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Now what?: a sermon on Paul’s race to Spain

February 16th, 2009 by isaac · No Comments

Title: Now what?
Date: February 15, 2009
Texts: Psalm 30, I Cor 9:24-27, Mk 1:40-45

My dad grew up running. Not from the law; just running. He ran track when he was a kid in Colombia. And he was good at it. His coach said he had a future. So my dad trained. He ran all the time. He adjusted his schedule and eating habits in order to run faster and further. The people in his city started to notice as the Pan American Games approached.

My dad entered the regional qualifying races. He ran his heart out. He kept winning. He had the best times for the 100 and 200-meter race. Everyone knew he would be sent to represent Colombia.

But it didn’t happen. Despite recording the best times in his event, the Colombian track team didn’t take him. He won, but that wasn’t enough to get into the competition to win the prize. Apparently another guy with worse times got to go in his place. Why? Because this guy had a father who was a political mover and shaker. This power broker talked to some people, and got his son on the ticket instead of my dad.

That’s the way it goes, sometimes. No matter how hard you try to win the race, some things are just out of your control. Winning that prize takes more than working hard. Does Paul understand that? “Run is such a way that you may win the prize,” he says. Exercise self-control; discipline your body. Because we will receive an imperishable prize (I Cor 9:24-25). He seems to think that if you work hard enough, if you fix your eyes on the goal, and if you have the best times, then you will get the prize. Well, it didn’t work out that way for my dad. And, interestingly enough, it didn’t work out that way for Paul.

You see, Paul’s life is a race. He travels around the Greco-Roman world spreading the good news. And he spreads the message with the hope that communities will sprout up everywhere. It’s not enough for him to travel around preaching. He wants to establish and tend to communities—congregations, house churches, that will have a life of their own. He wants the message of Jesus to take hold of lives and bring people together for the joy of fellowship, the joy of communion, the joy of God’s presence in their midst.

Now Paul is serious about this race. And he seems to be running in a direction. He is going somewhere. As he says in our passage, verse 26, “I do not run aimlessly.” We begin to see a finish line emerging. His travels are aimed somewhere. Where is he going? Where is he running? Spain! Paul wants to take the message of Christ to the ends of the earth, to Spain. We get glimpse of this prize, this finish line, at the end of Romans, chapter 15.

I’ll read a few verses, around verse 23: “I desire, as I have for many years, to come to you when I go to Spain. For I do hope to see you on my journey and to be sent on by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little while.” He goes on to talk about Spain again a few verses later. Spain, the end of the continent, the end of the earth. Paul has in mind that he will establish communities of Christ’s joy at the end of the known world. That’s the finish line. His prize: To join in the joy of fellowship, a congregation at the edge of the world.

But he doesn’t get there. He doesn’t cross the finish line. He never gets to Spain. But it’s not his fault. He tries his best. He competes. He is just like that runner he talks about in our passage: he says in verse 25, “Athletes exercise self-control in all things.” And he does run like a winner. As he says in verse 24, “Run in such a way that you may win the prize.” But he fails in the end. He doesn’t reach his goal. He is arrested and rots in prison.

(pause)

I tell you Paul’s story because it is important to remember that Christianity is founded upon failure. Paul is captured before he can finish his race. Jesus is killed before he can establish his revolutionary community. It’s important to remember that the crucifixion of Jesus was first seen as a failure—a scandal that made Jesus and his followers look foolish to the world. In the shadow of the cross, the disciples scatter in fear. It was the end. No more hope. It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Their movement of love failed.

But in such failure, we begin to see the mysterious grace of the gospel. When everything collapses, God builds something new from the rubble. That’s what grace means: that God works with the best and the worst we have to offer. Grace means that God makes a new way possible, when we thought there was nothing else to do but curl up and die.

The cross and resurrection show us that God works in the midst of failure. The cross and resurrection reveal the heart of God for the world. When can’t think of any good reason to go on, or anything else to try, God makes a way through a dead end. God speaks new things in the midst of the old; creation out of death and destruction. God is always creating new possibilities for life.

And that’s what Jesus shows us in our passage for today from Mark chapter 1. There is a man who has become a nobody—thrown out of society, thrown out from fellowship, removed from the joy of communion. He has a skin condition that makes him unclean, unacceptable. He’s at the end of his options. He can’t do anything. So he comes to Jesus. And Jesus makes him clean; Jesus returns him to new life in his community. Jesus shows us that the mission of God is one of restoration, of wholeness, of fellowship and communion.

But what about Paul? His mission of spreading this good news to the ends of the earth is interrupted. He is thrown into prison. He is separated from the joy of fellowship and communion. All he wants to do is share in the joy of fellowship with the people of Spain—that’s where he is called to go. But he’s stuck in prison. He can’t run anymore. He has to sit around. He can’t press on. The enslaving powers of the earth have put him in chains. Now what?

That seems to be the reoccurring question of our lives: Now what? We come to our end. We thought we were down the right track. Everything went according to plan. We could see the finish line. And then, all of a sudden, you’re stuck—and you don’t even know how it happened. And all you can do is ask, “Now what?” When you look around, all you can see is failure, so you have to ask, “Now what?” Maybe it’s a relationship. You just don’t know what to do. Or a job where you feel stuck; or a boss that wants to get rid of you. Now what do you do?

Paul is stuck in prison. Now what? His life turned upside down. His plans shattered. He can’t run the race anymore, even though he wants to finish. Now what?

The book of Acts ends with Paul in prison—an anti-climactic ending to the story. We get to see what happens in his life when he can’t get to Spain and finish the race. What does he do when he’s tied down in a Roman prison? Well, he continues to do what he’s been doing all along: he shares the good news to anyone who will listen—to prison guards, to friends who may come to visit, to strangers, to fellow prisoners, to anyone and everyone.

When Paul can’t make it to Spain to enjoy the fellowship of a new community there, he finds the joy of God’s presence in prison. Paul finds fellowship and communion in the least expected place. As Paul says elsewhere, nothing shall separate him from the love of God.

Now, this isn’t the kind of good news that we would expect. I mean, if I were Paul, I think I’d be praying for God to get me out of prison. That would truly be good news. Then Paul could be on his way again, doing the important and necessary work of God’s kingdom—spreading it to the ends of the earth. But that’s not what happens. Paul is stuck in prison; he’s stuck in Rome.

The gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t that we get what we want. Not at all. Instead, the good news is that God’s grace sustains us in the midst of it all. The good news is that the joy of Christ’s fellowship is always at your fingertips, even when your world seems to be falling apart. Paul is stuck. He can’t run anymore. But church happens in prison. Paul finds communion among visitors, Roman guards, and fellow prisoners.

(pause)

When you find yourself without options, when you find yourself asking “Now what,” remember that God shows up in rubble of failure. God shows up in prison. God shows up when we can’t see a way out. And for Paul, God’s way of showing up is through the fellowship of people. He knows that God has not abandoned him in prison because God keeps on sending people to visit him. The joy of communion can happen, even in prison. And the joy of communion, the joy of fellowship, can happen no matter what failures we’re wrestling with. The church of Christ is always there for you; and with this fellowship comes the grace of God’s presence.

This is why we join together in worship; this is why we come together and share our lives; this is why we can run the race and not grow weary. Because even when we are stuck, even when we find ourselves disqualified for the race, God gives us the prize anyway—which is the presence of Christ, now, for you, for me.

When we find that we can’t run anymore (that our legs are too tired), when we realize that we can’t make it to the place where we think that life will get better, when we give up and ask “Now what?”, we will discover that God has already run the race and has already arrived to the place where you are.

The prayer of our Psalmist is always a possibility, no matter what: “You have turned my mourning into dancing.”

Let me close by reading those words of grace from Psalm 30.

Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning…. To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made my supplication…. Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me… You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.

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