6:35 PM In Greek class today we discussed words and how they take on meaning. It’s part of my effort to make class practical and motivational. At the same time, there’s nothing easy about lexical analysis. Much of it is undoing damage. Take the well-known and much-discussed fallacy of etymologizing — determining a word’s meaning by its constituent parts (morphemes). For example, some insist that a New Testament church is “called out” from the world — separate, if you will — based on the etymology of the Greek word ekklesia, which is comprised of two parts — ek, “out of,” and kaleo, “I call.” Hence the church is a “called out” organism. It is to be different from the world. And believers are to separate themselves from the world.
In New Testament usage, however, it seems that the word ekklesia never quite had this meaning of “called out ones.” Normally it was used to describe a group of people that had something in common. At times this group met, and then it was an ekklesia. At other times it wasn’t meeting per se, but even then it was an ekklesia. This term was used in contrast to ochlos — a term that describes a group of people that have come together and yet have nothing really in common. Ochlos is often glossed as “crowd” in English, and that is indeed a very good rendering. How, then, should we translate ekklesia into English? When I posed this question to my class today, I got several excellent responses: “gathering,” “assembly,” “congregation,” and the like. All of these are fine, but none of them in my opinion captures the essence of what a New Testament ekklesia is. I prefer the term “community.” Church is not simply a group of just any people, and it is most certainly not a building. Instead, I like to think of a church as a space in which all of us are ministering, praying, preaching, teaching, singing, caring, loving — a family if you will. Our motto might be: “We’re all in this together. So let’s do it together.” This is the community to which we, as followers of Jesus, are giving ourselves with our whole hearts. This is our “church” — a diverse, global, caring paean of praise to our Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, Lord, Master, and only true Senior Pastor.
Recently I became part of a similar community, a community known simply as the “runners’ community.” The similarities between this community and the “church” are legion. As soon as I began running competitively I knew I had joined the ranks of hundreds and thousands of other runners. From my very first race this sense of community became instilled deep within my psyche. Even as a novice runner, I knew I was not alone. Every experienced runner remembers when they were a beginner just like you, and so they are eager to reach out to the newbies among them. You soon have a group of running friends you look to for advice — where to buy the best running shoes, how to train properly, how to avoid injuries, how to handle anxiety before a big race. Being part of this community helps each of us to become a better runner. As runners, we value what we can become and not simply what we look like. We are not defined by our age, our t-shirt size, our weight, or our medallions (or lack of them). We are all fiercely independent and pursue individual goals, and yet paradoxically we truly believe that we are all in this together, and it shows. Just show up to any race and observe the runners. We are a celebration of men and women, boys and girls, who are striving to be the best and healthiest versions of ourselves through running and fitness. We are forever occupied with growth, with exposing and developing what is latent with us. Each race is an enactment of a lifelong struggle for advancement and perfection.
I am not in the least surprised, therefore, to find similarities between a running community and a community that defines itself on the basis of the traditional creedal values of faith, hope, and love. Both runners and Christians have a lot in common. For one thing, we both ask silly questions. A Christian in a bookstore asks the salesperson: “I’m looking for a Bible for my mother but I’m not sure who the author is.” A non-runner asks you, “How far is your next 5K race?” As you can see, both novice runners and novice Christians have a lot to learn! We are people who pursue excellence and who seek to be dedicated to something wholeheartedly and to give ourselves to some project without any reservations whatsoever. Our actions are always impelled by some good we want to attain. And to achieve our goals, we often have to endure suffering and pain. An athletic race is a place where we discover strength and faith and courage we never knew we possessed. We are runners. It doesn’t matter how fast we run or or how far we run. It doesn’t whether we are running in our very first race or have been running for fifty years. During a 5K race this past weekend I met an athletic-looking young man who was pushing his infant child in a stroller. We had finished the race at about the same time. I knew he could have run much faster had he not been pushing a baby carriage. He told me something I’ll never forget. He said, “Sometimes having the best time at a race has nothing to do with how fast you ran.” I will remember that until the day I die. I wish I could have given him “The World’s Greatest Runner Award” that day.
Running metaphors occur all over the place in the New Testament. Think Heb. 12:1; Phil. 2:16; Gal. 2:2; 2 Tim. 4:7; and 1 Cor. 9:24-26. Remember: this is a race we run together. It’s no different in the running community. “Hey guys. I’ve got a hip labral tear. Anybody had any experience with this?” Or (in the church), “As a mom, I have a tremendous sense of responsibility to teach my children about truth and grace and God. Should I make my children read the Bible? What do you think?” The point is: We are there for each other.
At one time I was really struggling going uphill in 5K races. So I asked the winner of a race how I could improve. His simple answer caught me off guard. “You learn to run uphill by running uphill.” Yet another reminder that “we’re all in this together.” Need more proof? Watch this.