11th after Trinity, Year C Sermon at the Eucharist 7th August 2016

By Ian Leitch

The Olympic Games in Rio have begun. We’ve seen the spectacular opening ceremony; competition has started and the first medals have been awarded. For the next two weeks the media will provide us with a constant flow of news about each event, the leading competitors and the national medal tallies.

The modern Olympics hark back to the ancient games that began some 800 years before Christ and that lasted for well over 1,000 years. They were one of four Greek national games that were each designed to present the pagan gods with best in sprinting and chariot racing, in boxing and wrestling, and in javelin and discus throwing. Often music and poetry was included also. Each of those four sets of Games happened in or near to Corinth. Unlike the modern Olympics that happen every four years, the ancient games took place much more frequently, with six sets of Games every four years. If you lived in Corinth – even for a short time – it was impossible not to know all about the Games, their events, the favourite competitors and the cities they represented. No doubt half the population were shaking their heads wondering why the other half got so excited about them.

St Paul lived in Corinth for two years during which time three sets of Games were held. He knew all about the Games, and in his letters he used these athletic contests to illustrate spiritual truths and principles which apply to living the Christian life. Not surprisingly, he makes special reference to them in the letters he wrote to the Church at Corinth to illustrate the journey in to faith.

Whereas the modern Olympics were started with the idealistic aim that the important part was not winning but taking part, St Paul teaches that, in the Christian life, living so that we may win is a priority. His simile must have come as something of a shock to the Corinthian Church when he wrote: {Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. (1 Cor 9:24)}.

Many runners compete in a race – True. And only one receives the prize – also, true in the Olympics. So in the Christian life you must be the one to win it – What? What indeed are we to make of that? {Run in such a way that you may win the prize. (1 Cor 9:24)}. Well, if I look around at the many spiritual giants in the world, as well as those known only to God, I know that countless saints outstrip my meagre efforts. I have no illusions that I am in the same league as them. If the Christian life is a contest with only one prize, my chances are so slim that I would have a better chance of winning a gold medal at the Rio Olympics.

Fortunately Paul’s metaphor is not about the prize, but the determination of the competitors. When we look at the Olympics in Rio, each event has many competitors, and yet only one will win – but the dedication of every entrant is obvious to all. The records of the ancient Olympics give the name of every champion for the first 1,000 years, but they never reveal who came second. Paul reminds us in the Games there was only one winner and everyone else was consigned to oblivion. However, every competitor took their event very seriously – not just the contest, but also the preparation and training for it. In the Christian life the prize is available to us all, and so Paul reminds the Corinthians (and all of us) that {Everyone who competes in the Games goes into strict training. (1 Cor 9:25a)}. We also must be in constant training and preparation. Perhaps we train best through daily prayer and Bible reading; by expressing our love of God in worship of Him, so that it overflows into the love of our neighbours. Our preparation is not done alone, but within the family of the Church.

Paul goes on to tell us that in addition to the necessary dedication, we should be purposeful in the way that we live the Christian life. He says, {I do not run aimlessly, nor do I not fight like a boxer punching the air. (1 Cor 9:26)}. Paul challenges each of us to ask ourselves: What is the aim of my life? Do I have a positive goal? Or is my Christian journey of faith just a ramble as I meander along the byways of the faith?

Paul uses another simile from the Games in referring to the prize when he writes: {They compete for a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. (1 Cor 9:25)}. Each champion at the Games would be crowned with a wreath – at Olympia it was a wreath cut from an olive tree; at Delphi victors won a laurel wreath; and at the Isthmian and Nemean Games they were awarded wreaths plaited from wild celery. Even in Paul’s day there were protests in Corinth about champions going home with a bundle of plaited vegetables on their head, Nevertheless, each of the different wreaths was highly perishable. Although the gold, silver and bronze medals of the modern Olympics have a longer lifespan, none of them can compare with the Crown of Eternal Life.

Throughout the New Testament we are told that in the Christian life we must spare nothing. Seeing how athletes strip off for their event, the anonymous writer to the Hebrews picks up the theme a few verses after our Epistle reading this morning when he writes, {We must throw off everything that weighs us down, every sin that restricts us, and run with perseverance the race that lies ahead, our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom faith depends from start to finish.” (Hebrews 12:1)}. We are to have no doubt about our aim as we live the Christian Life nor the way that we are to live it. The message is clear “Be determined – be really focused and passionate about your Christian Life”. And the author makes clear the source of our strength and power in living that life comes through faith in Jesus.

Our Epistle reading opened with the words, {Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Heb 11:1)}. That is, “Faith gives substance to our hopes and convinces us of the realities we do not see” (REB). You see, faith is very different from wishful thinking. Faith begins with an honest acceptance of what is real. We all understand that the world is not as we would wish it to be. This world is filled with pain and tragedy, and realism demands that we acknowledge it. We know too much to be enamoured of wishful thinking. And yet our Epistle declares that authentic hope comes from a realistic view of the world. Such a view of the world is only possible through faith. This is so because faith demands that we see the world with open eyes, and yet discover God acting within it. Such faith inspires hope. And hope, when it sees the world as it is and understands the presence and activity of God within it, allows us believe that our God of love and forgiveness is already preparing a future for us with him.

Faith, then, provides us with a guarantee of God’s promises; it is the peg on which we hang our hopes. Because of faith, our hope is no flimsy dreaming; it has substance and reality.

Faith gives us a sure footing on which we can stand fast. But that grounding also points us toward the future and launches out into the unknown. Faith gives us the courage that constantly moves us forward. We heard in our Epistle that the New Testament writers looked at the Patriarchs and saw God’s promises being fulfilled through them as they moved forward. We, also, can look at the saints through the ages, knowing they were full of faith, holding fast to God’s promises and moving forward into that future with God. Their faithfulness shines as an example for us to follow – for us to prove similarly faithful. So let us fix our eyes on Jesus, and run the straight race set before us.