Jer 38:4-6, 8-10
Ps 40 R/. Lord, come to my aid.
In these past days we’ve been experiencing the first week of the 2016 Olympics in Rio, and I’m sure many of you have been watching. It’s quite something to see these athletes compete and show off their skill and all their hard work. And hard work it is! You don’t make it to the Olympics in your first year in a sport. What we’re watching is the culmination of a lot of time, effort and training. These athletes have been working hard for this competition, and not merely for months but for years. They started in their sport in their youth and have been training ever since.
One of my nephews has been doing gymnastics for two years. His coaches are already pointing him toward Olympic training because they see potential in him. So starting in September he’ll be training nine hours each week. Nine hours a week! And he’s just seven! While he might show potential of being an Olympic athlete, by the time he’s old enough to compete at that level, he’ll have trained for fourteen years! And not just for nine hours a week: that’s sure to double by the time he’s a teenager. That’s the kind of work it takes to get to the Olympics, and only for a couple of minutes of competition! It certainly takes a lot of dedication, work and drive to win a medal. I have a great deal of respect for anyone who can compete at that level.
That’s the image the author of the Letter to the Hebrews is calling to mind in our second reading today as he tells us to run with perseverance the race that is set before us (Heb 12:1). It echoes St. Paul words to the Corinthians, Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it (1 Cor 9:24).
My brothers and sisters, like athletes, Christians are called to run the race of life so as to win, not a perishable crown or a medal, but the crown of holiness given by Christ to those who persevere in faith and charity to the end (cf. 1 Cor 9:25). Jesus died so that we might live; He gave His life for us so that we might be united to Him in this life and in the next. But in order for us to receive this crown of glory, we must train and work at it. Like Olympic medals, holiness won’t be given to those who don’t run the race!
That means that if we want to get to Heaven, we need to live as if we’re already there. We need to practice the virtues until they become second nature. We need go beyond ourselves, beyond our fallen nature, and imitate Jesus in His love and mercy. We need to make efforts to make our faith in Jesus a priority and to train ourselves in the practice of prayer and service. We need to be serious in our quest for holiness as if our life depended on it, because it does!
No one gets to their destination without focussing on it, without setting themselves on the right path to get there. This is what each one of us is called to do in the life of faith, to set our hearts and minds on Jesus and to make the sacrifices necessary to follow Him.
Our task in this life is to lay aside every weight and the sin that clings to us so closely, so that we might be found running the race when Christ comes. That means we must be intentional in our discipleship. A person doesn’t become an athlete by accident, and an athlete doesn’t make it to the Olympics by accident. It takes intentional effort, coaching, training and sacrifice. Likewise, we won’t make it to Heaven by accident or become saints by accident, but only by making a commitment to follow Jesus and allow His grace and the Holy Spirit to transform our lives. And at the end of the day, that’s all holiness is. It isn’t about being perfect or being able to perform miracles, but about allowing God’s grace to transform us, to change our hearts so that Jesus becomes visible in us.
So like athletes, we must set our hearts on the prize and compete so as to win. We must be willing to let go of certain things so that we might follow Jesus. Are we willing to make faith a priority in our lives? Are we committed to attending Mass every Sunday even if that means leaving guests at home or missing a game? Are we willing to follow Jesus even if that means being rejected by family or friends? Are we willing to say no to something so that we might be able to say yes to Jesus and allow His grace to be fruitful in our lives? Are we willing to fight sin and temptation, even to the point of shedding blood (cf. Heb 12:4)?
May the Holy Spirit set our hearts on fire with His love so that we may run the race so as to win. Amen.