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1 Corinthians 9:24-27
I have no doubt that if Paul had been alive, he would have been watching last summer’s Olympics and enjoying it. Paul uses sports analogies more than once in his letters. Today’s passage is flooded with them with talk about runners in a race for the prize – not gold medals but a wreath… he talks about boxing…
He is talking to people who lived in a city that was sports minded. The Corinthians played host to the Isthmian games… second only to the Olympic Games. They were held the year before and after the Olympic games right there in Corinth. I can’t help but think that Paul may have attended them.
So I think Paul would have loved our modern day Olympics and he would have loved the story of Michael Phelps… who won a record 8 Olympic medals. More than the winning, I think Paul would have admired the training that led to the winning.
Michael Phelps didn’t just show up at the pool last summer, jump in and swim hard. No Michael had been training for that day since he was 11 years old. He had, what he called an "insane and intense" coach, Bob Bowman who trained him. Over those years Bob taught him, advised him, guided him and pushed him…paying attention to every detail of the training. He pushed Phelps to swim 50 miles a week. He trained 5 hours a day and 7 days a week without any rest day… he had to swim on his birthday and on Christmas. Phelps also was focused on a clear goal-to win those gold medals. It was a goal that drove him. So no, he didn’t show up and win 8 gold medals because he tried hard… he won because he trained hard. When he came to the moment to swim his race, he won because he gave himself to that goal and trained for it.
I think that is a lesson Paul drew from watching his athletes and Paul began to think of how that applied to the Christian life. Paul had been watching some Christians become baptized… but then little changed. He knew that baptism is just the beginning, not the end of one’s life as a Christian.
Baptism may assure us of God’s grace and eternal life… but living the Christian faith requires more: it requires perseverance and self discipline. It requires training… daily training if one is to reach the goal of being the person God in Christ has called us to be.
Paul seems concerned that some Christians have stopped trying or are not training. He wants us to know there is more to faith than making a statement that Jesus is my Lord and savior… as we ask when someone joins the church as they make a profession of faith.
I wonder if you remember another question we ask when someone is baptized or joins the church by profession of faith:
With God’s help, will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love?
If we say yes with integrity and sincerity, then being a faithful disciple will require more than trying hard… it will require that a person devote themselves to training for this life of following Jesus.
Perhaps this is an important truth to think about as we approach the season of Lent where we encourage you to focus on spiritual growth and transformation. Spiritual transformation does not just happen… you can’t take a pill and become a Christ-like person… you cannot even just try hard for a day… spiritual formation is not a matter of trying harder, but training wisely.
This is what I think Paul knew as he talked about those athletes in training. He sees athletes training and exercising self discipline and self control… making sacrifices all in order to earn a wreath at the games. A wreath, he says will dry out and die. Paul says he is also a runner… he sacrifices and disciplines and trains himself… but not for a wreath but to be a worthy follower of Jesus Christ. He knows the life of discipleship does not simply happen.
If you think about it, "respecting the distinction between training and merely trying is the key to transformation in every aspect of life.
People sometimes think that learning how to play Bach at the piano by spending years practicing scales and chord progressions is the ‘hard’ way. The truth is the other way around. Spending years practicing scales is the easy way to learn to play Bach. Imagine sitting down at a grand piano in front of a packed concert hall and having never practiced a moment in your life. That’s the hard way." 1.
I like the way one person put it:
"The need for preparation, or training, does not stop when it comes to learning the art of forgiveness, or joy, or courage. In other words, it applies to a healthy and vibrant spiritual life just as it does to physical and intellectual activity. Learning to think, feel and act like Jesus is at least as demanding as learning to run a marathon or play the piano." 2.
Paul would agree. The life of a disciple means learning from Jesus how to arrange my life around activities and spiritual practices that enable me to, as we say in our vision statement at the Kirk: "to faithfully follow and joyfully serve our Lord"
Following spiritual practices are to life what calisthenics are to a game.
I bet Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski and Sidney Lowe know that before their teams ever take the floor, the outcome of the game is based more on their training and practice than anything else. The basketball players get no bonus points based on how many free throws they shot in practice… but they shoot them in order to be able to make them in the game.
The goal of course for us is not to win a game… it is not even to win or earn favor with God… they are not about trying to be good enough to merit God’s forgiveness or good will. We aren’t trying to get extra credit or even trying to prove to God how committed we are. The purpose and value of spiritual training is to help us to grow and change toward the life God so graciously offers us. God wants us to have a life of peace-a life of joy, hope and love … that is a blessing to others… And in Christ that gift is offered freely and for all.
But accepting that gift and living into that gift does not just happen… ask any of the spiritual giants you know… Mother Teresa just didn’t happen… Martin Luther King Jr just didn’t happen… think of the people you admire who seem to have that kind of life… they will tell you, it just didn’t happen. It came as a result of a life seeking to grow in the love of God and in the grace of Christ in communion with the spirit.
I think of a story in a newspaper in Los Angeles that quoted a physical trainer and former Mr. Missouri contestant:
"The guys you see on TV and in magazines have that look-that look is what they do for a living. The maintenance of that look is wha
t their entire lives are based on-it’s a lifestyle. It’s 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
We’re such a now society. Guys come in thinking that in three months or by swimsuit season they can be looking all ripped and hard. And that’s um, pretty unrealistic." 3.
I know how that guy feels. Over my almost 3 decades in ministry I have watched people join the church and many seem to think that the day you are baptized or the day you become a member… well, that’s all it takes. They come to worship about 1-2 times a month, do not engage in any study or discipline and then are surprised to discover in times of crisis they do not have the spiritual resources to draw upon… or they discover that it is hard to live the faith with love and integrity. Well, no one ever said it was easy. If they did, they lied to you.
Paul knew that spiritual growth does not happen in a day… it is what entire lives are based on.
Jesus knew this as well. When the crowds followed him, enchanted by his message of love and forgiveness… (who doesn’t what to hear that?) How it is possible to live in the presence and under the reign of a gracious God… that was his good news for people. He said it is possible to live in such a way that when people see us, they will say to themselves, ‘Wow! I didn’t know a life could look like that!"
It indeed happens. It has happened for many who have followed Christ… I know such people and so do you… we admire them and look up to them. And it is a life that is possible for any of us. Jesus also said it is a life you must choose… you must decide to devote your life to this… Jesus knew that many in the crowds would not choose to do so… but many did and the record across the centuries is that for those who did, their lives were blessed and were a blessing.
The good news, is that it is never too late… you do not age out of this race… the training is available and the invitation is open to all… to live your life and to run your race in a way that we will receive a prize worth far more than a gold medal or a trophy… it is a prize of experiencing God’s grace in a way that blesses your life in a way that helps you become a blessing for others. And this is not something that will pass away… it will last you forever. Amen.
1. P44, from John Ortberg, the Life you have always wanted
3. Ibid p 56