Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2019 (Acts 20:17-35) – “Finishing the Course”

Panathenaic amphora depicting long distance runners. From Gardiner, E. Norman (1864-1930), Greek Athletic Sports and Festivals (London: MacMillan, 1910): 280, Fig. 51. Public Domain.

Originally Preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.

Have you ever run in a race?  I haven’t; I was never much of a runner in school.  I was more of a weight-training guy. But I have always admired people who can get up the gumption to go out and pound the pavement and put in seven to eight miles before work each day, and who run 5ks and 10ks and marathons.  Such running requires immense physical conditioning and training. It can take a long time to get to the point where you are physically fit enough to run a marathon. Someone who’s never run before can’t just get up and put in a 26 mile jog.  You can get injured or overtax yourself. And even if you are in condition, you have to work to keep yourself in that condition. Otherwise, you might end up like Pheidippides, the first marathon runner. His heart exploded when he made it back to Athens after running those 26 miles between the battlefield at Marathon and the city to deliver the news of the battle’s outcome.  Running, whether it be a morning warm up or the Marine Corps Marathon, is hard work.

“Le soldat de Marathon” (1869), by Luc-Olivier Merson (1846-1920). Private collection. Public Domain.

The Apostle Paul liked running metaphors when speaking about his work in the service of Jesus.  We all know his famous statements in 1 Corinthians 9: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Cor 9:24-27 NIV). We also remember his statement to Timothy: “I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7 NIV).  

We have another racing reference in our reading this morning:  “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”  

“That I may finish my course.”  ὡς τελειῶσαι τὸν δρόμον μου. The dromos, the racecourse, was central to life in the ancient world.  It was major entertainment; every town had its racetrack, either for footraces or for horse- and chariot-races (or both).  Racing was sort of the First Century world’s equivalent of NASCAR or soccer. Track and Field was a big deal, big enough that successful runners could win money and fame, and charioteers could win fame and acclaim for their teams (yes, they had teams–and even racing hooligans!).

“Paul preaches to the elderly of Ephesus at Miletus” (late 16th Century), by Giovanni Guerra (1544-1618). Private Collection. Public Domain.

Paul knew racing, as did everyone in his audience, and so Paul often speaks about “finishing the race.”  Here, speaking to the elders from Ephesus, he compares his life and ministry to running a race, a race which has start and a finish.  Paul is going to Jerusalem when he says this. He doesn’t expect to come back to see the people in Ephesus again, and he doesn’t know what God has in store for him there.  Little did he know that he would face beatings, threats, and ultimately arrest. But now, going into the unknown to Jerusalem, Paul tells the Ephesians that his race is now theirs.  They will have to run it, since they are now responsible for their own flocks in Ephesus, and he has done his best to prepare them with the Gospel, raising them up in the way they should go in their own roles as shepherds.  They will be faced with temptations and made targets by those with nefarious aims. Therefore, they, too, must keep themselves in top spiritual condition so that they remain strong in the faith, and so that they can protect those under their care.  They need to do this in order to keep the church in Ephesus alive.

But of course, there are distractions and enticements that can make finishing the race of faith difficult for believers in the church.  Paul’s Ephesians faced competing religions that demanded obeisance. The Jewish authorities sought to undermine Paul’s ministry and have him arrested for preaching about Christ.  The cult of Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt, virginity, and childbirth, especially, served as a major threat to the young church in Ephesus, and its adherents had attacked the church for its denial of Artemis’ goddesshood.  Ephesus was a major cult center for Artemis’ worship, and her followers had even forced Paul to leave the city. Other religions practiced by the Greeks and Romans were also about; Ephesus was a veritable melting pot. But there were other dangers from inside the church, too.

“Ephesian Artemis,” from the Naples Museum, Naples, Italy. Photograph by Giorgio Sommer (1834-1914). Public Domain.

Paul also knew that there would be those who would try to use the church as a way to gain fame or power, or who might try to defraud the church or use the church as a platform to preach their own ideas and philosophies, and so he charged the Ephesians to be watchful for such persons and to hold tight to what he taught them.  And then, of course, there are the “everyday” temptations and sins that the Devil uses to draw people away from the faith. Greed, sensuality, pride, hate–they’re all things that can harm the believer on his or her race of faith. They’re the potholes and rocks and branches that fall on the raceway that can cause a person to trip and fall, to stumble.  And without help or protection (and perhaps, we might say, without a good trainer), these enemies of faith can end a person’s race prematurely.

Even though it’s been nearly 2000 years, we Christians today still face these obstacles and pitfalls in our running of the race of faith.  We still see people who use the church for their own gain and who lead people astray in order to defraud them. We see wolves in sheep’s clothing using the church to conceal their crimes against other people.  Outside the church, just as in Paul’s day, we still see people in positions of power attempting to silence the preaching of the Gospel around the world, and we even see people in the United States using their positions of power and influence to belittle Christian faith or force Christians into crises of conscience.  And we experience the myriad temptations of the flesh common to all people, every day, that can draw us astray and shipwreck our faith if allowed to reign in our lives. How could Paul and the Ephesians–and how can we–run the race successfully? Who or what can keep us from stumbling?

Of course, we cannot run the race of faith successfully on our own.  No matter how much we train, our sinful nature will cause us to trip and fall, and those forces who wish to knock us out of the race will try their best to do so.  We cannot stay consistently alert of our own accord–eventually, we tire or become distracted and lose sight of the goal. So we must look to another one who can help us run; indeed, one who makes it possible for us to run: our Lord and Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.  He ran the race of life perfectly in our stead. Being both God and man, he did what we could not do. He lived a sinless life, and he died and rose again, indicating that he had indeed won the race for us by defeating the sin and death that threaten we who run. None of the various pitfalls that attack his church were able to touch him, and he thwarted all of their schemes in his running of the race of faith.  Because of this, he won for us the “everlasting crown” that Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians, and he won the completion of the course of a life of faith for us as well. This is what Paul looked forward to in our reading this morning. Christ had finished the course for him, and Paul had faith that his Lord had done this, so that he might finish strong in faith so long as he trusted him. And Christ has finished the race for us, too.  Though we are sinners, we can look to him at the finish line and forge ahead. He’s won the crown for us, and so when we trust him and fix our eyes on him, we share in his victory. Trusting in him, eyes fixed on him, victory is guaranteed.

This is what the race finished on our behalf looks like.
“Crucifix in a Classroom at Concordia Seminary” (2017) by Nils Niemeier.

But even then, how can we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus?  We’re sinners, after all, with all of the weaknesses that come with that.  How can we, like Paul and the Ephesians, keep ourselves watchful and in top spiritual shape to run the course in spite of the dangers?  In this race, Jesus has given us a coach who will aid us in our run, who runs beside us all the way, keeping pace with us and encouraging us as we run on.  This is the Holy Spirit, who helped Paul in his course; as Paul says, “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there.  I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me” (Acts 20:22-23 NIV).

“St. Paul Writing His Epistles” (ca. 1618-1620), by Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632). Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Public Domain.

Just as the Holy Spirit led Paul in the course of his ministry through dangerous situations and foreign lands, yet kept him in the faith and gave him hope, so are we preserved in the faith by the Holy Spirit.  He helps us to daily die to sin and rise in faith. He strengthens us to daily fight against the temptations of sin and the assaults of the devil. He teaches us to joyfully serve our neighbors and steward God’s gifts, and he leads us in being a neighbor to strangers and foreigners.  And he leads us in worshipping God through work, rest, and recreation. By grace, Christ frees us from sin and death’s certain defeat, and the Holy Spirit drives us on to complete the course, helping us to grow in faith and focus on the prize Christ has won for us: eternal life with him, forever.  

When we “commit [ourselves] to God and to the word of his grace” in light of our faith in the work of Christ, God “build[s us] up and give[s us] an inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32).  Our faith in Christ and reliance on the Holy Spirit to run the race of faith preserves us in the face of threats, challenges, and dangers. When you trust in Christ, you can strongly finish the course upon which God has set you.  So keep your eyes on the prize, and trust in your Lord! Your Good Shepherd will not forsake you. You will finish the course and receive an inheritance among all those who are sanctified!

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