Lent Devotions: The contest

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Editor’s note: This Lent season, Bread Blog is running a series of devotionals written by staff, alumni, and friends of the San Francisco Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).           

Rev. Dr. Annette Weissenrieder    

Philippians 3:4b-14

There is probably no other place in antiquity where shame and honor are so visible as in ancient sport or running contests, the so-called agōns, which translated means “the contest.”We can analyze the social dynamics of games in that athletes did not perform just for himself or herself, but for his or her family and city-state as well. A dishonor to the athlete was regarded as a slight to all, while honor gained by one member was regarded as being shared by all. There was, that is to say, a coincidence between individual and group honor: victor and loser, honor and shame.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul is taking up the image of a running contest:

“Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; […] but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I reach toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. […] Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.”

The action of Christ, who with the call to be an apostle to the nations has put Paul on a new race track, is not the same as reaching the goal. Thus, this process implies not only a before and after, but also an objective difference: Paul was grasped by Jesus not to seize the prize on this earth as victor, but rather, the prize is the call of God in heaven. Therefore, the call appears as a re-orientation in the life of Paul. He has not already received the victory prize and the final race has not already been completed. Does the participle “straining forward” picture the runners straining towards the goal “forgetting what lies behind?” If we take ancient art into consideration, we find athletic images where a single male or female runner is looking backward suggesting that it was common, even in sprints, to look over one’s shoulder as one ran controlling the field of runners. However, this is not Paul’s goal. In his status Paul in no way differs from the Philippians. Paul adds an invocation to be the “fellow-imitators” of him. Not just imitators, but fellow-imitators! And he speaks to the Christ-followers of Philippi as “competing together.” In this way, Paul clearly moves beyond describing the group as simply enjoying the renown that accrues to them if their representative wins great honor. Rather, Paul wishes to emphasize that they are also running the same race that he is, and therefore, he does not have to look back. Paul and the Philippians are running together. Moreover, a second aspect is important: Surprisingly they win the victory prize not by coming in first, but simply by crossing the finishing-line. Paul describes that here with the fact that there is neither an exclusive prize, nor an indivisible prize which is to be attained. The prize is more narrowly defined by this addition: The prize of the call of God in heaven to include all nations.

God is calling us. There is neither victor nor loser. We are fellow-imitators. There is neither honor nor shame. We are following God’s call. All are invited. Where are you running to? Are you joining us?

Rev. Dr. Annette Weissenrieder is associate professor of  New Testament at San Francisco Theological Seminary. 

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