As I understand the story, the District Superintendent had come to his wits end with this church that was never pleased with the pastors they were sent. At this year's meeting of the Staff-Parrish Relations Committee, the DS brought a letter from a potential candidate. It went something like this...
"I understand your church is looking for a pastor. I should like to submit my application. I am generally considered to be a good preacher. I have been a leader in most of the places I have served. I have also found time to do some writing on the side. I am over fifty years of age (no children), and while my health is not the best, I still manage to get enough work done to please my congregation. As for a reference, I am somewhat handicapped. I have never served in any place more than three years, and the churches where I have preached have generally been pretty small, even though they were located in rather large cities. Some places I had to leave because my ministry caused riots and disturbances. When I stayed, I did not get along too well with other religious leaders in town, which may influence the kind of references these places will send you. I have also been threatened several times and been physically attacked. I have gone to jail three or four times for expressing my thoughts. You will need to know that there are some men who follow me around undermining my work. Still, I feel sure I can bring vitality to your church. If you can use me, I should be pleased to be considered."
The SPR committee was a bit surprised the United Methodist Church would commission or ordain such a person let alone, that their District Superintendent would think this was a good candidate for them. The SPR committee chair, asked the DS, “Why did you come here with someone with these credentials? I'd like to know who this pastor is so I can call the Bishop!” The DS handed the letter over to the committee chair. His face went blank. Then someone piped up, “Who signed it?” The chair simply said, “Paul.”
In no story that I've read or watched have I found the quest or goal to be easy. We watch and read movies and books to journey with those characters on their quest. These characters face life and limb to achieve the results they desire. I think our kids grasp it better than us grown-ups because they have imaginations we have long sense turned off. But even we know the truth, usually in the times we brush up against our mortality.
I know from experience having twice in my life rubbed elbows with my death. The first, was night diving off of Radio Island, NC and getting caught in the tide going out. Suddenly, I was swimming against the current, and watching the rock wall go by, then nothing and then seeing the channel marker go past. I realized in that moment, that if I didn't get hold of that marker at 40 feet, I would be swept out into the Atlantic Ocean. The second, was facing the diagnoses of testicular cancer in the year 2000. I hope that when the next time comes, I will be able to join with Paul I have done my best in the race, I have run the full distance, and I have kept the faith. (8) And now there is waiting for me the victory prize of being put right with God!
Three things Paul says he did three things in the course of his life to endure...
“I have done my best...” I cannot say or hear the words without thinking about my four years as a Cub Scout Den Leader and the motto of Cub Scouts - “Do Your Best!” But I also grew up with that motto when I was a Cub myself and it is a reminder to us all that WE can only do our best. Different translations have fight but the idea of race seems to follow better here as it does in 1 Corinthians 9:25.
Next up Paul notes that he has "run the race in full." William Barclay in his Daily Bible Study, reminds us of the history of the Battle of Marathon between the Greeks and the Persians. Upon defeating the Persians, a Greek soldier ran the entire way back to the magistrate to declare, “We won!” and then he died. 26.2 is the sticker on the backs of cars that indicates someone has completed a marathon.
Finally, he says, “I kept the faith,” but maybe not what you were thinking. You see this phrase has a couple of meanings, one of which refers again to the sports analogy that Paul is fond of using. You could say here, “I kept the rules of the contest and didn't foul out.” It is hard here in October, not to be reminded here of the doping scandals surrounding baseball and the Tour de France. Paul says in his quest he never tried to cheat his way to the finish line. His letter to the SPR committee assures us of that!
Yet there remains something of greater significance and it is by far of greater significance than Paul's will power as verse 17 declares, "the Lord stayed with me and gave me strength, so that I was able to proclaim the full message for all the Gentiles to hear; and I was rescued from being sentenced to death." Paul, on his own, could never have sustained himself over the course of his life. We don't have a biography or his journal to go by so we don't fully appreciate what Paul must have faced.
What we have is the assurance of where Paul has placed his trust, where Paul kept his eyes focused, and where Paul kept his feet moving – always toward Jesus Christ and the message of the Gospel – that God had come into the world to rescue you and me from ourselves, from doing life our way. And Paul believed it had all been worth it – I for one, believe he was right. His example taught others to run the race and they passed down Paul's words and example all the way till today.
And what about today? What about you and me and the race before us? Maybe the analogy doesn't fit you. Maybe swimming or hiking or driving is more your thing. It doesn't matter, but what does, what is central is this, are your eyes on Jesus? Rest assured, no matter how bad you're cramping, no matter how lonely the road, no matter when you are about to give out, Jesus will stay with you and give you strength – not for your own goals but for pointing the next runner you meet in the direction of Jesus Christ. This is the Quest for Character – to give your life for others – just as Jesus did.