I Corinthians 9:24-27
“Run for the Prize”
February 15, 2009 - Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Midway up the hill, I ran out of steam, literally ran out of steam. I was in a race. It was a warm spring day in Nebraska. I had let an enthusiastic supporter of our city mission talk me into entering a running fund raiser. The problem was I hadn’t run much at all in over a year. It was only a 5K race, about three miles, but I was dying with about half way yet to go. I finally walked across the finish line after 40 lame, painful minutes.
In our text from I Corinthians 9, Paul envisioned Christians as runners. Traveling in Greece, he saw Greek games for the first time. The stadium for the Isthmian games held every two years was there near Corinth. Paul was fascinated. He began to think in athletic terms. Life in Christ was a great race calling for endurance. He shared his enthusiasm here with the Corinthians and also when he wrote to the Galatians in chapters 2 and 5, and to the Philippians in chapters 2 and 3. At the end of his life, writing to Timothy, he said he felt like a runner completing a good race. At least for running, Paul was a sports fan.
So verse 24 asks the Corinthians, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run?” Here in Eugene, “Track Town, USA,” we might almost say, “Everyone runs,” even old fogies like me. I remember a guest we had, older than I, who just had to get out and run on the trail where Steve Prefontaine made history. A newspaper article once said, “Here ordinary runners share the track, roads, and trails with world-class runners.” At least once upon a time, it seemed like everyone in town was running.
“…all the runners run,” yet Paul continues, “but not everyone gets the prize.” There may be a lot of runners out on our roads—sometimes I’m one of them—but most of us aren’t winning any prizes. We’re “patzers,” jogging along at comfortable speeds, not expecting to finish first in anybody’s race.
It’s not much different in the rest of life, whether you’re a literal runner or not. Everyone is running. We run to our jobs. When the weekend comes we run to the mountains or the coast to play. When we get too worn out or sick, then we run to the doctor.
It’s not just what we’re running to, it’s what we’re running away from. We run from commitments that will tie us down. We run from people we don’t like to be around. And we run from ourselves. Unfortunately, we also sometimes run from God. We may be going round and round some sort of racetrack, but often feeling like we’re not going anywhere, not winning anything. That’s why Paul told the Corinthians and tells us to run a different sort of race, to “Run in such a way as to get the prize.”
Verse 25 begins with a word about how we ought to run in order to get the prize, but it’s better for you and I to skip ahead for a moment and consider what that prize is. Paul wrote about ancient competitors in the games saying, “They do it to get a crown that will not last.” We hang silver and gold medals on Olympic winners today. Back then they were crowned with wreaths. Some ancient sources say the wreaths were made from the fir or pine trees that grew around the stadium, but Plutarch suggests that later these greatly desired circles of vegetation were made from celery!
So when Paul tells us that, “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training,” think about the prize he was picturing. For the Olympic games, Greek athletes vowed before Zeus to begin a strict ten-month regimen governing their diet, their exercise, even how they bathed. They gave up nearly a year of life in the hope that one of them could parade around for a couple days of glory with stalks of withered celery on his head.
That celery crown is an image of whatever it is you and I are running after in our lives. An education, that may or may not lead to a good job? A job, which may or may not last as a world economy unravels? A house, which these days may not even gain in value? A marriage which, even for Christians, today falls apart in one out of two cases every time? Good health, which however hard you work at it, is going to fade away to heart disease or cancer or arthritis or Alzheimer’s? A family of happy kids who, I can tell you personally, will grow up, move out, and leave you alone again? A spectacular vacation? A car? A huge collection of DVD movies that probably won’t play on whatever technology comes along in twenty years?
Even our present day Olympic medals are not really lasting treasures. Right now on Ebay you can buy somebody’s silver medal from the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Twenty years later, someone doesn’t care anymore, or is so broke that the prize doesn’t mean as much as money. But of course running after money doesn’t last either. Rotting celery, says Paul. Prizes that won’t last, says Paul, because there’s something so much better.
“We do it,” Paul tells us, that is, we enter into a strict spiritual training, denying ourselves, knuckling down into a regimen of spiritual disciplines, “we do it, to get a crown that will last forever.” “That will last forever.” Paul is thinking of nothing less than the “crown of life” which Jesus promised in Revelation 2:10 to those who remain faithful to Him. Life that goes on and on, life that is eternal, life that is abundant with all the joy and blessing that God has to give. That’s the prize, that’s the crown worth running for.
“Strict training” is literally “self-control in all things,” “self-discipline.” Self-control is not a very popular notion these days. Advertisers find it much more profitable to encourage us to let our desires and passions run free, to run after whatever we want, to do whatever we want, whenever we want it. But Paul says the way to win the eternal prize is self-control, but it’s hard.
It’s hard athletically. I’m in one of those periods where my own physical running has slacked off. Right now I’m doing well if I run two or three miles three times a week, when just a few years ago, I was running four or five almost every day except Sunday. I’ve gained back a few pounds and I don’t feel as energetic. For real athletes it’s of course much harder. Your coach wants you to run and lift and eat right and get enough sleep, all the while keeping your grades up so you can be on the team. Training in Christian life, training in Jesus Christ, is no easier.
That’s why Paul shares his own experience in verse 26, “Therefore, I do not run like someone running aimlessly.” He understood training. He wants you have to keep your goal firmly in mind. Like an Olympic athlete, you have to keep the image of the prize ever conscious if you’re going to get up early to run those miles, if you’re going to pass by that piece of cake, if you’re going to spend your spare time in the gym rather than in the mall. He knew what it’s all about. And he knew that spiritual running is the same and more. We have a goal and we must not lose sight of it. In Philippians 3 verse 14 he names his goal “the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s aim is Jesus, to be with Him, to be like Him. As Christians, its our aim, our prize. It’s my prize. It’s your prize. And we must, we must not let anything distract us from it.
Don’t run aimlessly. Keep focused. Pay attention to where you’re going. While I was in Chicago I read a newspaper column by a writer whose new car had been rear-ended. She was surprised when the other driver got out and right away admitted that he had been distracted by talking on his cell phone. As a reporter, she did a little research and found a 2006 study that showed that 8 out of 10 accidents are caused by some form of driver distraction, including drowsiness. Whether it’s changing CDs or talking on the phone or trying to catch a shopping bag about to tip over, distractions take your focus away from where you’re going and cause accidents, sometimes disastrous accidents.
Distractions are a great danger for Christian life. All those other things we run after that I mentioned earlier can easily distract us from running after Jesus. All the other things we want, even need so much can distract us from our eternal goal, the crown of life forever in the presence of our Lord. It’s a real struggle not to let our need for sleep keep us from prayer, our need to work keep us from Bible study. It’s a battle not to give into our desire for mindless television entertainment instead of going out to serve at the food bank. We have to fight our wish for a leisurely “day off” instead of being at worship. It’s a struggle.
That’s why the apostle switched metaphors at the end of verse 26. Still thinking of the Greek games, he changed the event. He’s no longer running, but boxing. When he talks about not “beating the air,” the word is pukteuō, from which we get “pugilist,” a boxer. We’re not just racing for the prize. We are in a prize fight. And it’s often a battle against our own selves.
In Ephesians 6:12 Paul wrote about struggling with great spiritual forces of evil at work in the world, but here his focus is narrower. Here Paul’s opponent is himself. He’s struggling with what he talked about in Romans 7:19, “what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do is what I keep on doing.” Paul, like everyone of us, is fighting himself to stay focused, to avoid distractions, to keep in the spiritual race. That’s why he’s so extreme in verse 27, “I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave.” It’s not masochism, it’s self-control, which Paul told the Galatians is one of the fruits of the Spirit.
Now, if you’re like me, this whole text and business of running and fighting may be a hard word to hear today. Like me, you may just be tired, a little discouraged, a little distracted, a little bit ready to just sit down for awhile and quit struggling, quit racing, quit training so hard. I hear you. I feel it too.
That’s why we read more than one Scripture in our worship here. That’s why we always read from the Gospel. You and I need to hear and remember that Jesus is in the struggle, in the race with us. He knows our needs, our weaknesses, even all our distractions. So in Mark 1:41 we read that Jesus was “filled with compassion” for the man with leprosy. He helped him. He healed him. And our Lord Jesus has just as much compassion for you and me and all our struggles. He will help and He will heal. But then He wants to put us back in the race, to have us striving once again to follow and obey him.
The leprous man ran off distracted by his own healing and didn’t even bother to listen to Jesus’ command not to tell anyone about it. He did his own thing rather than what Jesus wanted then. Paul’s words today ask us not to receive the help and healing of Jesus like the leper did, taking it for granted and then running off with our own agenda. Instead, we are healed like athletes treated by the team doctor, healed to get back into our Lord’s game, to do His will rather than our own. That’s why we seek the self control Paul asks for here.
Jesus wants to help and heal us for the sort of life which will bring us home to Him in the end. As Paul finishes this passage in verse 27, he wants to live, “so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
Paul was not worried about losing his salvation. Spiritual discipline does not earn God’s grace. Paul knew that better than anyone. God’s gift of salvation was, is and always will be a free gift, regardless of how we live. But our joy in that gift depends a great deal on how well we receive it. All the runners run. Everyone who believes in Jesus has eternal life. But not all win the prize. Not every believer lives in such a way as to know the joy of belonging to Jesus from start to finish. Paul didn’t want to preach the Christian life to others and then fail to enjoy it himself. He didn’t want to lose the joy of His Lord’s approval.
No one needs to be disqualified, no matter how far you’ve fallen out of the race. In a conversation with Ted Smith yesterday, he told me about reading Josh Hamilton’s autobiography, Beyond Belief. Hamilton is an outfielder for the Texas Rangers. In 1999, he was a major league number one draft pick. But starting in 2001, he was injured and then lost his self-control. He disqualified himself by sinking into a horrible pit of drug addiction. Over the next few years he repeatedly violated baseball’s drug rules and finally left the game, not playing in the major leagues at all for three years.
Then along the way, Josh found Christ. And it was Jesus who healed him of his addictions, Jesus who gave him back his self-control, Jesus who finally helped him get back in the game starting in 2006. By last year, Hamilton was hitting home runs for the Rangers and was selected to start in the 2008 All Star game. He was back in the race, and most importantly, that was not just an athletic contest.
Speaking on verse 27, the medieval preacher John Chrysostom said that if Paul—the great apostle, the fervent missionary, the brilliant teacher—if Paul needed to worry about his performance in the race, then how much more should you and I fear missing out on the best God has for us? This business of discipline, of struggling with ourselves in order to live up to Jesus, is always with us. Chrysostom says, “This war,” the one with ourselves, “admits of no truce.”
I urge you to stay in the race, to stay in the fight. Get in the race if you have not yet given your own life to Jesus. Get back in the race if you feel like the distractions have knocked you out of the running. Confess to faith in Jesus Christ and run for Him, instead of running aimlessly through this life. Instead of seeking all the little prizes you find along the sidelines, go for the finish line marked out by Jesus.
Like Paul says, it takes some training. Some prayer each day. A word of witness each week. An act of service each month. Time with God. Time with other Christians. Memorize Scripture, sacrifice money, receive Communion. Every little act of discipline is a blow struck against your own aimless ways and a blow for the abundant, joyful life Jesus wants you to have.
In his second letter to Timothy, Paul as an older, more experienced spiritual athlete, looked back over his life and said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord…will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” The real crown, the crown of life, is waiting for all of us who stay in the race until we see Jesus waiting for us at the finish line. Let’s not stop until we cross over it into His arms.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj