I am pretty competitive by nature, and if I compete in something, I want to win. Obviously, that doesn’t always happen. I remember competing in track in junior high. My main running event was the 400m. It is a pretty grueling event because it is basically a controlled sprint for a quarter of a mile. I was a pretty decent runner, but there was one other runner who was a thorn in my side: Jeff Hollingshead. Most of our track meets had the same teams, including Jeff’s school, Knoxville, Iowa. I was from Grinnell, Iowa. Jeff and I were always in the open 400m, and he beat me every time, which drove me crazy. So, one meet, I decided I was going to beat Jeff even if it killed me. The race started, and I took off like I was in the 100-meter dash. I was doing great. I was leading at 100 meters. I was leading at 200 meters by an even greater margin. I was cruising. I was going to win this race. But then came 300 meters, where I quickly discovered what it means to hit a wall. It felt like a literal wall. My body began to lock up, and I could barely keep moving. It was a very helpless feeling. And I finished the race in……. last place. It was pretty humiliating. I made a decision that day. I would never try to beat Jeff Hollingshead again. By the way, he did go on to become the state champion in the 400m in high school. I did not.

There is a spiritual connection to all of this. As I look back, most of the things that I have strived to finish first at are really not important in the big picture. I can see that now. It really doesn’t matter if I finished first, second, or last in the 400-meter dash.

I was reading through the book of Romans recently, and I came across a verse that I had never noticed before. I read through the book at a much slower pace than I normally would, trying to catch some of the nuances that I may have missed in the past. In Chapter 16, Paul gives a long list of people to greet. This is the only place that many of them are mentioned in scripture, but you can see that they were all very special to Paul in their own ways.  

The name that really stood out to me, though, was Epaenetus. Not exactly a household biblical name, right? Romans 16:5 says, 

“…Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia.”

Wow. Did you catch that? Epaenetus was the FIRST convert to Christ in Asia. New Testament Asia would be the area of modern-day Turkey. But what an amazing thing to be first at. I would love to hear the rest of the story for Epaenetus. My guess is that it wasn’t an easy one. His family and friends would have most likely thought he was crazy. He probably faced persecution for his decision. But he stood out to Paul as a friend and one who was willing to stand up and follow Jesus.  

Later, in Revelation, we find out that there were at least seven churches in Asia. My guess is that Epaenatus played a key role in the spread of Christianity in Asia. But it started with a man who was willing to say I believe in Jesus, and I want to follow him with all of my heart and life. I am willing to be the first.

Maybe some of you are first-generation Christians. That is so cool. I love it. Maybe you can think back to your Christian heritage and point to those who first followed Christ in your family. Maybe you haven’t said yes to Jesus yet, and you could still be the first one in your family to ever follow Jesus. That would be incredible. Because in the big picture, saying yes to Jesus is way more important than any prize this world has to offer. 1 Corinthians 9:24-25 reminds us of that. It says, 

“Do you not know that in a race, all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”   

Let’s follow the example of Epaenetus and aim for that crown that only comes through Jesus Christ and lasts forever. 

(P.S.- I do still enjoy competing and if you want to play me in ping pong, I will take you down.)

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