February 4, 2018 – White Bluff Presbyterian Church
We have a season of sports ahead of us. Although neither the Atlanta Falcons nor the Jacksonville Jaguars made it into the Super Bowl, it’s still a Big Game, and I imagine there are still a number of you planning to watch it. Maybe you want to see the game, or maybe you know that everyone will be talking about the commercials tomorrow, so you want to get the first peak at those. And if the Super Bowl isn’t your cup of tea, then you have the Olympics to look forward to, beginning this week on Friday. After the Opening Ceremonies that night, if you have cable television, you will be able to spend every moment of every one of the following 16 days watching 10,000 or so of the very best athletes in the world in their sports. Have fun with that if that is what you choose to do.
You may love sports, or you may simply find other things to do during big sports seasons like this. But I know very few people who do not have a deep respect for the people who are so dedicated to their sports that they are allowed to compete in the Super Bowl or the Olympics. Those people work hard. They take hours every day for years of their lives to train, to work out, to practice, to practice some more, and to practice even more in order to do what they do.
Even the apostle Paul in the first century had a deep respect for top-level athletes. Maybe you didn’t know before a few minutes ago that Paul had anything at all to say about the discipline, focus, and hard work which successful athletes exercise. But he did. “Athletes exercise self-control in all things,” he said. Even to this day, he is not wrong. Think about the life of a professional football player or an Olympic competitor. Everything about their lives is tightly controlled to maximize their performance, from their sleep schedules to what they eat to where they live to how and when they travel. Even their thoughts and feelings have to be tightly managed to make sure they have the confidence and focus they need to win their game, their race, or whatever their competition is. Paul went on with his description of how an athlete lives by using phrases like “punish [the] body and enslave it.” The discipline of a top-level athlete is astounding, even to Paul.
Of course, Paul is not making commentary about sports because he is trying out for a spot behind the desk at ESPN. He is using these descriptions of athletes as a metaphor for something about the life of faith. He talks about what he has had to go through to be successful in showing as many people as he can what it means that Jesus Christ loves them and invites them and welcomes them into the new community of God’s people.
In talking with the people of Corinth, Paul had to be aware of just how many different kinds of folks they had in their city and in their church. As with most of the New Testament communities Paul wrote to, there were some people who had been Jewish their whole lives and other people who had been more like the majority people in their culture, worshiping the Roman gods and participating in the public festivals and events dedicated to them. But Corinth was a trading port, so it was a particularly cosmopolitan city, with people from all over the Roman Empire living and doing business there. And like any other big city, there were wealthy people as well as poor people. There were people who were well-educated, and there were people whose schooling was mostly through the proverbial classroom of hard knocks. There were people there who could brag about their close ties with the political and economic elite, and there were people who had nothing at all to brag about. There were people who went about as if they had the world on a string, and there were people whose lives were spent as slaves, figuratively and literally, with little freedom to make any choices of their own.
All of those different kinds of people lived together in that city, and all of those different kinds of people came together in the community of Jesus’ followers there, too. And when so many different kinds of people come together in any time or any place, there are going to be some rough edges that will rub up against each other. Not everyone was going to see everything the same way. Something that is deeply meaningful to one person will be completely insignificant to another. An issue that is important to one person will be dismissed by another. A way of talking that makes sense to the folks from one line of work or who live in one part of town might be completely unintelligible to folks who spent their time doing different things or moving through different spaces.
Acknowledging those differences, and the rough edges they created, Paul told the Corinthian Christians that they had to stay focused on their calling as Christ’s disciples. Their calling as Christ’s disciples was to offer everyone a chance to see and to know Jesus. That was Paul’s calling, too, and so he talked in the first person about how he took it on in an environment like Corinth. “I have made myself a slave to all,” he said. He purposely put himself in a position like that of a servant so that he could build relationships with all kinds of people. And through those relationships, he was able to show those people just who Jesus was, just what the gospel was all about, and just what kind of invitation Jesus had for anyone who was willing to follow him. So, he said, “to the Jews I became as a Jew,” so that he could show the Jewish people what following Jesus was all about. When he was with people who followed the strict rules of the Jewish law, he followed the strict rules of the Jewish law, too. But when he was with people who had never followed the Jewish law before, he did not pay much attention to the Jewish law. Whatever made sense to the people he was with, he went with it, simply to be able to help them to see and know Jesus.
All of that might sound a bit wishy-washy, like he was being inauthentic, faking his way through relationships just to get people to like him. Or it might even sound manipulative, like a salesman trying to swindle his customers, presenting them only with part of the story in order to get them to buy his product. But what he said next shows us that he wasn’t just shape-shifting himself to try to get people to do what he wanted. Instead, he was living out his commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ which he wanted others to know and understand and believe. Next, to summarize his point, he said, “to the weak, I became weak.” He dismissed all of his Jewish education, his Roman citizenship, and all the other markers of his social status, all so that he could build relationships with people who didn’t have all of the advantages he had or the privileges he enjoyed. He was a servant of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and whoever that meant he had to relate with, he would do his very best to relate with those folks.
And so, Paul said, you should do the same. That was where his athlete metaphor came in. “So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air.” I am not just training to have a good time. I work hard to relate to all of the different kinds of people in order to help them see and know the good news of Jesus’ love and embrace. He admonished us to do the same: “Run in such a way that you may win” the prize. Discipline yourself, focus yourself, work hard, just like an athlete training for a big game or a big race works hard, in order to give the hope and faith and love of Jesus to a world that desperately needs hope and faith and love.
What Paul is asking us to do is to reach out to people and build relationships with folks we would not otherwise build relationships with. And that takes self-discipline. What Paul is asking us to do is to listen more than we talk, to be more curious than we are certain, and to reach beyond what is familiar and comfortable. You don’t understand why the young people aren’t coming to church these days? You have to ask them, and then listen to their response, holding their feelings and beliefs with compassion, with grace, with appreciation, and with respect, seeking to genuinely understand their point of view before you explain your own. You don’t understand why African-Americans and other minorities feel the need to carry signs and chant slogans declaring that their lives matter? You have to seek out and build relationships with people who are involved, listening with humility while they share their experiences of confronting prejudice, profiling, and ignorance, and their feelings of fear, of frustration, and of exhaustion. You don’t understand why some people voted for the other candidate, and why some people don’t like your candidate? You have to get past the arrogant and dismissive memes and slogans that everyone seems to mistake for real discussion these days, and you have to hear them out, inquiring deeply about their experiences, their desires, their fears, and their hopes.
All of this takes self-discipline. It does not come naturally. All of it takes determination, courage, and practice, practice, practice. It means overcoming your own fears. It means recognizing and silencing your own prejudices. It means opening yourself up to have your ideas challenged and your behavior criticized; what athlete ever became successful in her sport without being told by a coach or a judge that she is doing something wrong or thinking something wrong at some time or another? It means being uncomfortable sometimes, and it means being willing to cross boundaries that seem hard and fast. It means seeking truth rather than relying on stereotypes or assumptions or gossip. It means taking the time, spending the energy, and doing all of the other things that it takes to build real relationships.
So we do everything we can to help others to see and know the good news of Jesus Christ: his love, his hope, and his faith. We build relationships with people we might not otherwise reach out to. We listen, we learn, we cross boundaries, and we open ourselves with hospitality. And when it does not feel natural, then we remember the discipline, the focus, and the hard work of an athlete. And my prayer is that we will “run in such a way that we win” the race to show the world Jesus’ love.