The Reverend Christopher Hogin
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Knoxville, TN
February 11, 2018
In 2001, I ran a marathon in Washington, DC. It was physically and mentally grueling. It was also a spiritual awakening that became for me a metaphor for life. In those four hours of running I experienced youth, middle-age, old age, death, and resurrection.
The race took place on a bright, cool October day. At the starting line, I was filled with nervous energy. Like a youth, I was ready to conquer the race. Jumping up and down, I had grand expectations. With the sound of the bell, I lit off into the crowd. The first two miles were a breeze. I barely broke a sweat. It was exciting and fun. Everything was crisp and vivid. The race was full of joy. The music pumped and the people cheered.
At mile 10, the novelty wore off. The course thinned. There was little cheering. The scenery was dull, and the running repetitive. I was tired, bored and restless.
By mile 15, my body ached. I slowed. The excitement of the race vanished. I was simply holding on. Mentally, it was difficult, and at times, lonely. I wasn’t sure if I’d finish.
By mile 22, my body entered into, what is commonly known as, “hitting the wall.” Everything ached and hurt. I hobbled more than ran. Crossing the 14th street bridge, my fellow runners fared no better. Some walked. A few grasped the bridge rail weeping. Medical personnel offered attention. Mentally, I wasn’t sure if I could make it.
By mile 25, my mind and body became detached. I simply existed. It was all I could do to breath and place one foot over the other. Consciousness faded in and out at times, and underneath the surface, was a sadness. Where was the excitement I felt at mile one? This is not what I expected? Was all this worth it? It would be so easy to give up.
But with each step, I moved closer to the finish line located at the Iwo Jima Marine Corps Monument. In the distance, cheering crowds became audible. Toward the end, my pace intensified. Even though body and mind felt broken, a force beckoned me onward. Cheering crowds urged me on despite the suffering. Crossing the finish line, I was wrapped in a blanket and a medal draped across my neck. The anguish vanished. I felt renewed and resurrected. The pain and suffering was replaced with joy and accomplishment. It was a monumental victory.
A few weeks later, I was in a bar with some fellow capitol hill staffers. A guy at our table bragged of how he circumvented the Marine Corps Marathon. He said that on mile 5, he dipped into the woods, and then proceeded to a bar. There, he ate chicken wings and drank beer for a couple of hours before slipping back into the race pack, undetected, at mile 20.
People laughed at how he duped the race authorities. I felt sorry for him. Sorry because he missed out on the whole point of the race. The race was about testing one’s self. It was about experiencing deep pain leading to deep joy. It was supposed to be hard. It was supposed to be challenging. It was supposed to break you down so that you could be built back up.
That’s what Paul is talking about in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians. In this letter, he is trying to undo a message given to the community by a group of people known as “super apostles.” These so-called super apostles came into the community of Corinth and preached a gospel far different from Paul. They believed no one should suffer in life. For them it was possible to achieve glory without suffering. People just needed to follow the right prescriptive pattern. In other words, if you had the right mindset, you didn’t need to suffer. You could effectively do what that guy in the bar did: metaphorically bow out at mile 5, eat chicken wings, drink beer, and then hop back into the race undetected at mile 20, and still experience the glory of victory.
Paul says no. He says the gospel is about the cross, and the cross communicates that pain and suffering come before resurrection. It’s part of the deal, so much so that God walked among us through Jesus. If God experiences suffering before resurrection, so will we.
This is exactly what we communicate in baptism. Soon, we will sprinkle water over the heads of infants. It looks charming doesn’t it, but we are effectively saying to them is that the waters of the world will overwhelm you. Water represents death. (Listen closely to the words of the liturgy.) Yet out of the waters, you will emerge renewed and made whole. In many ways, baptism is the starting line of the marathon of life.
Today we have super apostles, the same super apostles Paul spoke against. We have entities that proclaim we shouldn’t suffer. Who are they? They are the powers and principalities of this world. The super apostles are those who promise a pain-free life that comes if only we follow a certain diet, or adhere to some 5-step self-help program. Super apostles are on the internet, maybe you’ve seen them on Facebook. Super apostles proclaim their message in the movies and in books, and even on the nightly news. We must ask ourselves, who are the super apostles in our lives? What entities tell us that we shouldn’t suffer?
Don’t misunderstand me, by all means we must open ourselves up to joy, for life is a mixture of joy and suffering. But here’s the thing: it’s never a one or the other experience. We will experience both joy and pain, and we should recognize both realities.
Brother and sisters, we are all running a marathon in this life, but we are all at different mile points: some are full of youthful energy, others are at the point of boredom and drudgery, some are “hitting the wall”. This Lent, ask yourself: where am I in the race right now? How can I open myself up to joy, without denying the inevitable reality of pain?
Wherever we are, we must keep running. Keep moving forward. The meaning of our life is merely a veil of a much greater reality that will one day be revealed to us. In that reality, we will experience a fuller glory of God that is far more complete than we can imagine right now as we travel this earthly race. I experienced a fullness of joy upon crossing the marathon finish line in October 2001 that I wouldn’t have experienced had I denied myself the suffering.
Keep moving forward. Keep running the race. As we move ever closer to the finish line, God’s grace and glory will be revealed to us in time. All will be well. Amen