Detail from Jean-Pierre Cortot's sculpture "The Soldier of Marathon Announcing the Victory"
Jeremy Troxler: Run for your life
The original marathon was a life-and-death run to share good news -- an apt metaphor for life in Christ, says the director of the Thriving Rural Communities initiative at Duke Divinity School.
July 17, 2012 | Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. Jeremy Troxler preached this sermon Oct. 2, 2011, in Duke University Chapel.
The word “marathon” comes from the historical legend of the Greek runner-messenger Pheidippides. Around the year 490 B.C., a gigantic Persian army landed on the plain of Marathon, menacing the city of Athens, just 25 miles away. The Athenians prepared for a climactic battle that would determine the fate of their civilization.
Against all odds, the vastly outnumbered Athenian army defeated the Persians in battle. It was an unimaginable victory, a down-to-your-last-strike, Tampa Bay Rays kind of victory, the kind of news that sends people running with joy. (Unless you’re on the other side -- I’m sorry, Red Sox fans).
So after the battle, in a story more likely fable than fact, a runner named Pheidippides was dispatched to carry the good news of the victory to the terrified residents of Athens. Pheidippides ran the entire 25 miles across the plain of Marathon to the city, not once stopping for a fruity red energy drink. When he arrived, exhausted, dehydrated, saturated in sweat, panting, Pheidippides burst into the city assembly, and with his last breath he shouted, “Rejoice! We conquered!” And then he collapsed and died.
The poet Robert Browning, writing much later, imagined that Pheidippides died with a smile on his face, that his heart gave out not so much from exhaustion as from sheer bliss -- from pure euphoria at the victory, from overwhelming happiness at reaching his destination, from ecstatic joy at sharing such good news with the people he loved.
The Greek word that the Bible uses for the “gospel,” or the “good news,” was a word that referred to headline-, ticker-tape-parade-, Battle-of-Marathon-type announcements about a great victory or blessing. And like the news of the Battle of Marathon, God’s victory won in Jesus Christ is the kind of news that sends people running.
It sends some people running for their lives, like the mysterious unnamed young man in Mark’s Gospel who, when he is nearly grabbed and arrested alongside Jesus, sheds his clothes to wriggle free and dash into the night -- thus inspiring countless generations of campus streakers. Or the news about Jesus sends some people running off in hot pursuit as seekers of truth who beat the bushes to try to find out exactly what has happened, what he means.
Think of the way Peter and John sprint like Usain Bolt to the graveyard on Easter morning amid the confusing reports that Jesus’ body is gone, wanting to see the empty tomb with their own eyes. And there are others whom the good news of Jesus sets running out of sheer joy at what they have found and out of desire to share the joy with others -- think of the women who run away from Jesus’ empty grave in “fear and great joy” to tell his friends; or think of the apostle Paul, the Pheidippides of Jesus, proclaiming even from his jail cell to the Philippians, “Rejoice! The Lord has conquered.”
In Philippians, Paul imagines his whole life as a kind of long and arduous marathon, and he imagines himself as a runner hitting the wall and straining forward to break the tape at the finish line, trusting that it is all worth the pain and the burn: “Forgetting what lies behind,” he says, “and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward … the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (3:13-14 NRSV).
The Greek word that we translate as “press on” in this passage has the connotation of chase, of hot pursuit, of even hunting down. Paul is chasing after Christ. Of course, Paul had been hunting after Jesus for a long time -- but at the start, when the news about Jesus first set him running, he was running after Jesus’ followers, trying to exterminate them. He was an Ahab-like hunter-persecutor of the church, on safari to bag Christians and take them off to jail for their wrongheaded ideas.
During that time in his life, Paul had been running toward a different prize. He wanted to be a religious success. He wanted to be holy. He wanted to be good. He wanted to follow God’s law. He trained hard, and by outward measures, he succeeded.
He lists his spiritual resume, or CV (and CV is just short for curriculum vitae, which -- in the spirit of the running theme -- means “course of life”), and the CV goes on for pages. Circumcised on the eighth day after his birth (not a convert but a lifelong member of the faith); born of the tribe of Benjamin (a blueblood with a good family name); a Hebrew born of Hebrews (dyed-in-the-wool fluent in the native language); as to grades in following God’s law, accepted into Phi Beta Pharisee.
Then suddenly, Jesus hunted Paul down on the road to Damascus. In his weakness, Paul met and was cared for by one of Jesus’ people, Ananias. And then Paul came to a new understanding of Christ and his relationship to God’s law -- and the spiritual CV was torn to pieces.
Paul realized that he had been running for the wrong prize -- that he had been running in the wrong direction.
In a 1964 National Football League game, Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Jim Marshall scooped up a fumble by a San Francisco 49ers receiver and saw daylight ahead of him: none of the opposing team’s red uniforms stood between him and the end zone, some 60 yards away. So he took off running, as fast as a big defensive lineman could go, churning in his purple helmet, purple pants and white jersey, dreams of a touchdown dancing in his head. He heard the crowd roaring around him. He saw his teammates running alongside him waving their arms on the sideline. He cruised the last few yards into the end zone and celebrated his touchdown by jubilantly tossing the football up into the stands.
Then a player on the other team walked up and gave him a hug. His eyes were opened. You see, Jim Marshall had just run to the wrong end zone, and scored two points for the guys in red. When you watch the television replay, you hear the announcer yelling, over and over, “He’s running the wrong way! Marshall is running the wrong way!” The only person in the stadium who didn’t realize Jim Marshall was running the wrong way was Jim Marshall. Marshall was like the man driving down the highway whose wife called him on his cellphone to tell him to watch out, because she had heard on the news that there was a crazy person driving the wrong way down that same highway. The man replied, “You’re not kidding, honey -- there’s not just one crazy person going the wrong way; I can see hundreds of them!”
Paul realized he had been running the wrong way. He had reached the end zone; he had been “successful” in running the wrong way -- he thought. But his were Pyrrhic victories -- the kind of successes that, if you keep having them, are going to leave you defeated in the end. Then Christ knocked him on his keister, and Ananias came and gave him a hug, and his eyes were opened to the truth.
Paul had always thought that God’s law pointed in one direction, while devotion to this man who called himself Messiah -- Christ -- pointed in another. Now he realized that Christ wasn’t the enemy of the law; Christ was the fulfillment of the law, the reason behind it. The law was a means; Christ was the end. The law had been a wonderful map, but now God had done something even better, had brought the law to life by sending a faithful guide in Jesus, who embodied, in the flesh, what the law was all about, and who made it available to all people -- all people.
The law, the map, as wonderful a gift as it had been, was always something outside of Paul -- but this Christ, through the Spirit, could live within and through him, within and through God’s people, and enable them to be and do what they could never be or do on their own. What God wanted was not law-abiding citizens who played by the rules to justify their identity as God’s people; what God wanted were sons and daughters who fulfilled the meaning of the law because they had the heart and mind of this man Jesus. And now, through the Spirit, that could really happen in human lives.