Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Deacon Scott Maentz
August 18, 2019 – 8:30 & 11:00 AM
In today’s second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, the author compares following Christ to running a race, so those of you familiar with the discipline involved in training for competitive athletics, and the focus needed when playing the game or running a race should be able to relate well to today’s reading.
Here’s the background of the reading:
Christians of the first century, were facing violent persecution from some of their Jewish brothers who didn’t believe in Christ. The Roman authorities, the rulers of Palestine at the time, also contributed to the persecution.
As a result, Christians were being arrested, harassed, and even killed, just because they were Christians.
It is in the context of this persecution of Christians – persecution similar to what we find in our world today, that the writer of Hebrews encourages his community to keep on going, to keep the faith!
He paints for us a picture of a huge stadium. In the stands of the stadium are all the saints who have gone before us and won the prize of heaven. This “cloud of witnesses” are those who belong to the Church Triumphant. Those who have been faithful to Christ and his Church and are now in heaven.
The saints are watching and cheering for those of us who are still in the race, members of the Church Militant here on earth, for us Christians who are still struggling to resist hardship and temptation and stay faithful to Christ.
On the track, inside this stadium, we are all running the race, all of us! And it’s hard. We’re tempted to slow down, to get distracted, to give up.
The author gives us two pieces of advice that will help us persevere in this race; two secrets to victory:
1. The first secret is to get rid of everything that slows us down in the race.
You simply can’t run well if you are wearing three overcoats, work boots and carrying a super-sized backpack on your shoulders. It’s impossible.
God wants us to shed all of our excess baggage. He wants us to be streamlined.
Nowadays top runners wear extremely tight clothing and super-light shoes in order to maximize speed. They don’t want even a little piece of fabric catching the wind and slowing them down for even a fraction of a second. They are running to win.
We should be running to win too.
We need to shed every burden and every sin,
every habit of selfishness,
every ounce of laziness,
the slightest remnant of envy, lust, and greed,
every doubt and fear.
There is no room for these things in the heart of a Christian. They slow us down. They drag us down. We can’t win the race if we carry our own burdens and let sinful attitudes and behavior cling to us.
Using the analogy of fire, Jesus tells us the same truth in in today’s Gospel reading. He tells us he has come to cast a consuming fire upon the earth, to set the earth on fire! He has come to burn away everything in our lives that is opposed to God’s desire for us. All of our sins must be burned away so that God’s new life can spring up within us.
So, the first secret to victory is this: to constantly peel off every self-centered attitude and behavior that occupies our hearts and minds, so we can run a better race. We must eliminate from our lives anything that resists our faith.
BUT THIS ALONE IS NOT ENOUGH.
Runners can have all the latest gear, be in great physical shape and still lose the race.
They can get distracted by their competitors and take their eye off the finish line.
They can get distracted by the long stretch of track that still lies before them and become discouraged.
They can get distracted by the movements of the crowd and the brightly colored flags waving in the wind and the reporters sitting in the press box and forget why they are running in the first place.
To win the race, they must not let themselves be distracted or discouraged. We must not let the failings of some Church leaders cause us to leave the holy catholic and apostolic church established by Christ. We must not let the faults and sins of others cause us to lose focus on the finish line – or even worse – to quit the race.
2. The second secret to victory is that we must PERSEVERE in our race. We will win our race to eternal life in heaven only by “keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith,”
Only if we stay focused on Christ, only if we come to know him better and better through daily prayer, only then will we be able to persevere through life’s trials and tribulations, because only then will we overcome the fear and burden of the crosses in our own lives.
By keeping Jesus’ cross and his love for us always at the forefront of our minds and our hearts, his strength will become our strength.
But to do that, we must discipline ourselves like the best runners; the very best athletes. We must be faithful to our training regimen.
We have to train our minds and hearts to ignore the distractions of a world that no longer welcomes Christ,
a world that laughs at him,
a world that values personal choice over obedience to God’s law.
We must purposely and courageously keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.
This the second secret of today’s second reading.
God is reminding us of these two keys to victory today, because he knows we need to be reminded.
Christ knows that following him is difficult.
At times it means enduring bitter conflicts, especially with family and loved ones, as Jesus clearly states in the Gospel passage today.
At times following him can even mean enduring violent persecution, as the prophet Jeremiah discovered when his enemies deposited him in the bottom of a well, in the mud, because he was being faithful to God’s will.
How many of us are truly willing to stand our ground and experience persecution for our faith?
Let us take to heart today’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews where God reveals the two secrets we need to win the race. Allow me to read it again:
“Let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us.”
As we contemplate these two keys to winning our race to eternal life, let us be reassured that God provides us with the strength we need to implement them through the grace he gives us in the sacraments. Let us make full and frequent use of the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist so we can make a fresh start in running the Christian race. The great thing about this race to heaven is that we can make a fresh start every day!
Yes, the race of life we are all running is not easy, but we have thousands of saints in heaven cheering us on, and the sacraments of the Church to strengthen us and provide the endurance we need to win the race.
We have a Lord and Savior who has run the race before us and who understands how difficult it can be. We are never alone in this race, as Jesus is truly right by our side, encouraging and supporting us when we think we can go no farther.
The rewards of victory when we enter our heavenly homeland will be like nothing else we have ever experienced! Don’t become discouraged and never take your eye off the finish line. The race is ours to win!