In today’s second reading the Apostle Paul writes to Timothy, his coworker in faith. St. Paul is on house arrest and is nearing the end of his life. In his love for Jesus, and his desire to share the Gospel, he was beaten multiple times, arrested multiple times, nearly lost his life in a shipwreck, and had found himself in jail multiple times. It is from his jail cell that he writes what was probably his last letter to Timothy around 67A.D.
He writes, “Beloved: I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me.” I think those are probably some of the most beautiful and important words in scripture. Shortly thereafter, St. Paul was beheaded under the Emperor Nero. He competed well. He finished the race. He kept the faith. The crown of righteousness is his.
It’s helpful, I think, to know where St. Paul is coming from, however. Over a decade earlier, at the beginning of his ministry, from the city of Ephesus, St. Paul wrote the first letter to the Church in Corinth. St. Paul challenges the Corinthians with this truth in the ninth chapter, verse twenty four, “Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win.” Run so as to win, he tells them. He uses Roman Olympic athletes as the example of necessary Christian discipline, perseverance, commitment, and long suffering, sacrifice, discomfort. He tells them, “Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should lose the prize.” What St. Paul worried most about was the horrible thought that salvation might not be his.
St. Paul’s advice to the Corinthians is to stay focused on the prize. Our every action should be filtered through this one lens–is this helping me advance the kingdom of God? Is this thought or word bringing me closer to salvation? Is this purchase giving glory to God and his kingdom? Do others hear Jesus, see Jesus, and experience the love of Jesus when they see me at home with my family, at work, or in the world?
I attended TMIY, That Man Is You, at All Saints yesterday morning. What came out of the discussion was a greater awareness that too often in this life I seek comfort first. I want a better car, better shoes, better house, comfortable living, warm showers, creamer in my coffee, and dessert– always dessert! I’m afraid that my desire for comfort will keep me from bearing my cross–crosses are heavy and demand much of us. Too often we run aimlessly–without passion or purpose; we fight as if we were shadow- boxing with no real enemy. We do not drive our body nor do we train it, and we never even for a moment fear that we might lose the prize of salvation. We need to get our mind right. We need some holy fear. We need to be a lot more okay with discomfort if we have any hope of receiving the prize of salvation.
Is it any wonder that we start Mass by beating our breast in humble recognition of our failings, like the tax collector in the Gospel? We’re not proud. We’ve got no claim on God. He doesn’t owe us anything. We just confess to God and to each other that we have sinned, in our thoughts, words, actions, and even in-action. It’s no one’s fault but ours–no one to blame but ourselves, and we need help from Mary, the angels and saints, and everyone here. Pray for me to get my priorities straight, to stop being so lazy and comfort seeking. To get up each morning and pray. To serve to exhaustion and give to the point of poverty. To compete well, to finish the race, to keep the faith. The Crown awaits, but only those who persevere to the end will be saved. Run so as to win. Start today. Our departure could be close at hand. There’s no time to waste. Make things right today.