1 Corinthians 9
Just like many of you, the familiar John Williams Olympic anthem, “Daaa…Daaa…Da. Da. Da. Da.” has already rang through my ears a handful of times as I watched the opening of the summer Olympic games. It has always marked anticipation, but more so this year, an end to a long sigh created by the indefinite postponement of the Tokyo 2020 a year ago. While there are no crowds in attendance, the athletes are masked, and there is some political drama that often surrounds countries in participation, the beating of those timpani drums and the blaring french horns help us to remember a place we’ve been before. All of this solely from a spectator’s point-of-view. How much more have the athletes participating in the games marked this moment? A year of extra training and sacrifice to compete at the highest level on a global stage, doing so maneuvering through a world experiencing a global crisis. These medals given this year are seemingly worth more because of the delay and extra challenges these athletes faced in their training.
It is fortuitous that our reading befits this moment where we are consumed with this competition for medals and crowing of our victors:
“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. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air” – 1 Corinthians 9:26
So, if you’re reading this blog, chances are you are not one of the 15,000+ athletes competing in the summer Olympic or Paralympic games (although, we would welcome any Olympian to read). You may be accomplished at a single sport, but you’re undoubtedly not at the next level. You may be dedicated to a fitness program, but you are not sacrificing all of your playtime or rearranging your schedule for your athletic pursuits. You haven’t hired a trainer. You haven’t shaved your legs to remove a hundredths of a second from your personal best. You may not even be inspired to any athletic pursuit simply by watching (although many future Olympians are). Yet, by being a follower of Christ (not the games), you are being called, challenged, and elicited into a training that is more demanding, more exasperating, and more punishing than any Olympian has ever faced in the context of competition at the games.
While there are several paths of metaphors we could draw from, the one that is most striking are the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians. It is the most intense description, hyperbole that could very well be made literal in some contexts. Ultimately, we must slave away at becoming the most disciplined evangelist, with the purpose of preaching and living out the gospel of Jesus Christ or plainly face disqualification from the prize.
“No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” – 1 Corinthians 9:27
This is a scary thought. That my faith must be trained and disciplined in such a way that it would be on that next-level, to compete for a prize that is longer lasting than precious metals. My evangelism could be record-setting. My ministry could be to a worldwide audience. But what stands in the way is my greatest opponent. Who is it? Me. Because I must be willing to give up the life that I could have in order to live for the glory that I am supposed to attain. I must be willing to strike a self-blow, to cut off my hand, to gouge out my eye, and to die daily. Or more realistically, get off my phone, read and pray consistently, have uncomfortable conversations, be filled with the Spirit of God, and let my coach and my God call all the shots. This is what I must do in order to make gains, receiving the strength and knowledge that comes through Christ Jesus. While it must be an incredible experience for the world to see you lower your head to receive your medal as a victor, representing your people and country, how much greater will it be to receive the crown of life which represents a kingdom and people that are far more perfect than the ideals that guide the games we currently watch? Whether you have started your training already, are coming out of retirement, or beginning your training today, take a good look at your opponent in the mirror. Size him/her up. You ultimately will have to be disciplined enough to take him/her on, become enslaved to Christ, and with the grace of God, beat yourself into submission, so God can see you through to the victory.