1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Olympic Challenge

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1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Olympic Challenge

The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel


Four years ago this week I was in Eugene being interviewed by your call committee to be your pastor. We came out in mid-February; I remember watching the Salt Lake City Olympics on television while we were here and then when I came for a second interview, watched the closing ceremonies.

Like many of you, we watched the opening ceremonies again this week. There is always excitement when the Olympics come around—will Michelle Kwan win figure skating, Bode Miller the downhill, bobsled, luge, hockey ? I still remember when the 1976 US Hockey Team beat the Soviet Union at Lake Placid, New York. I don’t remember the Jamaican bobsled team at Calgary, but all those names and faces still come to mind—Peggy Fleming and Katarina Witt, Brian Boitano, Torville and Dean, Eddie Wilson, Bonnie Blair, Alberto Tomba, Jean Claude Killy —the years and places get mixed up—Salt Lake and Nagano, Calgary and Albertville, Innsbruck, Sarajevo, Lake Placid, Grenoble, Lillehammar, Sapporo—but young men and women well-trained in their various sports, in the world’s spotlight for a week, giving their all to win a gold or silver or bronze medal, to be an Olympic champion.

Four years from now, the Olympic Games will come to the Pacific Northwest for the first time in history. I am sure that people in Vancouver, B.C. are already gearing up for the games. I have been in cities that were preparing to host the world and it is a major undertaking. Last spring in Beijing we saw an Olympic clock counting down the days until they host the 2008 summer games and the city was building and rebuilding furiously. We were in Turin a few years ago—we went to see the shroud on display—and they were beginning to prepare for these games. Traffic was terrible and I hope they have been able to work out some of those problems. No one living in Turin or Beijing or Vancouver would be unaware of the games. No one living in ancient Corinth would be oblivious to the great games that took place there every four years.

In ancient Greece, there were four major athletic games that took place in successive years. The most famous and prestigious were the Olympic Games which took place in Olympia. Next were the Pythian Games in Delphi, the Isthmian games near Corinth and the Nemean games at Nemea. Each had a crown awarded the victor—at Olympia, wild olive; at Delphi, laurel; at Nemea, wild celery; and at the Isthmian games, pine. Athletes would be in constant training since each year there would be another of these major games plus the smaller regional events leading up to them. At Olympia, the athletes would swear to Zeus that they had trained for ten months leading up to the contest. Zeus was the protector at Olympia, Apollo at Delphi and Poseidon, the god of the sea, at Corinth.

According to one commentator, “the foot races were always in multiples of 200 meters the length of the track and the longest was twelve laps. In races longer than a single length, runners had to make a sharp turn around a post in the middle of the finishing line. Strength and good elbows were almost as important as speed. Boxers’ hands were bound with soft leather, both to protect the knuckles and to avoid cutting the opponent’s face.” At Isthmia the sanctuary and racetrack were the only permanent structures. Corinth had to provide tents for all the visitors and this is where St. Paul comes in.

According to Acts 18, Paul left Athens for Corinth to work as a tentmaker with Prisca and Aquila. Because we know when the games were played, we can date this letter to just after A.D. 51. Prisca and Aquila and Paul would have been busy for months before and after the games making tents for the visitors. Likely they would have been at Isthmia during the time of the games—the various workshops sent out craftspeople during the games to make repairs as they became necessary. Paul would have seen the athletes training and perhaps witnessed the races and the boxing events themselves. He refers to a perishable wreath—at the summer games in Athens two years ago, in addition to the medals, the athletes received a crown of olive leaves just as they would have in ancient times. When the games were over the crowns would dry and wither; the victory would be remembered and recorded but then eventually the event would fade and the athlete age and die and be forgotten.

Paul would use the metaphor of these athletic contests for the Christian life, as a race to be run, a fight to be fought—the Greek word he uses is AGON from which we get agony—and the goal an imperishable crow of everlasting life.

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What is also very interesting in this text is what the sports metaphor would have meant to his readers—it is really a radical departure from everything we have in the biblical literature and shows just how radical Paul is in adapting the faith to his culture. In antiquity, athletes performed nude. Women were forbidden to watch the contests for this reason. In fact the word gymnasium refers to the nudity of those in training. Because of this sporting activities were rejected by religious Jews. The construction of a gymnasium in Jerusalem was considered an abomination. In 1 Maccabees we read “Some of the people eagerly went to the king who authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles.”

Now Paul grew up as a traditional, observant Jew. As he wrote to the Galatians, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” But then Paul went on in the same text, “God who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him to the Gentiles.”

Paul was a Pharisee of the Pharisees, a zealous Jew, who met Jesus and it changed his life. It changed his message too—now he would go into a very different world with the message of God’s grace for all people. Paul would set aside the traditions and customs of his tradition for the sake of winning a new people for God—these Greeks who ran races and boxed and thought the most beautiful body was the one pummeled and strengthened and trained in the gymnasium—the words in our text “punish my body and enslave it” are really words for hard training to be fit and strong and ready for the stadium and arena. Paul was not only thinking outside the box but he had left the old religious box behind.

I am reading a book now entitled Why Men Hate Going to Church. It opens with the story of Cliff. Cliff is a man’s man. On the job he’s known as a go-getter and a very hard worker. He’s a good provider who loves his wife and kids. He’s well-respected by his neighbors. Cliff drives a four-wheel drive pickup. He loves the outdoors and takes every opportunity for a little hunting and fishing. He enjoys a cold beer and a dirty joke. He does not go to church.

Asked why he doesn’t go to church, he’ll offer up words like boring, irrelevant and hypocrite but the real reason is that he’s already practicing another religion. That religion is masculinity. His work, his hobbies, his entertainment, his follies, his addictions, everything he does is designed to prove that he is a man. His religion also demands that he avoid anything that might call his manhood into question. This includes church because Cliff believes deep in his heart that church is something for women and children, not men. In the 1800s, Charles Spurgeon said, “There has got abroad this notion, somehow, that if you become a Christian you must sink your manliness and turn milksop.” No man really wants to be nice—strong, good, even holy perhaps–but not safe or nice. I sometimes wonder if men, young men especially, aren’t the Greek Gentiles of today’s world.

Paul is not afraid in our text to be speaking to men using images which only men could understand. He is talking about playing in the Super Bowl of the ancient world-running a race and coming in first; being a fighter not a shadow boxer. He is not offering comfort and consolation and relationship here but challenge and winning. He is not talking about safety but risk, not of stability but change, not preservation but expansion, adversity not predictability. Is there anything here that is sweet or sentimental or nice ?

Don’t get me wrong. There were female competitors in the ancient games as there are fierce female competitors in the Olympics now. In the ancient games women could drive horse teams and some are recorded as receiving the victor’s crown. There will be many a woman with a gold or silver or bronze medal around her neck this week—competitors who have trained hard to win. But what I am arguing for is that the message of Christ and his life-transforming work is also for young men, for Bode Miller who maybe parties too much, had a very unconventional background in the wilds of New Hampshire, and does not ski according to accepted conventions; he even gets into some trouble with the authorities. The Gospel is for him too. Who goes to church today? Women and older adults aged fifty and up, not men or young adults 18 to 29. Who did Jesus call to drop their fishing nets, young men who could stand the rigors of becoming disciples and apostles for the Lord.

Jesus calls us all to new challenges. It is not easy being a Christian—it is to be compared to training for the Olympics. It is not easy at all proclaiming Jesus here and now to people, women and men, today. It never was. But we have a worthy and wonderful goal, to win an imperishable victor’s crown. Amen.

Copyright 2006, James D. Kegel. Used by permission.