Philippians 3: 4b-14, John 12: 1-8
“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:14
Last month I loved watching the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. We watched them as we know these are the best of best athletes, rigorously trained to win.
There were many stories of inspiration, human endurance and perseverance worth mentioning. The story of a Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette particularly touched my heart. Her mother, Therese Rochette, was her soul mate and best friend. Therese was there to support her daughter, but she died of a heart attack just two days before Joannie’s performance on the ice arena. Joannine Rochette had the sympathy of the whole world and could have pulled herself out from the Olympic Games. Instead, she competed and pushed herself toward her goal to win a medal. She kept her eyes on the prize and stirred the crowd with a courageous performance and incredible grace under pressure. This earned her a bronze medal at the final women’s figure skating event. Her determination and persistence showed the triumph of the Olympic spirit.
Paul was very likely a sports fan. He had lived in Corinth, where the Isthmian Games were held. These games were second only to the Olympic Games in the ancient world. In today’s epistle reading, we find an athletic analogy to the Christian life. For Paul, the clear goal in his spiritual life was:
“I press on toward the goal for the prize of heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (v.14).
At one time in his life his goal had been for self-promotion and self- glory to boast of his credentials.
Paul could boast of his perfect pedigree. "Circumcised the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews" (Phil. 3:5). He was proud to be a great teacher of the law: "As to the law, a Pharisee . . . as to righteousness under the law, blameless" (Phil. 3:5, 6).
He was trained in the best theological school: "Brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel" (Acts 22:3).
He had the most prized citizenship, as he was a Roman citizen. A Roman Tribune asked him, "Art thou a Roman? Paul said yes...I was free born" (Acts 22:27, 28).
He was a religious zealot or Jihadist terrorist, who persecuted the church. “As to zeal, persecutor of the church" (Phil. 3:6).
Paul was a purpose-driven person. God knew that quite well.
One day, while he was acting as the fanatic religious zealot, driven person that he was, God stood right in his path (as we read in Acts chapter 9) and turned all of these characteristics in the direction of God’s purposes and plans. After his encounter with the living Christ, Paul’s perspective in life changed and now he said:
“I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith” (Phil. 3:8-9).
This very attitude is demonstrated in our petition in the Collect of the Day, when we pray “that ... our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found.” This is “the goal” of “the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” which can only be attained by “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.”
“Straining Forward” is the Greek verb epekteinomai, "to exert oneself to the uttermost, stretch out, strain toward something." If you watch an athlete who runs the sprints and hurdles, you will see as the leading runner reaches the tape at the goal line, he or she will lean their body forward to win the race. Paul is talking about his own flat-out commitment to see this through to the end. No distractions, only stretching all out to keep our eyes on the prize.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.
Paul in his letter to the church in Corinthians uses other imagery, but the idea is the same:
"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 like a man beating the air; No, I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others, I myself should not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
Paul is saying here that we should not dwell on past achievements and gains as it takes our eyes off the prize, which is Christ himself. His goal is to achieve the fullness of the grace of Jesus Christ in his life. Paul has his eyes fixed on the prize:
“I press on toward the goal for the prize, the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
The Greek word for "press on" is Diôkô; the literal meaning is "persecute." Here it means, "To move rapidly and decisively toward an objective, hasten, run, press on." The root idea of diôkô is "to chase." Paul was a purpose driven person. He does not want any distractions to deter him from his goal. He wants to see the smile on Jesus’ face when he meets him in heaven and to hear his words:
"Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things, enter into the joy of your master" (Matt. 25:21).
As all athletes who want to win will keep their eyes on the finish line, Joannie Rochette in her endeavor “pressed on”, kept her eyes on her goal and won the prize “brabeion”, an award for exceptional performance.
Now we come to the fifth Sunday of Lent. This is a time for us to walk with Jesus towards Calvary where we see the utmost redeeming love for the salvation of the whole of humanity. I encourage you to keep your eyes on Jesus. We shall experience his forgiveness and renewal of our souls.
Remember the woman who sits at Jesus’ feet and pours out her devotion with tears of gratitude. She had been pushed to the edges because of her lifestyle and was without hope of recovery. She looked at Jesus and found compassion, no judgment but forgiveness as he said, “daughter sin no more.” This is a story about a condemned sinner who was set free by the love of Christ and showed a grateful love in return—a love and devotion that flowed from the depth of her soul (John 12: 1-8). Just as Jesus was profoundly moved by this woman’s active, loving worship, so He will be moved by the perfume of our lives broken unconditionally at His feet.
I invite you to sit at the feet of Jesus and pour out your hearts and ask for his mercy, blessing and grace to be upon your lives. Keep your eyes on Jesus so your prize may be that your eyes will be opened to see the glory and the beauty of the risen Christ on Easter morning.
“Press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”