St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for Septuagesima, February 5, 2023
“I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection; lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.”
I AM not a runner. People have told me when they see me run, I resemble a bear. I see people jogging through the park or down Sunday sidewalks and I don’t think: “Oh, that looks fun.”
I also don’t like to get hit with somebody’s fist. Maybe it’s just me, but that hurts. And my own hands hurt when I hit something with them, like a guy’s jaw. I don’t like to fight, and it’s remarkable how little fighting I had to do as a kid. I was tall quite early, you see. I was always the guy at the back of group photos. Some may have had thoughts of punching me, but then looked up and thought better of it. Lucky me. I wouldn’t have known how to fight back.
I did learn the boxing fundamentals, though. Frankie Van was a friend of my dad, and was a real professional boxing referee. He appeared in lots of boxing movies as the ref, with his white shirt and bow tie. Frankie had his own gym with exercise equipment and punching bags. I put on the gloves and punched the bag. Then he showed me how to take a boxer’s stance, put up my dukes, move and stay balanced, jab, cross and uppercut. We went a round or two and, to his surprise, I landed one on his chin. That was my entire career: one punch on Frankie Van.
So, when St. Paul talks about running and boxing, I know about as much as any disinterested observer, having watched Olympic races and ancient Monday night fights on TV. These are not my sports. But I do have the spirit for them, even if I don’t have a body to excel. What is the apostle talking about in our Epistle today?
The objective of running in a race is to win a prize. What’s the point of running if you don’t want to get there first in front of the other guys? You may be outmatched before you start, but you don’t run with that idea. You hear the gun, jump up, legs start pumping, get moving forward as fast as you can, looking down the lane until you see the tape and stretch for it. You’re going for the gold here and nothing less will do.
If you saw any of the Rocky movies, you saw a street bum get heart for an upcoming fight and begin to shape himself up for it. By the title round he was still a bum, and was out-matched by whomever he faced—did you see him up against Hulk Hogan? That wasn’t pretty. But in the title match, Rocky had his body under subjection, and his heart was right. And though he led with his face, as they say, he never gave it up. This wasn’t shadow boxing, it was the real thing, and in the end, he laid the other guy out and won the prize. Like the 49ers, until last Sunday. Backs against the wall, losing by a lot, quarterback unable to throw, they fought on.
Now, how is this a lesson for us? The prize is heaven, and frankly we place too low a value on that objective. Some people seem to see heaven as a consolation for having to live down here for a lifetime. But since it’s better than that other unmentionable place, we’ll settle for heaven. With Hollywood’s idea of what heaven is like, it’s no wonder that people aren’t excited about wearing togas, stiff stage wings, and Roman sandals in a dry ice-generated cloud—like an ad for Xanax.
There is nothing like that in your future: I guarantee it. Going to heaven is more like hearing 100,000 fans in the Coliseum cheering you at the final buzzer that ends the Super Bowl you just won with a shoestring catch at the far corner of the end zone. You’re a hero. You used up everything you had to get there, left nothing on the field, and stretched for more, touching both toes inbounds before falling on the turf, the ball firmly tucked away. And the buzzer sounds. You did it. And everybody loves you.
Everybody loves you. Not just for a moment either, one brief season, then they bored again, looking for another hero. No. Everybody goes on loving you, and cheering your victory. On this earth, there are few people that feel that kind of sustained approval. Most of them are ruined by it, too, and have to keep on impressing themselves and others in order to keep the good will flowing.
But not in heaven. First: thank God, we’re purified from our old hankering for applause. It will be more an overwhelming relief to know that all our good works now count for something and that the real judge of our lives is happy with us. There is no higher judge, and He has ruled: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” That’s the prize.
Everything else you did, all your errors in judgment, shameful misadventures, gifts offered to unworthy objects, lost weekends and hours of wasted time doing essentially nothing—all these are gone, gone with even the memory of that guilt you felt, because God has taken you up and called you faithful. And though you were still unworthy when you left these shores, you’ve been made worthy at the gates of heaven.
Is anything else worth striving for? Sure. There are very worthy goals we work for in the here and now. We work to bring home a check. We sing to bring others pleasure. We serve people to make their lives full. We give of ourselves to fulfill the lives of those we love. We also eat, sleep, wash, and tend our body needs in order to stay alive and well. Life is more than leisure. And when our work has a worthy object, and when it is done with a good heart, it’s right to feel good about it.
There is a silly religious tenet that says only our faith means anything to God: nothing we do is worthy, and our works are only the motions of our pride. That’s getting the equation wrong. Yes, it is by faith we are saved. But faith, as St. James says, when it stands alone doesn’t prove a thing. Peter had faith that he might walk on the water with Jesus, but it didn’t mean a thing until he stepped off the boat. Likewise, works without faith mean nothing either. What we are seeking is a life that brings glory to God, and shows Him we mean what we say we mean by our faith. And then, “God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister.”Heb 6:10 Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matt 5:16
He told a parable about workers in a vineyard. Here the owner pays everyone the same, even though they all worked differing hours. The ones who worked longest complained. But that would be like cross-country runners complaining that the sprinters who won the dash shouldn’t get medals too, having only run the length of a football field, while the cross-country course goes on for miles. The workers who harvested that gentleman’s grapes were asked to work until dark. Some were hired early in the day, others near quitting time, but they all worked until dark. It’s not so much how you begin the Christian life that matters, it’s how you finish. Finish strong.
That’s what St. Paul means when he says, “I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.” 1 Cor 9:26-27 You don’t just take a few swipes at your opponent and then let your guard down. You don’t just run a few paces down the track and call it good. There’s an objective, a final buzzer, a finish line, the pinnacle reached and the flag planted, one small step for a man but a giant leap for mankind. Our lives must be lived every day; our hearts never miss a beat, our breath maintaining its rhythmic pumping of air, in and out. We don’t stop.
I once had an epiphany in a confirmation class. The lesson was Exodus, recounting the Passover parallels of the Jewish escape from slavery to Jesus and our salvation. He is the lamb, slain for us, his blood upon the doorpost of the cross. We are saved from the angel of death, just as they were, through His blood. Then we escape the slavery of sin and death, to freedom through the baptismal waters of the Red Sea. It all works out, even to there being no bone broken in Christ’s Body. We are all heading for our Promised Land.
But consider the 40 years in the desert. Is that part of the metaphor? Of course, it is! It’s this life, after we’ve converted, been baptized, taken Christ as Lord and Savior, received confirmation, still we have to live our lives in the desert of this world. And we must work.
The old man dies hard, sometimes, and we learn the great lessons of faith proved over time, love that goes on being given, not just in the glow of its first passion, but for a lifetime, patience perfected through suffering, and the sanctification of facing each of our faults and gaining mastery over them, one by one.
It may take 40 years to cross this finish line, or 60, or 90. But when we’ve broken that tape, and the crowds begin to cheer—we shall feel a flood of relief and joy, and this very truest meaning of our whole life will eclipse the tears and pain and shadows that went before.
Welcome home, forever.