“Toward the Goal!” – September 5, 2020
Philippians 3:12 – 4:1 (3:12-14)
I love going to sporting events. Don’t you miss the camaraderie, the togetherness at the Cubs game? Don’t you miss the shoulder-to-shoulder swaying and singing during seventh inning stretch? I know I do.
Baseball, football, hockey, soccer, or basketball. Sure, these sports involve going for the goal, or the basket. Hitting one out of the ballpark. And, fans are certainly involved in the games. Many have greatly missed sports recently, and missed rooting for our favorite teams, too.
The apostle Paul has been isolated and kept away from the church and the friends in Christ that he loves. His social isolation is not due to a pandemic, but due to being thrown into a Roman prison.
The sports image of the athlete is an image the apostle Paul uses several times in his letters to churches. Paul uses exactly that language, in Philippians chapter 3. “12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”
You and I may not be very coordinated, or in top physical condition. I don’t think Paul meant for all of us to be Olympic athletes. Of course, he was making a comparison. Just as top athletes press on and keep going as they train and as they compete, Paul wants us to press on and keep going as believers, too!
Paul was benched for preaching the Word of God. I suspect he misses being in church with his church family. I suspect he misses welcoming strangers, newcomers into the Christian life. Last week, we learned that he trusted his friends – his teammates to hold the line, when he wrote about Timothy and Epaphroditus as they helped him and came alongside of him.
However, problems can come up. As you know, even the best athletes sprain joints and break bones. If they habitually train outside, a spate of bad weather can mess up their training schedule. But, if they have a great coach, they press on. They keep going, keep training.
We can get turned aside, too. Not only physical difficulties like sprained joints and broken bones can get in the way – other, serious diseases and problems can happen. Difficulties sideline many people. But, our coach Jesus is right next to us, in these challenging times.
When you and I get discouraged and find it difficult to keep on, to continue to run the race, that can be a big obstacle for us. It is such a temptation to look over our shoulders, to long for what used to be. What is behind us? You and I may want to go back to familiar things, or at least things that we know how to deal with. But, we are reminded right here that looking backwards – living in the past – is not the way to reach forward to the goal of the upward calling.
Do you hear the sports analogies that Paul uses? Paul wants us to be like athletes and “press on.” He acknowledges that he has not “already obtained his goal.” Even though he is knocked down and benched, he shakes it off and tells us that he is still in the game.
“I press on toward the goal to win the prize.” While sports achievements can be short lived, Paul wants us to focus on the long run, “heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
During this pandemic, have you kept in training, in the Christian life? Do you press on, continuing to reach for the goal, the heavenward goal? Do you keep on working, striving, training – like a dependable, steady athlete for Christ? Or, are you a fair-weather fan, only rooting for Team Jesus when it’s easy and doesn’t cost anything?
Paul is our Team Captain, reminding us to “forget what is behind and strain towards what is ahead.” Paul’s image of the Christian life as a race is not the kind of race where just one single person wins the prize, where only one elite athlete can succeed. No! It is possible for everyone who takes part to win and for everyone to receive the prize of the upward calling.
We are reminded: none of us have already arrived at the goal. None of us can rest on our laurels and get lazy. The laurel wreath was one of the great prizes of Paul’s day. The wreaths would be awarded to only the swiftest, the strongest, the one who threw the javelin or the discus the furthest. But, in the Christian life, all of us can win the prize of the upward calling, where our Lord and Savior waits. Christ Jesus is cheering us on!
As believers in training, we are called to communicate, to demonstrate the love of God to the world. “St. Teresa of Avila described this task well when she said: ‘Christ has no body on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.’” 
Christ is calling us, today. Go into the world, and be Christ’s eyes, hands and feet. Amen!
 Hooker, Morna D., “The Letter to the Philippians,” The New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Vol. XI (Abingdon, Nashville, TN: 2000), 537.