(a sermon for February 4, 2018, the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, based on 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 and Mark 1:40-45)
Here’s something that I’m sure will come as a huge shock to all of you: I am not much of an athlete.
And by “not much of,” I mean “not at all.”
I don’t know; I just have never had the ability or coordination it takes to do sports, or for that matter, the real desire. Even as a kid, gym class was for me basically something to be gotten through and if at all possible, avoided! And besides, back in school I was always the one in band and chorus, doing drama club and working on the yearbook; that was my thing! So back then being any kind of star athlete (or even a benchwarmer) was never going to happen; and obviously, in all the years that have followed, nothing about that has changed!
Which is not to say, however, I don’t appreciate athleticism in others; in fact, I have to say that the older I get, the more I admire those who have shown forth not only their God-given ability, but also the drive, discipline and perseverance it takes to succeed on the field of athletic competition. Whether we’re talking about tonight’s Super Bowl, the upcoming Winter Olympic Games, or simply high school kids running up and down the basketball court at tournament time there is beauty and grace to be found in those who do these things very, very well; who have trained and practiced, struggled, endured and pushed themselves to the limit – sometimes over the course of an entire lifetime (!) – all for the sake of running that race, of winning that game… of being the absolute best that one can be.
And ideally, friends, I’m here to tell you that it can be a spiritual thing as well. I actually came across a quote this week from, of all people, Pope John Paul II, from back in 1987. He said that “Sport… is an activity that involves more than the movement of the body; it demands the use of intelligence and the developing of the will. It reveals… the wonderful structure of the human person created by God, as a spiritual being, a unity of body and spirit. Athletic activity,” John Paul went on to say, “can help every man and woman to recall the moment when God the Creator gave origin to the human person, the masterpiece of his creative work.”
I like that. Granted, in an age where sports is big business and things like politics, drug abuse and (as we have seen illustrated so horribly as of late) all manner of assault have too often plagued the whole endeavor, it’s increasingly difficult to see the ideal made real; but when it happens – be it a perfect touchdown pass or a ski jump that seems to defy gravity – when we can bear witness to the wonder of body, mind and spirit working together toward a singular goal, even to this most decidedly non-athletic person, it’s a beautiful thing. At the heart of it all, you see, is this very clear desire, this relentless drive, this passion, if you will, to be “in it to win it.”
And isn’t it interesting how when Paul wants to speak in our text this morning about the spiritual life and what it means to be a child of God it’s precisely that same kind of passion to which he refers as making all the difference. “Do you not know,” he writes to the Christians in Corinth, “that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.”
Now at first read, it might well seem a bit odd to hear that kind of a sports metaphor coming from the pen of an apostle; but in truth there are several instances throughout the epistles where Paul uses what might be called “the language of athletics” in order to make a point about the Christian life. In fact, in our passage today, Paul makes reference to an actual athletic event: the Isthmian Games, which were a series of Olympic-styled athletic contests that took place every two years just outside of Corinth, and which included boxing events, wrestling and all different kinds of footraces. The competition was great and intense, and as a sign of their victory the winners of each event would be given a wreath to wear on their heads; fashioned, believe it or not, out of a garland of dry and withered celery! Think of it: all that work, all that effort and all the winner has to show for it is the lousy leftover part of a summer salad! Or, to put this much more biblically, “Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.” And that’s the point, isn’t it? If these Isthmian athletes do what they do for the passing glory of such a small and fading reward, how much more might we do as followers of Jesus Christ for the “imperishable” wreath, that is, the gift of eternity with God?
By the way, these verses from 1 Corinthians get translated in a variety of ways: the NIV talks about how those athletes do what they do “to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever;” and, of course, The Message brings it a little closer to home, especially about now, in referring to a “gold medal that tarnishes and fades” as opposed to the one “that’s gold eternally.” But regardless of the translation the point is the same: to quote Kenneth Kovacs here, “the point is that the goal, the prize that we strive after and strain for as Christians is better than any athletic prize or any other prize given in this world subject to rust and decay and corruption.”
So given all this, the question for us, I suppose, is that where a life of faith and true discipleship is concerned… are we “in it to win it,” or not?
Of course we need to understand, and Paul also makes this clear, that winning the race isn’t about “run[ning] aimlessly,” any more than a boxing match is about flailing about and “beating the air.” Moreover, this race of which Paul calls us to run is no hundred-yard dash where it’s a quick sprint run to get the prize; it’s more like an intense spiritual marathon that extends over the course of a lifetime and which requires every bit of our attention and energy.
That’s where so many people make a mistake about the nature of faith; they assume that to be a Christian is simply to be a nice person, to show some empathy, and maybe employ some common sense along the way. But to actually follow Jesus and to become his disciple is something much more than that: it’s about truly loving our neighbor as ourselves; it’s about forgiving our enemies not just once or twice or even three times, but seventy times seven times; it’s about denying ourselves, and then there’s that matter of taking up our own crosses so that in our own lives we might follow Jesus where he goes… and that’s just the beginning. It’s no accident that the Greek word Paul uses here for competing in a race is “agonizomai,” which is where we get our word “agony,” because in this particular race, it takes an agonizingly tremendous effort to win. If you’re going to last for very long, it’s going to take discipline and self-control… and good training!
I love the story that William Willimon tells about his time as Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, and how a well-meaning student came to him and said, “You know, I just don’t get much out of the Bible.” “Oh,” replied Willimon, with just a hint of sarcasm, “and when was it you last did time in a Bible study group?” Well, the student said, “I just thought you could pick it up for yourself and sort of like, get the point.” To which Willimon answered, “Try that with lacrosse stick and see how far you get.”
You see, for you and me to run our race of faithful living means we need to be trained and grounded in this Christian faith we espouse. There needs to be a commitment to study God’s word; there needs to be a discipline of prayer; and there has to be, I believe, a real participation with kindred hearts in a community of faith. In other words, it matters that we’re the church together and that we’re running this race together as God’s people; because without that kind of love and support, we’re bound to get winded and discouraged at the first sign of struggle. And make no mistake: at every turn along the way, we are going to need to call upon every resource that our God has to give, so that we might be the vessels by which the gospel is proclaimed and love is brought forth; because, friends, in this broken and hurting world that is the race we’re running.
Our gospel reading for this morning is Mark’s story of how a leper came to Jesus begging to be healed, and “moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him,” and how immediately, the leprosy left him. One of the interesting parts of this passage for me is how the leper actually says to Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean,” and in the act of healing, Jesus responds by saying, “I do choose.” So not only does this story talk about the grace of God’s healing love extended to those whom the world would consider to be hideous or dangerous or somehow morally deficient – because remember, leprosy was considered at the time to be a disease that was the result of the victim’s sinful actions – it’s also a story about how Jesus “chooses” in that moment to make him clean in a profound and divine sense of compassion to which you and I are also called as his disciples.
Yes… I’ll say it again: we are his disciples; we choose to be so! We are called to be beacons of light in a dark world; and we choose to be bringers of love and compassion, purveyors of healing and a higher good. We are God’s people, and as such, we are a people with eyes upon the prize, always that of Christ and his kingdom. And it is a sacred endeavor that’s every bit as strenuous as a Super Bowl or an Olympic event; even more so. But it’s a race that needs to be run; and might I add here, it’s also a race that when it all comes together, is a beautiful thing to behold.
I had a friend back in high school who as a young man trained to run in the Boston Marathon. All through school he’d been a star member of our cross-country team, and had won any number of races; but this was different, something much bigger, something that stretched every part of his ability, and he trained for months so he’d qualify; no easy feat as he sprinted through the snow covered streets of our town! But he was determined, and when he finally got to Boston – looking back on it, he must have been just about as young as you can be to run the marathon – we were all rooting for him. And God love him, he finished the race; well behind the pack, as I recall, but he finished, and that was something!
I remember afterward asking him about the race, and I remember this because my friend actually had very little good to say about the experience: he was tired, and sore, the course was impossible, his shoes weren’t right, and on and on and on. And so I asked him, given all that and so much more why he didn’t just stop, and for that matter, why he chose to run this race in the first place. But then he smiled, and said simply, “because when you finish, there’s no feeling like it in the world.”
When you and I seek to live as our Lord Jesus would have us live it will most certainly not be easy, and there will be moments when we’ll wonder if the effort’s been worth it and if what we’ve done has mattered in the scheme of things; but if we are in it to truly win it, beloved, by God’s good grace it becomes an experience unlike anything else in life, and one that makes all the difference out these doors and into the world.
So let us run the race before us, and let us do in such a way that says we want to win it, for the sake of Jesus Christ. And as the race goes on, let us to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14)
Thanks be to God who sets the course before us.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry