1 Corinthians 9:24–27
Roslyn Presbyterian Church Dr. James D. Berkley
Roslyn, WA August 10, 2014
Years ago when I was a pastor in Dixon, California, the city dedicated a new pool in the park. Someone came up with the idea of having an exhibition relay race as part of the day’s festivities. That was a great idea. Someone thought it would be fun to have teams from city hall, the fire department, the police department, and the children’s swim team compete in the race. That, too, was a good idea. I thought it would be fun to attend the festivities—another good idea. Then someone from the police department called to say they desperately needed me to swim one of the legs of the relay. (I was the volunteer police chaplain and a reserve officer.) That was a terrible idea! But I said yes anyway.
When I got to the pool, I found out that the race was down and back for each participant. Well, twenty-five yards is not too bad, but fifty yards is another thing. Before I knew it, the race was on, and there I was diving in and swimming like crazy. On the way down, it wasn’t too bad, since it was all adrenaline. However, someone must have stretched the pool for the return trip. I thought the end would never come. My lungs were sending out desperate dispatches for oxygen, and my arms and legs threatened to go on strike. When I finally touched the end, all I could do was hang on and pant. I couldn’t even pull myself out of the pool. What really got me was those skinny little kids in their Speedos, who looked as fresh as a daisy. And I sure hope Roslyn never builds a pool!
That race wasn’t really much of a race. I didn’t have any great ego needs resting on the outcome—well, except that my police teammates were armed and I didn’t want to let them down. Like most competitors, however, I raced to win. Even though I had little to give, I gave it everything I had. I didn’t leisurely dogpaddle one length and float back on my back. For a few short moments—which seemed like an eternity—the race was all that existed in the world.
Paul used the image of a race to describe the Christian life. It’s a good image. Somehow the heresy is afoot that Christianity is a rather dull existence. Some people view it as a life full of things you can’t do. They think they may consider Christianity after they tire of really living, when they’re content to settle into rocking chairs and sing sweet hymns of calm gardens and cleft rocks. Christianity gets equated with boredom—which may not be far from reality, given the way some Christians live out their faith.
But Christianity is not meant to be this way. Christian living ought to be challenging and exciting. Christian living at full speed is one way to describe the life Paul calls us to undertake. His message from today’s text in First Corinthians might be summed up in three commands: Run to win, run with discipline, and run with purpose.
Run to win
“Do you not know,” writes Paul, “that in a race, all of the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” Run to win. Live out your Christian faith to obtain the prize. So what is the prize? We can rule out salvation. If salvation were the prize awarded to only the best Christians, then grace means nothing. But we cannot earn our salvation. So what is the prize? Would you settle for an “I don’t know”? It’s unclear. In the athletic games at Corinth, a pine garland was awarded to the winners, kind of like the laurel wreath given to winners in the Olympic Games. In other New Testament texts, there is word of receiving a crown as a reward for our Christian devotion. But we don’t really expect to be awarded a golden crown when we get to heaven. The talk of crowns and prizes is symbolic. The prize we obtain must be something less physical than pine boughs or golden tiaras.
The prize I’d like would be a “Well done, good and faithful servant!” from the mouth of our Lord. I want so to live that I would receive the approval of God. I want my life to be such that the prize I obtain would be a nod of appreciation from God. That would mean more than any earthly trinket. Probably the prize of which Paul writes is more likely to be approval or satisfaction, rather than gold or diamonds—and much more valuable, besides.
Paul’s analogy breaks down in that he speaks of a single winner from among all runners. Maybe we should picture something like a marathon, where there is one overall winner, but all those who complete the race consider it a personal victory. Not to drop out or be disqualified is to win. I think this is the kind of winning that Paul speaks of here.
There certainly are alternatives to this kind of winning. A runner may wear the right shoes, shorts, and t-shirt, but only dabble at running the race. And so can a Christian. He or she may know the lingo, be able to fake a smile, and have the songs down pat, but only be going through the motions of Christian living. That is not running to win.
A runner may give only a half-hearted try. She may not train. She may stop with the first discomfort. She may find a shady bench a lot more inviting. Likewise, a half-hearted try at Christianity is an invitation to failure. Jesus weeded out the half-hearted would-be disciples. The one not willing to give his all to the effort was not invited. Half-hearted runners do not win.
A runner may run well, but cover the same section of the marathon over and over. Running around the block continually will not win a road race. One must cover the whole course, which means new territory at every step. A guy once boasted of forty years of Christian experience. “No,” a detractor said. “You don’t have forty years of Christian experience. You have one year of experience repeated forty times.” If we cover only the same ground over and over, we will never finish the race as winners. We must cover new ground. We must develop deeper times with the Lord, or we will be merely retracing our steps. We must venture into maturity. We don’t want to run the race in a way that keeps us from winning.
Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his notebook: “Lord, you give us everything—at the price of an effort.” Running to win takes effort. It takes endurance. It takes courage. Christian faith can be better described as a race than a party. We are not called into one grand pleasure cruise, but rather into a work party with a job to do: We run to win.
Run with discipline
We should also run with discipline. It takes effort to be strong. What boxer doesn’t endure miles of road work and hours of jumping rope to strengthen his endurance? What bicyclist doesn’t ride hundreds of grueling miles, pushing her legs and lungs to their limits to prepare for racing? What football team doesn’t spend hours at workouts, sweating profusely under hot pads? It takes great discipline to win, and the Christian is to run with discipline.
Alfred Russell Wallace, a British naturalist, once tried to help an emperor moth free itself from its cocoon. With a knife, Wallace carefully split the cocoon. The moth, once freed, crept moodily about, drooped perceptibly, and died. It is the furious struggle with the cocoon that develops the splendid wings and sends vital fluids pulsing through the moth’s body, until everything works perfectly. One cannot spare the moth its struggle and expect it to live.
Paul wrote, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things”—obviously talking of an age different than ours! Paul also stated, “I discipline my body and keep it under control.” Paul knew self-discipline.
It seems that the greatest need for us Christians, in terms of self-discipline, is not to keep ourselves from things—like lying and vices and gossip. Don’t get me wrong, we do need to eliminate wrong things from our lives. But the greatest need is to propel ourselves into the right things. It would be so easy to sit back in comfort reading Christian self-help books, while the world perishes around us. It is relatively easy to keep our vices in check, compared to actively telling someone about Jesus or helping someone who is lonely. Discipline is needed—firm self-discipline—to get us up off our pews and into the world to make a difference for Christ! So we need to run with discipline, not only keeping ourselves from doing bad things, but actively impelling ourselves into ministries that benefit all of God’s children.
I’m reminded of the story of an upright but comfort-loving guy who died and was borne to the other world, where every possible wish was gratified. No effort was required of him, no struggle. But eventually he became bored and announced, “I can’t stand this everlasting bliss any longer! I want to be challenged. I want to try hell!” The attendant replied, “And just where do you think you are, sir?”
Paul disciplined his body and kept it under control. Another version reads that he pommelled his body and subdued it. He’s speaking figuratively, but it does mean that he denies himself and does fight his every wish—for a higher purpose. He wants to stay in the race. A marathon runner could stop for an ice cream sundae along the way, but she doesn’t. Ice cream wouldn’t be wrong, but she avoids it because it would impede her effort in the race. When we run with discipline, we, too, will find ourselves giving up some things and taking on others, based on what makes for the best effort in the race.
Run with purpose
Paul’s final command was to run with purpose. He wrote, “I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air.” Paul knew what he wanted—to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ—and thus every decision was determined by this aim. He knew where he was headed.
It’s possible to run at full speed in the wrong directions. Debbie showed me an article about a moose that went charging off a cliff and landed on a car. It wasn’t the brightest moose in the woods! Busyness and exertion aren’t necessarily good in themselves. Running in the wrong direction makes things worse. Many people who move around when lost in the woods simply get further lost. Sitting still would be better than full speed in the wrong direction. We must know where we’re going. We must run with purpose in the right direction. That means heading toward God’s will for our lives.
So Christian life is meant to be an adventure, not a picnic. It is meant to be tackled with vigor, not put off with listlessness. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Abundant life is something to be desired, and Christian living is meant to be the best kind of life possible—full life, abundant life.
Is your Christian life best characterized as being at full speed? Or is it in idle—or even reverse? With the power of Christ at work in us, let’s shift into forward and kick it into a high gear. Let’s live this life at full speed! As we run to win, run with discipline, and run with purpose, our Christian living will be at full speed. There is no better way to go about life!