourself the necessary pep talk to keep going in spite of aching muscles.
I am not a runner but a few years ago I started going to the gym again. That was a challenge for me. I began on the treadmill because I figured at the very least I can walk. I started out pretty slowly and every few days I would increase the speed. After about a month, I said to myself, “Why don’t you try to run a little?” So I did. I ran for a whole minute and I was proud of myself. After a week or so of one minute, I thought – why don’t you try two minutes? “Okay.” I said to myself, “a minute is only sixty seconds. Anyone can do anything for 60 seconds.” Oh, that was a hard 60 seconds -- legs aching; breathing hard. I had to break it down. Only 45 more seconds to go – I can do anything for 45 seconds; only 30 seconds to go; only 15 seconds to go keep going; only 10. That’s the mental challenge – how to persuade yourself to keep going when your body would rather stop.
As Paul travelled spreading the good news of Jesus Christ, he no doubt had plenty of days when he would rather have stopped and given up being a disciple. And yet he kept going. He travelled all around Asia, proclaiming the good news and did his best to stay in touch with all the fledgling Christian communities he visited. I think Paul was like a minister for a multi-point pastoral charge – except his points were hundreds and hundreds of miles apart. He could not always be with them so he wrote all the points letters – letters of encouragement; letter of discipline; letters with practical advice on how to live as one of Christ’s disciples. He ran the race. He kept going.
William Ritter writes, “Several years ago, I told you a story about one of my all-time favourite people. Not that I know her, or have even met her. But I admire her. Because one day, at age 42, in beautiful downtown Cleveland, she ran a marathon by accident (all 26 miles, 385 yards of it). Her name was Georgene Johnson. Still is. As you will recall, she lined up with the wrong group at the starting line. Not the 10K group, where she belonged. But the 26 mile group, where she didn't. It wasn't until the four mile mark that she realized her mistake. So she just kept going, finishing the race in four hours and four minutes. But it's what she said later (by way of explanation) that has stayed with me since. Said Georgene: "This isn't the race I trained for. This isn't the race I entered. But, for better or worse, this is the race I'm in." (www.sermons.com)
That is true for so many of us. We sometimes find ourselves in places we don’t intend to be and yet we must make the best of the situation. At the end of his life and ministry Paul found himself in that unintended place. He was in prison. As Paul sits in jail, looking back over his ministry, perhaps he is remembering that day on the road to Damascus when Jesus came so powerfully in his life or remembering his visits with the Christian communities in Rome, Corinth, or Phillipi. As the scenes of his ministry flash before his eyes, he has a choice to make about how to spend his remaining days. He could choose to be bitter or to lash out at God for the fate that has befallen him.
Instead, Paul does what he does best, he does what God has called him to do from the beginning of his ministry, he takes out his pen and parchment and writes. Today it is a letter to Timothy. Some of what he writes is instruction to us, “As for you always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.” (2 Timothy 4:5) Some of what Paul writes is practical, “Do your best to come to me soon…. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas; also the books, and above all the parchments.” (2 Timothy 4:9, 13) Some of it is Paul’s deep and abiding faith in God’s goodness. “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever.” (2 Timothy 4: 18)
Paul could have chosen to look at his time in prison as a failure—a dismal end to and otherwise good ministry. Instead he is able to write in faith, “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:6 – 7)
On April 12, 1980 right here in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador Terry Fox began the Marathon of Hope. Every day for 143 days he got up and ran – ran in the rain; ran in the wind; ran in the sleet. His goal was to run across Canada to raise money for cancer research – 1 dollar for every Canadian. On September 1, 1980 just outside Thunder Bay, after running 5, 373 km, Terry had to stop. With tears in his eyes, he announced that the cancer had returned. He never reached his destination. But who among us would say he failed? Terry Fox is a Canadian hero because of his determination and strength of spirit -- to stay the course, to run the race. Terry’s dream lives on each year as thousands people around the world gather to run, walk, or wheel sharing in his legacy – the Marathon of Hope. In faith we call those who inspire us to stay the course the great cloud of witnesses. Success lies not in reaching our destination, but in how well and true we stay the course. Terry stayed the course. Paul stayed the course.
As we hear the story of Paul’s life lived in faith we are reminded of the course that is set before each one of us. We do not know the twists and turns that will come our way. No doubt we will face difficult times. No doubt we will want to give up. No doubt there will be times of joy. It is not the destination that matters, but the company we take with us, our fellow travellers in the way of Christ, and above all our God who sustains us and offers us the grace that inspires us to stay the course, run the race, and keep the faith. Amen.