Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.
This striking passage, which turns up rarely in our Lectionary, deserves our attention, reflection and prayer. Using an athletic image for living the Christian life, the author has us picture ourselves stripping down to run a foot race with Jesus himself in the lead. Actually, the picture is that Jesus has already finished his part in the race and is seated on a victory throne. Like a coach, the author calls us to focus on Jesus and do what he did, to run the race for the reason that motivated him, the joy that awaited him after the supreme effort of the race.
In this pep talk, he uses a phrase to describe Jesus that is so bold that some English translations tone it down a bit. The NAB version, quoted above, gets it right: “Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.” The New International Version and the New Revised Standard Version have “perfecter of our faith,” as if it were all too human to attribute faith to Jesus. But it really does call Jesus the “perfecter of faith.” The language is referring to the fact that, in his humanity, Jesus really did live a life of faith, in the sense of fidelity. That is one of the things that qualify him as a model for imitation. As we understand the Incarnation, which we just finished celebrating in a special way in the Christmas season, when the eternal Son of God took on human nature, that meant that Jesus had to grow up the way all of us did, learning his mother tongue from his mother, and learning to live the life of the Israelite covenant with the creating Father with the same fidelity that all Jews were called to. His prayer was real prayer, not play-acting. He was like us in all things, but sin, as this same letter tells us (4:15). But he excelled. Thus, the striking language of “leader and perfecter of faith.” The rest of the letter fills that out by reminding us that Jesus is not only the model of faithfulness; he enables us to follow behind him in the same “foot race.”
That’s the beauty of choosing Psalm 22 as today’s psalm. That’s the psalm that Mark and Matthew report that Jesus prayed as he was dying on the cross. When you read the whole psalm, it becomes clear that while it begins in the darkness of the experience of abandonment, it arrives at a state of utter confidence in the Father’s power to rescue and sustain in the end. We can pray that same prayer with confidence even in our darkest hour because Jesus prayed it in the full rejection and dishonor of the cross, and because the joy of the resurrection waited beyond the finish line.
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