The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary, 43 Foreside Road, Falmouth, Maine 04105 / 207-781-3366

Press On Toward The Goal

  • October 25, 2020
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for 25 October 2020 (Pentecost 25 A)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Philippians 3.12-21; Psalm 1; Matthew 22.34-40

Title:               Press On Toward the Goal

“Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but 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 of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3.13-14).

My dear friends, are you pressing on? Are you straining forward to what lies ahead?

Obviously, this is a metaphor from the world of running. And so, obviously, I love it! Because I’m a runner! I’m most certainly not the fastest, not even close, but running brings me great joy.

In fact, in case something happens, I want this passage right here from Philippians read at my funeral, and hopefully someone will talk about the thousands of miles I logged with my running shoes.

Anyway, the athletic contest was one of the apostle Paul’s favorite metaphors. He used it in nearly every letter. Remember that the city of Philippi is in Greece, where the Olympic games were created. It is hard to exaggerate just how important the Olympics were for the ancient Greeks, how central it was to their identity as a people.

In the apostle Paul’s time, up to forty thousand people gathered together in the Olympic stadium when the games were played. That’s a large crowd even by modern standards.

In this passage, Paul uses the metaphor of running to speak about his whole-hearted pursuit of Christ.

“I press on to make it my own,” he writes, speaking of the knowledge of Christ and of union with Christ, and then he adds in such a beautiful way, “because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil 3.12).

Clearly, the great apostle had a unique calling on his life. Do you remember? Christ made him his own in dramatic fashion on the road to Damascus, and from that time forward, Saul became Paul and he gave his life to tell everyone about this Messiah who was alive and who was transforming ordinary people into something glorious.

I doubt that it was in the same kind of dramatic fashion, but however it occurred, Christ took hold of you, this Messiah grabbed you and made you his own. That’s why you are here today (or why you are watching this at home).

And now the question remains for us: are we imitating Paul in pressing on, in straining forward, in reaching for the prize?

If you are anything like me, you may be thinking, “Sure, that’s what I want. I want to serve God, I want to be part of what God is doing in this world, but you know, most days are just ordinary life, and I’m not even sure how to keep on running after the will of God in my daily life.”

If you are thinking anything like this, then I have another sports metaphor that just might help.

Archery is part of the modern summer Olympic Games. It was NOT part of the ancient Games, although it could have been. Archery was a vital part of all the cultures around the Mediterranean. Five years ago, there was a YouTube video that demonstrated the most amazing archery skill you can imagine. It was a video of Byron Ferguson of Alabama on the bow. He had a helper toss round items into the air so that Mr. Ferguson could shoot them with his hand-made long bow. No compound action, no siting system, just an old-fashioned bow.

A slow motion camera captured the impact of each shot. He began with a 5 inch wooden disk. Direct hit. Next was a 2 inch plastic ball with the same result. After that was a golf ball. Direct hit. Next was a lifesaver. You know, a little round lifesaver. He got it! A direct hit. Finally, the smallest round object they could find was an aspirin tablet. Now, on the first try, he just missed with a glancing blow. So they let Byron Ferguson try again, and this time was a direct hit – through the middle of the aspirin tablet! Do you know how impossibly difficult that is?

With only your naked eyesight, to hit a moving aspirin tablet with an arrow?  If you have ever tried to shoot bow and arrow, you will know how mind-blowing this is. And I’m going to share the video on our Facebook page, so look for it later and you can see all of this for yourself. (Here it is! https://youtu.be/Q8Yp9SjCU5E)

Now, of course, Byron Ferguson is asked in this video to explain how he can possibly do this. How can he shoot a moving aspirin tablet? It’s simple, he explained, and he said, “The center of an aspirin is exactly the same size as the center of a beach ball. Always aim for the center.”

It’s just a single point. That’s what he aims at. The size of the rest of the item doesn’t matter in the slightest. Just aim for the center and ignore all of the rest.

When the Lord Jesus is put to the test and asked to explain what he considers to be the center of Torah, the center of God’s revealed will for humanity, he gives us the formula which, by now, is so familiar and famous:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22.37-39).

If you have ever wanted to memorize particular passages of scripture, this is a good starting point.

And if you want to hit the bullseye in life, if you want to strain forward to do the will of God with your life, then aim for the center with these words.

Focus in on these two realities each day, aim for the center, and you are certain to make contact with what God wants in your life.

But a few words about those things which distract us, which cause our aim to be off. Paul’s words are quite helpful here.

One of these, of course, is politics. This is completely obvious, right?! Oh my goodness, do we even need to talk about this?! And what did Paul say? “Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3.20). So don’t get distracted by all these games in pursuit of power.

Another major distraction is nostalgia, a longing for the past. What did Paul say? “This one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil 3.13).

Nostalgia is deadly for the spiritual life, because God never calls us to the past. Reflection on the past is good, but anything we learn from the past is given as a guide for our present moment and our future. God is always calling us forward to become more than what we were.

And finally, the mind set on earthly things is a roadblock from the way of Christ. On his way to the cross, our Lord did not pursue the most secure retirement or the safest investments or the most modern kitchen appliances possible. His was the path of sacrifice for the sake of love. You and I are called to the same.

“Not that I have already reached the goal, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil. 3.12).

When we understand this, when we grasp that our entire lives are a gift of grace, that we belong now to the kingdom of heaven where our true home is found, THEN we can aim for the center without distraction.

THEN we can press on and strain forward each day to love God and to love our neighbor, no matter what the circumstances of our lives might be.

So are you ready to press on, my friends? Are you ready to strain forward? To never give up and never quit? To not settle for anything less but the real prize of knowing Christ and of serving the will of God with our lives? May it be so. Amen.

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43 Foreside Road, Falmouth, Maine 04105 / 207-781-3366