2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Christian Olympics

By The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel


Last summer, for the first time since the ancient Olympics ended in 393 A.D., the original stadium in Olympia, Greece was used for an Olympic event. As in ancient days, people stood – that is what the root of “stadium” means, “a place to stand” – and watched the shot put. Of course the shot put was not an event of the ancient Olympics, but discus was as part of the pentathlon, running events, horse racing, boxing, wrestling – much like our Greco-Roman wrestling and finally the pankration which was an all-out fight. There were junior events and religious rituals as part of the games.

The games were limited to male participation although women who owned horses were honored for winning those events rather than those who rode the horses. It was only in Sparta that girls wrestled and ran. There were no swimming events; the marathon is a modern addition based on the tradition of the runner from Marathon, Philippides who raced twenty-six miles to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persians. He gasped the words, “Rejoice, We won!” and then dropped dead. All participants in the games were naked. Married women could not watch the events but unmarried girls could.

The Olympics were one of four important Greek games. The others taking place in consecutive years were at Delphi, Nemea and the Isthmian games near Corinth. We have had the privilege of visiting those sites as well as Olympia and what a thrill. At Nemea there is even an attempt to recover the original events but with sports clothing on the participants. The crowns were different too. Victors at Olympia received an olive-branch wreath – that is what the winners received this year at the Athens games too. At Delphi they received a laurel wreath, at the Isthmian games, a wreath of oak and at Nemea, wild celery. It was the only recognition of the victor – there were no medals given and there was only one winner of an event. Second, third, whatever, were all losers. While there was no money given, the victorious athlete received great honor and for many of them they were treated much like modern celebrities through their whole lives.

St. Paul knew the games intimately. According to Pauline scholar, Jerome Murphy O’Conner, it is likely that Paul was a tentmaker at Isthmia near Corinth, making tents for the visitors to those games. His customers were likely athletes and trainers, patrons and spectators. He knew the games well and the difficult training that the athletes undertook to compete and win. He used the images of the race, the fight – the Greek word is the one from which we get agony. If he was referring to a match like the pankration it would involve a difficult battle with eye gouging and punching, grabbing of sensitive parts even strangling so that at times even death itself resulted. Paul often used the metaphor of the race, the athletic struggle to win, as his image for the Christian life.

Our life is a struggle; our Christian life is a race, a battle, an ordeal. It is always that way with commitment to a larger cause. “We will not accept into membership anyone with any reservations whatsoever. We will not accept into our membership unless that one is an active, disciplined, working member in one of our organizations.” That was Lenin’s requirement for communist party members. Jesus says to his followers, “Take up your cross and follow me,” is Jesus’ requirement of us. Our Christian life will be a time of training, agonizing, struggling for the cause of following our Lord faithfully. It is what St Paul is saying to his dear friend, Timothy in our second lesson for this morning: Following Jesus will be difficult but even so remain faithful to the Lord.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “Christ not only makes people ‘good’, he makes them strong, too.” Christ gave Bonhoeffer the strength to join the martyrs of the ages who suffered and died for their faith. Paul was such a martyr. In fact when he writes this letter to Timothy, he is about to be killed for his faith”As for me I am already poured out as a libation.” In this farewell letter, Paul is urging Timothy to rekindle the gift of God within him because endurance is a prime quality for a Christian leader. Timothy should not be ashamed of witnessing to the Lord. “Approved workers are not ashamed,” St Paul writes, and he is to take his share of suffering as a good athlete for Christ. St. Paul is offers himself to his young colleague as an example of one who “fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.”

What do we know of Timothy? From the Book of Acts, we learn that Timothy was from Lystra in Asia Minor, the son of a Greek father and a Jewish mother who had become a Christian. From the Book of Second Timothy we learn that both his mother, Eunice and his grandmother, Lois, were faithful Christians; Paul’s hope for Timothy is that same persevering faith. Timothy learned the Hebrew Scriptures from his mother and grandmother and had become a Christian as a child. This letter to him is the most personal of Paul’s letters. We all of us have had mentors who encouraged us and challenged us and Paul had done with Timothy. Timothy had supported Paul’s missionary work and now the old apostle is saying good bye to his dear friend. Paul’s words of encouragement and concern are personal to each one of us too, to remain faithful, to be strong in our life’s challenges, to persevere until we receive our heavenly reward.

The Christian life is not easy. We should not be surprised when we find opposition or disapproval for out faith. One of the marks of the Christian Church, according to Luther and the Reformers was not only God’s Word purely preached and the sacraments right administered, but suffering. Where Christ’s Church is there will be suffering. Where Christians are faithful to their Lord, they will find opposition. One of the neighboring pastors at our text study this week talked about a new member of his congregation, a student at the university from Iran. He had grown up Muslim but became a Christian in this country. What attracted him was the figure of Jesus who suffered and died for him – and us.

It turns out that he met a woman in passing who found out he was from Iran and started berating him, calling him a terrorist and other names. She even found out his e-mail and sent this young man nasty notes hounding him to leave the university and this town. Finally his friends said this should be reported as a bias issue, that one’s national origin was a protected category from harassment. This young man was on his way to report the hate speech he was encountering but when he got to the office he thought of Jesus. He thought of the Savior he loved who had died for our sins. He remembered that Jesus died and he had only encountered hateful speech. Instead of reporting her to the authorities, he returned another e-mail with the words that he forgave her hatred for Jesus’ sake.

Not every one of us remembers to turn the other cheek, give the whole cloak, forgive seventy times seven or pray for our enemies. It is our sinful nature that wants to blame others rather than seeing how we can be at fault, our fallen nature that wants to lift ourselves up by putting others down, that sees someone who is of a different color or nationality or sexual orientation as somehow a threat or even an enemy. It is not easy being faithful, being full of faith even to life’s end.

Following the Lord Jesus to suffering and death, following St. Paul to imprisonment and hardship, shipwreck and beatings with a rod, and finally a martyr’s death, is not easy, but it is not worth comparing to the glory to come. Christ is risen. Those who die in the Lord yet shall live. Those who train hard to run life’s race and suffer much in life’s battles look forward to the crown of righteousness prepared for them.

This week in our adult Bible class we were talking about our crown. Do you know how the idea of the halo entered Christian art? It is from a conflation of light and life. We receive a crown of righteousness, of life and light. Jesus is the Light of the world. Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. We will shine like the stars; we will have a starry crown, a halo instead of olive leaves, laurel leaves, oak leaves or celery leaves. We, who have shared Christ’s suffering, will share Christ’s glory.

But now we are still in the race, still in the fight, struggling to remain faithful. Give us strength, O Lord, sufficient to life’s day and bring us with Paul and Timothy and all your saints into your realm of life and light. Amen.

Copyright 2004 James Kegel. Used by permission.