An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Athletic Spirituality

A sermon on 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 by Nathan Nettleton

Some weeks I struggle to find something in the readings that inspires a sermon, but this week was one of the weeks when my struggle has been to decide which sermon not to preach. I’ve opted for the one from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, partly because I’ve never preached on it before and partly because it talks about spiritual disciplines, and with the season of Lent now only about ten days away, it seemed like a good time to begin to think about this topic. For most people, Lent means nothing more than a time of “giving up” something. Most have little idea why you would do that other than it is a tradition, or that perhaps you can work it in with some goal to lose a kilo or two. But when Paul introduces the idea of disciplines here in his letter, he is very clear what it is all about. He talks on the one hand about the great promise of the ultimate prize that we are seeking, and on the other hand about the kind of disciplined preparation it takes to get ourselves within reach of the prize.

The Apostle takes the image of athletes training for the Olympic games and says that they are putting in all this effort with the sole aim of receiving a perishable wreath. Of course todays gold medals may be a bit more imperishable than the laurel wreathes of the ancient Olympics, but you still get the point. But we, he says, are seeking an imperishable prize, something far greater and more valuable than a medal and a bunch of flowers.

Now Paul doesn’t further discuss the nature of the prize in tonight’s particular extract, but he does elsewhere, including in another place where he also uses the image of the athlete. In Philippians 3 he says, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” And “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and … attain the resurrection from the dead.” The writer of the letter to the Hebrews also uses a similar image, speaking of the cloud of witnesses who rise to their feet cheering as we approach the finish line. So we have these layers of images of this promised prize, where we cross the line and mount the podium and hear those words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” as the crowds cheer us for having become like Jesus and been united with him in resurrection life. And in becoming like Jesus, we have not only fulfilled our individual destiny, but we have become one with him in the even bigger goal of achieving the destiny of the whole world, where all become like Jesus and earth and heaven are reconciled in Christ.

I think this idea of destiny, of the realising or attaining of our destiny is perhaps one that sounds the right note in terms of understanding the prize. I think we all have a sense deep in our guts, even if it is not a very well defined sense, that there is a destiny to which we are called, a goal that has been placed before us and we will never truly feel fulfilled or satisfied if we do not attain it or if we are not still moving towards it. And you can see how this works with Paul’s sporting images. Listen to the wistful longing talk of elite athletes who have fallen short of their goal and know that it will now never be attained. A footballer like Nathan Buckley who won every individual honour a footballer can win, but who never played in a premiership-winning side. He still talks about it as a gnawing emptiness that nothing else can ever fill. A destiny lost. An ultimate prize that slipped away. And this is the sort of feeling that the Apostle is evoking here as he points us towards the disciplines required to become like Jesus and share in his resurrection and his reconciliation of the world.

The Apostle is, I think, trying not to be too heavy handed here. Like a good sports coach, he knows that what it takes to get the best out of one player is not the same as what is needed for the next. I was impressed by a recent quote from Jim Magilton, the new coach of the Melbourne Victory soccer team, when he said that he had needed a few weeks there to get a feel for which players needed an arm around their shoulder and which ones needed a kick up the bum. Judging by the vastly improved performances of two players at opposite ends of that spectrum in Friday night’s game, I reckon he’s worked it out pretty quickly. The Apostle Paul is trying to be similarly discerning, and certainly the Jesus he preaches is one who relates to us as individuals with our varying needs, not as a one-size-fit-all boot camp tyro.

Paul uses this image of the kind of training and preparation that athletes undertake to inspire us to imitate them in our commitment to giving our all to attain our prize, our destiny. I’ve been talking quite a bit lately about imitation, and how we are all hard wired to imitate others. We see what others want, and we begin to want it too, and much of the structure of human sin is built on top of that mechanism. But imitation in itself is not wrong. It is hard-wired into us. Scientists have now identified neurones in our brains whose function is to drive this imitative process. We can’t not do it. But what we can choose to change is who and what we will imitate. And so the Apostle Paul uses this idea of imitation here, but he is warning us against just imitating the desire for the prize. If that desire is all we imitate, then we will become resentful of those who attain it and set ourselves against them and become hostile and tribal and destructive. But Paul frequently calls us to a positive imitation. Usually he speaks of imitating Jesus, or sometimes of imitating himself and the other apostles. But here he urges us to imitate the athletes, not so much in their desire for the prize, but in discipline they show in working towards it. Here we are not imitating the majority who simply desire things and become jealous of those who already have them, but the minority who apply themselves to doing whatever it takes to make themselves able and worthy of attaining the prize.

Many many years ago, I ran a marathon. If I suddenly decided that I was going to do another one, there is no way in the world I could simply get up one morning and go and do one. At present I could possibly make it about one third of the way. To be able to do it, I would need two things: time and discipline. No amount of desire or discipline would enable me to do it if I do not apply them in a systematic and gradually increasing way over a long period of time. There are no short-cuts. The same is true of becoming like Jesus and able to do what Jesus does.

I recently began learning some Tae Kwon-do. I didn’t actually have any special desire to learn  a martial art, but since Acacia was learning and I had to provide transport, it seemed a bit silly to idly sit there outside the door for an hour while a bunch of other people did a strenuous physical workout, especially since I was supposedly wanting to shed a few kilos myself. So I got involved. Our chief instructor is pretty serious about physical fitness, and he really knows his stuff. And one of the things he keeps telling us is that if a particular exercise seems really difficult and perhaps uncomfortable for you, then you need to do it a lot more often. This is not because physical pain in itself is a good thing. He’s not a masochist, although sometimes you have to wonder. What he tells us is that if something is difficult and uncomfortable, then there is a problem with the fitness of your body in that particular part, and the only way to change that is to do it more, a lot lot more, until it is no longer difficult and uncomfortable because your body has acquired the necessary flexibility or strength to do it. Now usually he is just saying that about the fitness stuff we do, but it becomes even more true of particular techniques or skills. Knowing how to block a particular punch will not help you much if a punch is thrown suddenly and unexpectedly outside the class. But if you have practiced blocking it thousands of times, you won’t just know it in your head but you’ll have written it into the reflex system of your body, and it will be there when it is needed. Bruce Lee used to say that he wasn’t afraid of the man who had practised ten thousand kicks; he was afraid of the man who had practiced one kick ten thousand times.

If I want to get physically fit, then my chief instructor is a pretty good bloke to imitate. But if my ultimate goal is to become like Jesus, then of course, I need to be imitating Jesus. But the principle still holds true that I need to discipline myself to do things over and over again, especially when they don’t come naturally or comfortably. If I want to become as prayerful as Jesus, then I need to discipline myself to pray a lot, not just when I feel like it or when it comes easily. And if I want to become merciful like Jesus, then I am going to have to be as dedicated and disciplined about it as any athlete or any black-belt martial artist, because responding mercifully when others insult you or attack you or treat you unfairly does not come any more naturally than the perfect kick. It feels awkward and difficult and painful, and we are surrounded by role models of vengeance and reciprocation. I see there is a new show beginning on TV called Revenge, as if we didn’t see enough of it. Although I understand that the show may follow the same sort of track as the classic Count of Monte Cristo and lead to the main protagonist beginning to question their own vengeful motives and whether the fruits of that vengeance are so sweet after all.

But yes, Jesus does sound a bit like my Tae Kwon-do instructor when he urges us to love our enemies and do good to those who curse us and show mercy to those who do only wrong to us. If it’s hard, do it more. And with Paul I understand why the only way that is ever going to come naturally is if I model myself on the black-belt masters and practice doing it over and over and over again until it has reprogrammed my mental and physical reflexes and become a part of who I am.

But as my chief instructor would say, you don’t just choose any random exercise and practice it with no goal in mind. So too with our Lenten disciplines. Don’t just randomly give up chocolate or ice cream because that seems to be normal. Target something about yourself that really needs the work and design a lenten discipline accordingly. A couple of years ago, I began a discipline in Lent of trying hard not to correct any mistake in what someone was saying to me unless it was directly relevant to the main point of the conversation. Since childhood I had developed the obnoxious habit of constantly finding little things to correct in whatever anyone was saying. I don’t think I can be up to ten thousand repetitions yet, because I still often fumble it, but I’m better than I was, and with the goal of being like Jesus and being fully one with him in his resurrection life and love, I keep working at it. Sometimes I’ve nearly bitten the end off my tongue!

And please don’t disparage physical disciplines like fasting. It has become common to pooh-pooh such things in favour of something supposedly more noble like what I have just described, but often this is an unhealthy dualism that continues our error of prising apart body and spirit. We are whole beings, and physical disciplines very often have spiritual benefits. The fact that spiritual and emotional health can improve your physical wellbeing is increasingly understood and accepted by most people, but the reverse is also true. That’s why many of those who are able choose to kneel when we are praying for forgiveness or to raise their hands when giving praise. Like flabby former athletes, we may have gotten out of the habit, but we see this body-spirit union clearly in many other faiths, from our muslim friends praying with their faces touching the floor to our buddhist friends who find great spiritual benefit in being able to hold meditative poses that require far more flexibility than I have.

I’m not saying you have to take up such things. I’m just warning you against dismissing them as irrelevant. Just as a great coach needs to mentor and train different players differently, so too there is no one size fits all approach to the disciplines required for each of us to grow into the fulness of our destiny. Over the next few weeks, we will be providing some resources and ideas for use during Lent, but the specifics of using them need to be tailored to the specifics of your pathway to discipleship. If we heed Paul’s call to take the elite athletes as our models of dedication and discipline and willingness to put in the long hard hours to achieve a goal, and take Jesus as our model of what it is we are seeking to become, then we will begin to see what we need to apply ourselves to to get to where we are called to be. And I’m sure if the Apostle himself was here, he would want to finish by saying “do whatever it takes” because the prize, the goal, the destiny of crossing that line and being gathered fully and finally and forever into the life and love of Jesus is so over and above worth it that nothing is too much.


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