By Sarah Puryear
Have you ever been in a race? A foot race, a bicycling race, a triathlon? Well, I have to admit — I haven’t. Racing isn’t really my thing, and running hasn’t been one of my favorite activities since they made me do too much of it for high school sports. But for many people, and you may be one of them, being in a race is one of the most exhilarating pursuits of their life. It’s the activity they dream about, plan for, and from which they get the biggest thrill.
Just now we heard the author of Hebrews compare the Christian life to running a race. He is writing to a group of Christian audience who are a minority group in the area where they live, and who need some encouragement to keep up the hard work of being Christians in a non-Christian world. He tells them, “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” Eugene Peterson translates his words this way: “It means we’d better get on with [the race]. Strip down, start running—and never quit!” This morning we hear the author of Hebrews giving us the same advice – to see the race of faith as not just an occasional hobby or something to do on Sundays but as the main pursuit and focus of our lives.
This morning some of our youngest members will receive the sacrament of baptism. Baptism is like the starting line for the race of faith. But learning to run isn’t something anyone learns to do overnight. No one just gets up from the couch one day and run 26 miles successfully. You’ve got to get ready and prepare yourself if you want to run a race well, and this as true for the race of faith as it is for a marathon. The author of Hebrews tells us about three things that are essential in preparing for the race of faith.
First, you will do best if you focus on a goal. If you’ve ever stood by a finish line or watched the end of a foot race on TV, you’ll notice that good runners keep their gaze on what’s ahead of them, looking straight to the finish line. If they look around to see who’s catching up to them, they’ll lose ground and maybe the race itself. Some runners say that they always try to look ahead at the horizon instead of looking up at the sky or down at the ground. It keeps them focused on where they’re headed.
The writer of Hebrews tells us exactly where we should look as we run the race of faith. He says, “fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” Jesus is the “author” — or perhaps we might say — front runner or pace setter of our faith. He was the first one to run the race, and he is also the “perfecter”— or we might say “finisher” — because he was the first one to complete the race successfully. As the writer of Hebrews points out, during his time on earth Jesus ran with perseverance, enduring the trials and suffering he faced because he knew that waiting for him at the finish line was the joy of offering us the redemption and salvation he wanted to give us. As this race’s pace setter and finisher, he is the one to whom we look for pointers on how to run this race well. He is also our goal — the one to whom we are running, the horizon on whom we fix our eyes when times get tough. This is because, as you might have guessed from the first part of our reading from Hebrews, which lists so many faithful believers who faced persecution and death, this race of faith isn’t a walk in the park or a nice little stroll; it’s more like a marathon. In fact, the word in Greek used for “race” here is “agon” from which we get our word “agony.” The author is admitting, this won’t be a picnic, but as we fix our eyes on Jesus, he gives us hope that this race is worth running and the strength to run well.
Perhaps you’ve seen the classic movie Chariots of Fire about Eric Liddell, a man who both ran literal races — including at the 1924 Olympics — and who was deeply committed to the race of faith. You might remember a scene from the movie where Eric, having just won a race, speaks to his fans and tells them, “You came to see a race today. To see someone win. It happened to be me. But I want you to do more than just watch a race. I want you to take part in it. I want to compare faith to running in a race. It’s hard, requires concentration of will, energy of soul… If you commit yourself to the love of Christ, then that is how you run a straight race.” Eric was incredibly gifted at running, but he knew that he was in another race as well – a spiritual race, and he knew that focusing on Christ was the way to win that race.
So what does baptism have to do with this first piece of advice to focus on Jesus as our example and our goal? In a few moments, the candidates’ parents and godparents will affirm that they turn to Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord, putting their whole trust in his grace and love, and promising with God’s help to follow and obey Jesus as their Lord. Baptism is about choosing to follow Jesus as your Lord and Savior. It is fixing your eyes on Jesus, acknowledging him to be the pace setter, your example and goal, and then taking the first step down the road after him.
When it comes to running races, you’ll do best if, #2, you get rid of anything holding you back. This past January at the annual Disney World Marathon in Orlando, temperatures were at record lows. Runners had to wear extra layers at the start of the race, but as their bodies warmed up, they began to shed those layers along the way. In total they ended up shedding a total of 26,000 pounds of clothes along the marathon route! That’s a lot of fleeces. Marathon workers ended up donating over 30,000 pieces of clothing from the race to local thrift stores.
Keep this image in mind as we read the author of Hebrews’ second piece of advice about how to run the race of faith. He says, “let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely.” At the start of the race of faith, when we first meet Jesus and see him for who he is, we become aware of the weight of sin that will hold us back from running well unless we get rid of it. When we first come to God, we admit that “we have sinned through our own fault, in thought, and word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” And the beautiful thing is that God is there at the starting line and all along the way of the race, ready to forgive us. As we continue this race and grow in Christ, God helps us confront and shed sinful habits that hold us back from the life of freedom and grace He wants for us.
So what does baptism have to do with this second piece of racing advice, getting rid of the weight of sin? In the early church, the candidates being baptized would literally strip off all their clothes to symbolize that they were leaving their old life behind. They would renounce evil and sin and be anointed with oil as a symbol of protection from those things they had just given up. Then they would go into the font and be submerged with the baptismal waters, and afterwards they put on a white garment to show the gift of forgiveness and new life they had received from God.
In a few moments, the candidates’ parents and godparents will answer a few other questions. Just like people being baptized in the early church, they will renounce Satan, evil powers, and all sinful desires. Baptism isn’t just about taking on Jesus as Lord and Savior; it’s about God peeling away anything from us that might hinder us from following him. Through the use of water, we are reminded of the cleansing God gives us from sin when we turn our lives over to him. Baptism is about God removing from you the weight of sin so that his children can begin a new chapter of life and freedom in Christ.
And finally, when it comes to running races, you’ll do best if you have cheerleaders around you. Most of us have probably had the experience of getting to the end of our rope in a sports contest, and just when we think we can’t go on any longer, someone shouts our name in encouragement and gives us the lift we need to persevere. One runner, Chris Barber, reminisces on his blog about how his father supported him at his cross-country races. His father would arrive early and check out the route his son would be running. As Chris puts it, “On any given cross country loop my father would probably find about 4 spots to cheer me on from. He would then sprint, often through the woods, cutting off part of the course, to be in another location. The other runners on the team even noticed this crazy guy who seemed to be all over the course. They figured out it was my dad because the man would be saying [to me about the other runners], ‘He’s dying in front of you. Go get him! He has nothing left!’” As embarrassing as that might have been for Chris, having his father there to support him and urge him on made a difference.
The author of Hebrews tells his readers, always remember that you are not alone on this route; you are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Jesus isn’t the only one who’s run this race before you; by now there is already a huge throng of people who have finished the race. In the Creed we call this cloud of witnesses the “communion of saints.” Our catechism defines the communion of saints as “the whole family of God, the living and the dead… bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.” That includes those who we typically think of as saints like Francis or Mother Teresa, but it also refers to any of us who are Christians, both those who have died and gone to be with God, and those who are alive today, like the person sitting in the pew next to you. As fellow saints, we are called to be cheerleaders to one another during this race, spurring one another one just at the moment when all energy seems to be exhausted.
This mutual support between runners sets the race of faith apart from others in which competition is the name of the game. The race of faith isn’t about finishing first but about ensuring that we all finish the race well. I heard once about a Special Olympics race in which shortly after it had begun, one of the runners stumbled and fell to the ground. In every other race, the runners would have kept right on going, perhaps glad to have one less competitor. But in this case, within a few steps the other runners had all stopped and hurried back to help their fallen running mate. They then all turned and finished the race as a group, the goal of being first trumped by the goal of helping someone in need. That’s the kind of running community we’re supposed to be — one where we check in one another, hold one another accountable, and pray for one another, as so many in our community are already doing through small groups and intentional relationships.
So what do cheerleaders have to do with baptism? When a person comes forward for baptism, whether they are an adult or child or infant, they find themselves surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. They never come to the font alone; they always come with family members or with sponsors, to remind them that they are becoming part of a much greater family – the family of God.
So, those three tips for the race of faith are as follows: keep your eyes focused on your goal and example, Jesus; throw off any sin that holds you back from running your best; and remember you have endless throngs of cheerleaders, both those on earth and those who are cheering you on from heaven. That’s what makes for a successful race, and baptism, then, is the starting line of that race.
Sometimes, however, we think of baptism as a finish line, when baptism is one more item to check off on our religious “to do” list, leaving the spiritual life into which we are initiated unexplored. This view is as nonsensical as it would be to quit at the starting line of a race. Imagine attending a children’s fun run and watching all the kids get ready. They’ve got their little race numbers on, they’re all geared up with new sneakers and water bottles, and excitement and nervousness are in the ar. And the long-awaited moment comes; the gun goes off, and it’s time to run! But just as the race begins, imagine that some parents, instead of sending off their child with cheers, scoop them up, take them to the car and head for home, denying them the opportunity to run the race. No parent would do that! You would want your child to stretch their legs and take on the challenge to run their best.
With that in mind, parents, baptism is the starting line to which you have brought your children today. By being born, your children started on the race of life; by presenting your child for baptism, you are saying, I want to enter them in another race – the race of faith. I want them to have a strong relationship with Jesus Christ that helps them persevere through the trials of life, that gives them freedom from sin and that gives them a cloud of witnesses and cheerleaders who will support them in their faith. The starting gun is going off for them today as they enter the race of faith. Thank you for taking this step of faith and offering your child to God today, taking on their promises until the day when they can make baptismal promises themselves.
Your job is to be a coach and cheerleader, equipping your child as best as you can for the race that’s ahead of them. But please remember that you are not alone in this. You and your child have a cloud of witnesses around you – godparents and others in our church family who promise today to support you and your child in these promises. We know how difficult it can be to raise children in the Christian life and faith, and we want to support you in that endeavor. That is why we as a church offer discipleship for children and classes for you as parents, so that you too can find cheerleaders to urge you on as you parent your children.
Godparents, I have two wonderful godsons, and I know from personal experience what an honor and joy it is to serve in this role in a child’s life. You are signing up today to be chief cheerleaders in this child’s spiritual life. As godparents, we have an opportunity to equip our godchildren with the things they need to run the race of faith. Pray for them. Give them books that teach them about the Bible. Take them to church and children’s activities. Encourage them to ask you questions about faith, even if you’re not sure what the “right” answer is. Perhaps one of the best things you can do is to focus on running your own race of faith, so that you will have experience to tell them about as they get older. Pray for the day when they will say these baptismal vows for themselves, “I accept Jesus Christ as my Savior and promise to obey and follow him as my Lord.”
Congregation, in a few moments, the celebrant will ask you, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” When he does, I want you to picture yourselves as the cheering spectators on the edge of a race these baptismal candidates are entering. If I had my way, you’d all be decked out with pom-poms and noisemakers and all the other paraphernalia fans use to show their support of the team. When you answer, “We will,” say it like a crowd at a race would say it. You are representing the great cloud of witnesses today as you cheer on these children and their sponsors.
And yet while we cheer others on, none of us are mere spectators. Like Eric Liddell said, God wants all of us to do more than just watch a race; He wants us to take part of it. Today we all have an opportunity to renew our baptismal promises and get refocused on the race that is before us – focusing our eyes on Jesus, laying aside anything that holds us back, and cheering one another on. God has promised to help us along the way until we finally arrive at our goal, where we can rest our weary feet and feast together in God’s heavenly kingdom.
The Rev. Sarah Puryear is a priest associate at St. George’s Episcopal Church, Nashville.