Sunday, February 15, 2009
athletic training camp
I Corinthians 9:24-27
Instead of preaching on the Gospel, today our celebrant gave his sermon over to Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, what he termed "a terribly energetic passage".
When the lessons for today were first being read, I remembered I had once preached a sermon on these same texts... (if interested, you can read it here). Had three years passed so quickly? So... it was especially exciting to hear something new and different. This particular celebrant is both a Biblical scholar and a teacher; his sermons have a little of the lecture quality about them. I come away from his sermons knowing more about the Bible than I did before, yet feeling less adequate. I'm thinking that's not such a bad thing, especially as I prepare for several retreats I must lead over the next months. Humility has never been my strong suit, but it's a virtue I'm still trying to acquire. Not to be confused with humiliation... one doesn't necessarily follow the other.
But back to the sermon. In this passage, our preacher suggested, Paul portrays the Christian life as an "athletic training camp." He makes it (Christianity) come across as a competition. Everyone tries, but only those fit succeed. The best trained will come out the big winners while the less trained will be the big losers. And for that he added, we are all in big trouble. And to use the boxing metaphor, we all may as well throw in the towel.
Paul himself points out that we're all several laps behind him in persecution alone, so who can ever hope to pass him in the final lap? But we were reminded that this entire athletic metaphor was taken out of context. Today we only get a few of the verses, but the entire letter is to be read in the context of Christian freedom. Salvation is not a prize to be won; it is a gift from God. The point of staying fit and disciplined is to help others recognize the gift.
Paul points out in his letter that although (in Christ) he has been freed, he doesn't use that freedom. Instead, he conforms, especially if by doing so, he can lead others to Christ. "I have become all things to all people" he says. That made me chuckle. In my time I was brought up with a different cliché: You can't please everybody. So which is it? But that's another tangent.
The celebrant concluded with this idea: that we have a job to do: to invite others into this freedom in Christ. To do that requires a sustained and conscious effort. We do have to work hard, not to be saved, but to save others. It's a commitment to a calling, much like the athlete has a commitment to his or her chosen sport.
I thought about Paul's idea of freedom, and his willingness to lay it down for the larger purpose. He certainly must have modeled himself on the very one he worshipped. For Jesus, though in the form of God, did not cling to equality with God, but humbled himself, taking the form of a servant, and was born in human likeness. His larger purpose was to reunite us (humankind) with God, the creator. Pretty amazing when you think about it.