Pentecost 18

October 8, 2017


As Paul begins what we call Philippians 3, it quickly becomes apparent that like so many of the congregations in the early church, the congregation in Philippi had come into contact with a group of Jewish teachers who were proclaiming that salvation would come only to those who followed certain strict rules, the chief one of which was that all males had to be circumcised. Paul in a brief but effective way tells the Gentiles in Philippi that he was a very good Jew, one of the best, but none of that is important after meeting Jesus Christ. The only thing that really matters is to know Jesus Christ. Paul knew for sure that salvation is by grace alone. Paul is sharing out of a very personal encounter with Christ which rocked his world and set him on his current path. Now he is dioko, serving Christ, in Philippians 3:6, 12, and 14, not the Law and he is intent on teleio, finishing the race, in 3:12. (The only use of that verb in Paul's writings.)



It is race day for NASCAR - 1 A.D., the National Association of Sport Chariot Racing, the most popular sport of the 1st century. There you stand in a gold trimmed white chariot dressed in the white shirt and trousers, the colors of one of the favorite NASCAR teams. Your rival dressed in red, but there are also team colors of green and blue. You don’t hold the reins of the 4 horse team; you wrap them a couple times around your waist. The charioteer could not let go of the reins in a crash, so they would be dragged around the circus until they were killed or they freed themselves. In order to cut the reins and keep from being dragged in case of accident, you carry a falx, a curved knife. And you have a helmet and other protective gear to help protect you from the whips of competitors. The race was 7 laps around an oval track of just under a mile. There were twelve starting-boxes and the drivers would draw lots to decide where they started. The best draw was closest to the spina, a long thin island in the middle of the arena, as it was the shortest way round.

However, it was also the most dangerous because if the chariot hit the spina the driver was in danger of being thrown out into the path of the other teams. When the chariots were ready, the king/emperor (or whoever was hosting the races, if they were not in Rome) dropped a cloth known as a mappa, signaling the beginning of the race. The gates would spring open, creating a fair beginning for all participants.

It is a dangerous sport, most died in their twenties. Few lived to enjoy the freedom given to a slave who is successful in chariot racing. The obvious object is to win, but your personal goal is not to have your chariot destroyed, your horses incapacitated. This was known as naufragia (Nor-fraid-gee-ah), also the Latin word for shipwrecks. If you are 'shipwrecked', the charioteer had to quickly draw his dagger and cut the reins wound around him. If he failed to do this he would be dragged along the floor by the horses and was likely to be killed or seriously injured. You also had to be constantly watching the sspectators who threw lead "curse" amulets studded with nails at opposing teams. Your reward? – A laurel wreath and a little money, the majority of the money went to the owner of the chariot.

Your four white horses prance and paw in the dirt at the starting gate of the Circus Maximus. The Emperor holds the mappa high in the air, the crowd quiets. You pull the reins tight. Now you have one thought and one thought only: "…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..." (Phil. 3:13-14).

Paul was writing the Christians in Philippi while he was a prisoner in Rome. His physical movements are severely limited. He is certainly not engaged in any chariot races. Yet this is the metaphor he chooses to inspire the Philippians to press on. It is an athletic, physical, and forward-moving metaphor. Philippians 3:13-14 describes the charioteer, intent on the race, his eyes fixed on the front, not daring to look behind lest the slightest pressure on the reins (wrapped around his body) produce a false move and cause him to lose the race and possibly his life. (Williams, Paul's Metaphors, 262) The Christians were losing focus.

I don’t know about you but I get discouraged and to lose focus with the world we live in now - Stabbings in Marseille, Fr, a U-Haul running down a policeman and pedestrians in Canada, the largest mass shooting ever in U.S. history, protests of every kind and nature. You can’t even enjoy a football game without protests. After 69 years, I have never seen anything like this even during the sixties. We have lost our center. Yet we are called to run the race of grace in these troubling dangerous times, but there are lessons we can learn from Paul.

The race of grace requires focus: “one thing I do.” There was only one thing that mattered to St. Paul and that was to live for Jesus Christ. That’s focus. Focus is essential if you are going to be successful in any worthwhile endeavor. Focus. Ask any athlete about its importance or any successful business person. It’s also critical to the disciple of Christ. Most of us have never settled in our own mind that serving Christ is the most important single thing in our lives. Paul had that piece of business already settled. What was Paul’s one thing? “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain to the resurrection of the dead.” (Phil 3:10-11)

What a wonderful word is "know". The Bible often uses it of intimacy in the marriage relationship. Is it not amazing that we are to see our relationship with Christ in the terms of such an intimate union. So we strive to know Jesus in his forgiveness, and we respond toward this grace in repentance and faith. Paul has moved from superstar Jew, to a willing slave of Christ, to laying down of all things even his own life. Paul values knowing Christ because he has come to see that only in union with Christ, and not on account of his natural qualities or achievements, may he stand before God. Paul stayed focused on what really mattered.

“Forgetting what is past.” An important part of focus is not looking back. Paul had a past. He had been a loyal Jew, a Pharisee, so loyal to his faith that he persecuted the first Christians. Yet neither the present nor the past would cause Paul to stumble. Some people cannot be successful in the present because they are still living in the past. The chariot metaphor is a perfect vehicle (pardon the pun!) for Paul to explain to his readers that those who long to be like Christ face danger in looking back. David Williams in his book Paul's Metaphors: Their Context and Character, points out that Paul knew the dangers of looking back. He knew that dwelling on past achievements could bring complacency and that dwelling on past failures could make one despondent. For Paul, both are best forgotten in the interest of pressing on toward the objective. The old Spiritual expresses the sentiment of determination and perseverance well: "I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back, no turning back." (McKenzie, Preaching Proverbs, 99-100)

Paul had determination. “I press on toward the goal . . .” Could anyone stop Paul from serving Christ except by killing him? Or crucifying him? Imprisonment would not stop him. Beating him would not stop him. Ridiculing him would not stop him. In fact only death would ever silence his voice. George Cafego (Pronounced Café-go) was a former University of Tennessee star also was a standout in the early days of professional football. Playing for the old Brooklyn Dodgers against the New York Giants one game, Cafego brought the ball up-field practically by himself. Just before the half ended, he broke away over left tackle. First one man hit him, then another. But Cafego kept going. Finally, about five Giants ganged up on him, and still he plowed goal- ward. At last he crossed the goal line just as the timer’s gun exploded. “My gosh!” a spectator shouted. “They had to shoot him to stop him!” That is determination. (Herman L. Masin, For Laughing Out Loud (New York: Scholastic Book Services, 1954)

The Greek word that we translate as “press on” in this passage has the connotation of a chase, of hot pursuit, of even hunting down. Paul is chasing after Christ. Paul now had a new prize that he was running, chasing, hunting after. “I want to know Christ.” He had a new focus, and a new way of understanding his life now. Life was a battle and he was asked to run it no mattter how difficult or dangerous. His was in a race of grace with the race and the prize is Jesus-- and he is worth it..

Paul knew about personal adversity to the extreme. Most people would have turned back if they had faced what he had faced while serving Christ, but he kept pressing onward. How did he do it? Focus, forgetting and faith. He knew Christ was with him and so he was able to hang on. That’s what St. Paul did. And so can you. Our race is not yet finished. Our work is not yet done. There is still much to do for Christ, and much to be achieved in the quest to be like Christ.

“At the Circus Maximus in ancient Rome there was an elevated cushioned throne called a pulvinar (Pronounced Paul-vine-er) for the gods and the human sponsor of the event. From the pulvinar, the sponsor would give out the prize. We await the summoned to Christ's throne and receive from him the prize that awaits the victory.” (Williams, p. 262) So, let us run the race. Let us press on to the prize that awaits us. We have nothing to lose. We have Christ to gain, because in Christ we have already won.

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