An Athlete of Christ

6th Sunday after epiphany 1 Corinthians 9:24-27  An athlete of Christ

In order to compete and be competitive, an athlete trains hard for his goal and sheds off anything that may hinder his chances of wining the prize.

What sort of athlete would have a diet like this? (fast food pac
kets, coke and beer).  Would these be a hindrance?  Would this diet help to win the prize?  Would an elite athlete wear this? (a heavy jacket, hold a suitcase and then a blindfold)?  Would he know where he is going in a race?  Would he be able to compete competitively carrying a sports bag?  No, all of these things need to be removed as part, of an athlete’s strict training.  Everything is seen as a loss in comparison to the final prize and crown of victory.

Being in Athens and Corinth, it is more than likely St Paul enjoyed sport and even attended sporting events in his free time.  He would have seen how hard athletes trained.  Living in Greece, he would have witnessed firsthand the determination of an athlete to finish the race.  He may have applauded with the crowds as they saw the joy on the faces of those who won the crown of victory.  Historical records found in the excavations of ancient Corinth show that around the exact dates of Paul’s mission work in Corinth, the Isthmian Games were held.

This prestigious event, second only to the Olympics in Athens, was run in Corinth every two years.  Ancient records show athletic events included racing, wrestling, jumping, boxing, hurling the javelin, and throwing the discus.  Paul, having lived in Corinth for many years, would have seen the athletes training in the streets; running, throwing and practicing for their events.  It was required by decree that all athletes devote 10 months to strict training.

As we know, this sort of dedication to winning requires an athlete with determination and commitment.  It meant that a competitor would voluntarily renounce not only unhealthy habits, like junk food, drinking and smoking, but also give up many things that are fine, like holidays or parties, in order to focus totally on the goal.

Perhaps St Paul wrote part of his Corinthian letter sitting in the stadium watching athletes striving for the crown of victory.  Perhaps he was sitting there thinking, why is it an athlete trains, strives and competes so hard to win a temporary crown made only of olive leaves, yet his converts in the new church of Jesus, the believers in the way, showed little sign of this enthusiasm; showed no real commitment to studying God’s word or striving for the sake of the gospel.

Perhaps Paul just finished watching a running race when he wrote, ‘members of the church in Corinth, 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.’

Paul had preached the good news of Christ crucified as he writes ‘For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’  It is in this good news that the believers in the new church in Corinth were awarded salvation and eternal life as a crown of victory.  This good news of salvation, a free gift from God, should have spur them on to holy living; to striving and renouncing things that would hinder them from winning the prize, like an athlete would do.  But Paul found very little of this.  The freedom of the gospel was for many, freedom to do nothing!

Martin Luther found this same problem in his new church of the reformation, in a sermon preached on 9th March 1522, he made these scathing remarks ‘We must have love and through love we must do to one another as God has done to us through faith.  For without love faith is nothing…And here dear friends, have you not grievously failed?  I see no signs of love among you, and I observe very well that you have not been grateful to God for his rich gifts and treasures.

I notice that you have a great deal to say of the doctrine of faith and love which is preached to you, and this is no wonder; an ass can almost intone the lessons…Dear friends, the kingdom of God, and we are the kingdom, does not consist in talk or words, but in activity, in deeds, in works and exercises.  God does not want hearers and repeaters of words, but followers and doers and this occurs in faith through love.’

Certainly perhaps, we are not in the same league as those in Wittenberg, or even Corinth.  I do indeed see that everyone here is thankful to God for the gift of salvation and do indeed love and live lives worthy of the gospel.  Yet Paul’s words, like a coach speaking to his players at half time, can spur us on to greater appreciation for the crown of eternal life and a renewed determination to train our bodies, our minds and our spirits in the word of God.  Paul encourages us not to ‘run our race like an athlete running aimlessly or fight like a boxer hitting the air.’  Rather, we are to be like great athletes, making our bodies slaves to Christ so that we do not miss out on the prize’.

The prize, the crown of victory is the free gift of forgiveness and eternal life because of Jesus death for our sins on the cross.  You have already been crowned with this victory when Jesus declared you forgiven; justified you or put you in a right relationship with God in and through you baptism.

Just like Naaman, by the power of God’s word and the washing of water, he was cleansed from leprosy, in the washing of baptism, you have been cleansed from sin and given new life, as written in Titus 3 ‘He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour.’

Yet, as we know, this crown is only received fully, in death.  We are still running our race, still enduring hardships and disappointments like any athlete running a race.  However, God has not left us alone in this event, in his compassion he has graciously given as all the training equipment needed for our faith, so we don’t lose the race and the crown of victory.

We train our bodies by reading God’s word and as we do, his Spirit makes us holy and cleanses us of sin.  The Spirit in the word trains our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, so we can recognise the sins that are hindering our race for the prize and leads us to put off the devil and all his works and ways.

Our training as Athletes for Christ consists in eating the right spiritual foods, and that too, has be provided by God himself.  Jesus body and blood are given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.  His body is truly present in the bread and wine to strengthen our faith for the race.  Jesus said ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

We don’t need to run our race aimlessly, like a blindfolded runner.  We know where to go to receive refreshment and renewal for our tired souls.  We know where to go for strength to love and serve even our enemies; we go straight to the power of God’s word and sacraments, just like an athlete goes straight for the Gaidorade.

We don’t box the air like a shadow boxer, not knowing how to defeat our opponent, we know the target, the devil and we know how to knock him out cold, for one little word of Jesus can fell him.  Yes, an athlete of Jesus trains and remains in the word of God, for it is in this power that the victory will be won, as in the final verse of ‘A mighty fortress is our God’

‘The word shall stand despite all foes-No thanks they for it merit- For God is with us, and bestows his gifts and Holy Spirit.  And take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife: Though these all be gone, yet have our foes not won; the kingdom ours remaineth.’

Amen

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