We should not ascribe an absolute importance to one image or instructive example deployed by St. Paul in his teaching literature. He used many intuitions to shade in the contours of his life in Christ. Some have exaggerated the image of athleticism connoted by Paul’s describing Christian discipleship as a marathon one runs to become a “winner” (Phil 3:13). No one denies a coach demanding we pick up our pace and stretch forward (epektenomai) toward more alacrity in embracing life in Christ. Vigor and virtue, not lethargy and rest, are fundamental disciplines in Christian discipleship. Complacency quenches fervor at the starting guns of races to seek God.
Yet racing for a prize is an image of Christian discipleship as a zero-sum game. The winners’ crowns are reserved for spiritual virtuosi who by special training imply the amateurs will taste their dust. These are the Christian elite who train in private, special gymnasiums. Christian life based on a proviso of exuberant athletic practice is superficial.
In Paul’s sentences that precede his racing metaphor (Phil. 3-4-6) his image of the Christian as a trained long-distance runner is nuanced. He runs toward a prize but also from his past selves, discounting ultimate value in having been circumcised, zealous for the Law, and even past himself equal to the Apostles in having “seen Christ”. Stretching forward is his action metaphor for more inner work required than resting on past or future laurels. Gregory of Nyssa’s extended theology of always “stretching forward” to an expanding knowledge and love of God is crucial. The “race” to surpass one’s complacencies never ends.
A third reading of Paul’s racing metaphor is more idiosyncratic: Jesus’ coaching that we love one another is love as a compassionate keeping company with one’s fellow racers in life who stumble, who can only jog slowly, who always keep falling and getting up. This way of being a Christian disciple is to pace oneself with those apparently losing life’s race. We align ourselves with those needing grace. We choose to stumble forward together as the Holy Spirit sprints toward us. An Ode of Solomon (37) implies our communal reality:
“I stretched out my hands to the Lord, and towards the Most High I raised my voice. I spoke with the lips of my heart, and He heard my cry. His Word came towards me, to give me the fruits of my labors. He gave me rest by the grace of the Lord. Hallelujah.”
The Lord dined with the iron-willed Pharisees. He found merit in Mary of Bethany resting to receive his next word. The Savior descended into hell to clasp the outstretched hands of those only apparently left behind by the Holy Spirit’s new dispensation through Him.
The Christian’s inner work of epectasis (stretching forward) is to realize that in all stumbling toward the Father no effort is lost. Jesus commanded we love and wait for one another as we have been loved and awaited first. Any gold-embossed invitations to Love’s banquet, are for those who, before they sit to eat, have seen to it that everyone’s feet are washed. They wait in the last place until everyone else is fed.