Run the Race
1 Corinthians 9:16-27
Well we certainly don’t have to look very hard to find a sports metaphor in our text for today, and there’s a good reason for that. Most people recognize and appreciate the life lessons that are a part of sports; lessons that prayerfully will last long after the win loss record of the team has been forgotten. But Paul uses sport today to teach a greater lesson.
The first thing we want to remember is this lesson is not about the blessings that are a part of the grace God has and continues to show to each of us in Christ. This lesson is about our responsibilities as God’s children, if I may, as players on His team.
It’s about living with the knowledge that we are forgiven while at the same time continuing to fight the temptation to use that truth as an excuse to sin, or to take time off from the discipline of Christian living. While I’m no athlete, I do exercise regularly, and while I do more walking then running these days, I know that after missing just a week you can see and feel a decrease in your endurance. A truth everyone who exercises laments is that - you lose ground a whole lot faster than you gain it.
Paul begins in verse 24 with these words, Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. What Paul is looking at is attitude and effort, not to earn salvation that’s God’s gift to you and all who believe, but the determination and effort it takes not just to claim but to live the life we have been given in Christ; that is, to live as His faithful witnesses.
All one of the players that have joined us this weekend have spent months in preparation. They’ve run laps, done sprints, shot free throws, run through passing and dribbling drills time and time again. They’ve given up afternoons and portions of their weekends. The result is that they are no longer five or ten players, they are a team. They think and work as one. They come with the desire to win and the hope that they will be the ones to take home the trophy. They are prepared and determined to play in such a way as to win the prize, no matter what the odds.
As you’ve seen or know from your own experience, athletes often deny themselves many things during the season that they enjoy in the off season. They’re taught and work at self-control so that no matter what situation they find themselves, in they don’t panic, but they stick with the game plan. They subject themselves to strict rules and accept the discipline that comes if they break those rules understanding it’s for the good of the team. All this for a trophy that will collect dust on a shelf or in a trophy case somewhere in one of our schools.
The truth is, you parents have also been willing to make those same kinds of sacrifices. You have your child at practice whenever it’s scheduled, you miss meals because you have to run to pick someone up or drop someone off. I’m sure most of you here this Super Bowl weekend could have found something else to do, but you willingly and joyfully make the sacrifices needed so your child’s team would have a chance to bring that trophy home. That’s the way it is when you have children in sports, or music, or art, or dance, or whatever activities or teams you and your child are involved in.
And so knowing that to be true Paul, says in effect, “You’ve shown you’re willing to sacrifice so much and to rearrange your life to the extent that you do for a moment of glory now are you willing to put that same kind of effort into your Christian life, a life that brings eternal glory?
Now, maybe you disagree with Paul, but for a moment put the two pictures side by side and consider: When it comes to living as a Christian, have you gone into strict training? Do you show the same sacrifice, the same self-denial and extra effort that we expect from our children when they’re involved with sports? Do you have your child in bed early the night before a game so that he or she can be well rested, but find sometimes it’s just easier to stay in bed on Sunday morning? Do you have your children at practice early so they can warm up, but run into church not taking the time for a prayer before worship begins? Do you tell your child to keep his or her head in the game while your mind wanders during the Divine service? Do you look for opportunities to talk about what your children did in their last game and miss the opportunities to talk to them about the love God has for them in Christ? Do you put as much effort into living your faith as you do your sports? It’s a hard question; a fair one, but a hard one.
Please remember Paul is not calling eternal life the prize. He’s not saying we have to do this or that to go to heaven. Paul understands better than most that forgiveness is God’s gift to you in Christ, and a real gift is not earned, but comes from the heart of the giver, and your effort or lack of effort won’t change that.
Again Paul’s lesson today is not heaven, but our faithfulness in living the life that is ours in Christ. Paul is reminding us that the way we live our lives Monday through Saturday says as much, if not more, to our families, friends, and neighbors about the place God has in our hearts as the things we do on Sunday.
The truth is, if we look, we can see in ourselves what Paul saw in himself; that our sinful nature is also very much alive. Thanks be to God that while we share the same sinful nature as Paul, we also share in the grace that God showed to Paul and to us all.
The same Christ who called Paul His child calls you His child. The same Christ who died for Paul’s sins died for your sins. The same Christ who rose that Paul might know life rose that you might know life. The same Word of Christ that reminded Paul again and again that he was forgiven reminds you again today that you are forgiven.
You see, our confidence about our place in heaven, like Paul’s, does not come from a list of deeds we have accomplished, but it comes through the cross of Christ alone. But, do we who know God’s love in Christ take that to mean we shouldn’t try? Is that the advice you’d give to your team? That, if you can’t win it all, don’t bother trying?
No, I’m sure you’re much more the: “It’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game” or “as long as you do your best…” kind of people. So the question remains, are you doing your best to live your life as a witness of God’s love in Christ?
The truth is, we do often work much harder at the unimportant things ... and yet even as we recognize and confess the truth that we often take God’s gifts for granted, we have a reason to rejoice. We rejoice for we know that in Christ we are forgiven and the prize, the crown that never fades, even now, in Christ Jesus is yours.
In His Name, Amen