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Every step of the way

To be a Christian is to believe that Christ is running alongside us -- whatever our difficulties may be -- every step of the way.

The Gospel of John contains an amusing detail about Jesus’s Resurrection not found in the other gospels. Informed by Mary Magdalene that His tomb was empty following His crucifixion, Peter and “the other disciple whom Jesus loved” (John himself) rushed to the scene. “They both ran,” John recounts, “but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first.”

Perhaps, like Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, John believed that God made him for a purpose, but also made him fast, and wanted posterity to remember that. Regardless, neither he nor Peter could at first make sense of what they saw. “For they did not understand the scripture that he had to rise from the dead.” Comprehension came later, when the resurrected Lord appeared to the disciples (sans Thomas).

Scripture is full of aids to understanding, and of those in need of such aids. It resorts to parable, analogy, and other means to communicate to fallen Man the truth of salvation. Running itself, in addition to its more literal appearances, as in the Gospel of John, features prominently as one such device.

It was not historically unusual to connect running and virtue. Athens did it. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes that “everything that is praised seems to be praised for being some sort of attribute or for holding itself in a certain condition, since we praise someone who is just and courageous or generally good, as we also praise virtue, on account of actions and works, and we praise someone who is strong or a good runner, and so on, for being naturally possessed of some attribute and standing in some relation toward something good and serious.” For Aristotle, a runner’s accomplishments implied beneficial characteristics that contributed to them, as well as a more general process of achieving worthy ends.

So did Jerusalem. Psalms contains the singer’s promise to the Lord that “I will run the way of your commands, for you open my docile heart.” In Proverbs, we are assured that the path of wisdom means “when you walk, your step will not be impeded, and should you run, you will not stumble.” The prophet Isaiah promises that those who hope in the Lord “will run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint.” The comparison of running, a rewarding but often difficult pursuit, with periods of both momentary intense rigor and sustained effort, to faith is a natural one. God’s gift is to provide a spiritual succor that transcends any momentary difficulty.

The way running is used in the New Testament owes more to Jerusalem than to Athens. Leave it to St. Paul to make that clear. A Roman citizen with knowledge of Greek culture, Paul invoked that world’s trappings to his non-Christian contemporaries. To a skeptical audience in Athens, the center of the classical Greek world, he described God as one in whom “we live and move and have our being,” a description borrowed from a Greek poet. Paul argues that God provided the true transcendence at which the beliefs of the Greeks only hinted. “What therefore you unknowingly worship,” he said to them, “I proclaim to you.”

The way Paul speaks of running and racing in his epistles elevates the pursuit of excellence taught by the Greeks to a spiritual endeavor, a template for spiritual life. He urged the early Christians he addressed in 1 Corinthians to practice an athletic discipline in their faith: “Do you not know what the runners in the stadium all run in the race, one wins the prize? Run so as to win.” Yet with a key difference: “They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.” In Galatians, Paul again turned coach to exhort some wayward souls. “You were running well; who hindered you from following the truth?” he asked. “That enticement does not come from the one who called you.”

But it was not only to and of others that Paul spoke in this fashion. Nearing the end of his life, Paul thought of himself in the same way.

Paul wrote to Timothy:

For am I already being poured like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance.

Runners know well the strange mix of exhaustion and satisfaction that can come with a race’s end. Here it is not just a physical and emotional state but a spiritual one with an eternal reward.

Christians spend our lives running toward that empty tomb — some faster than others, perhaps. To be a Christian is to believe that the risen Lord is gone from the tomb, but He is not gone from us. Rather, He is with us always, until the end of the age. And He is running alongside us — whatever our difficulties may be — every step of the way.

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