By Paul Koch –
Have you ever been in a fight? I don’t mean an argument with a family or friend. I mean a physical fight where you’re standing face to face with another man fists clenched, ready to go to blows. I have to admit I fought a lot with my older brother growing up, but I’ll never forget when my grandpa gave us a pair of boxing gloves. Those gloves were game changers; getting hit still hurt, but it didn’t hurt as much. Fighting then was not just something done out of anger but it could actually be a sport. I remember one afternoon when we had all the neighborhood kids lined up in our front yard. We took turns like some sort adolescent Fight Club. We put on the gloves and went at it until someone called quits or cried to mommy.
I’ve always admired boxers and I enjoy watching the growing sport of MMA as well. The reason for my admiration is simple. When you step into a ring with someone else you know for certain that a few things are going to happen. You know that your opponent is going to try and hit you. They are going to try to hit you with as much speed, accuracy, and power as they can. And so you also know that you need to be ready to counter, to fight back, and you know that you can’t do this halfway. The time for partial measures has passed. Until the bell tolls you have to go all in, whether you like it or not. There is nowhere to hide, nowhere to run. If you don’t commit, you’re going to get knocked out.
The Apostle Paul uses this image of preparing to step into the ring in I Corinthians 9. With it, you get a real sense of the urgency that he is trying to impress upon his hearers. He is calling the faithful to go all in, and not settle for half measures. He says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we, an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box a one beating the air.” His point is clear; if you’re in the race run to win. If you’re in the fight you’re not swinging at the air. This isn’t shadow boxing. You’re in it to win it.
Now, what is especially fascinating about this urgent plea by St. Paul is that he is talking about preaching the Gospel. He is not talking about earning your salvation or doing what you can to get into heaven. He is speaking about the lengths you go to give the good news to others: the good news that you have received. And the length that Paul will go to preach the Gospel is laid out for us. To the Jews he becomes a Jew to win Jews. To those under the law he becomes as one under the law, that he might win those under the law. To those outside the law he becomes as one outside the law to win them. And to the weak he becomes weak. In fact, he says, “I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some.” He goes all in. There are no half measures and no excuses. He simply gets to work! He enters the ring with his gloves laced tight and searches for the weakness in his enemy.
Now, this urgent plea by Paul to go all in rightly causes us to examine ourselves. When we do that I think we can easily see the limits of our engagement in the cause. It’s not that we don’t want to hand over the goods, or that we don’t want to do what we can to make sure others receive the Gospel. It’s just, well, there are limits. Now they’re different for each of us, I suppose. Each of you has different gifts so your limits will look different depending on your gifts. Some will come to church and proudly tell others that they are doing so; but they draw the line at making a commitment beyond that. Others might volunteer for all sorts of things around the church, but draw the line at speaking to strangers about their faith.
If we go beyond that, we might think of how easy it is for us to shift those lines throughout our lives. I remember arriving at my first congregation in Georgia. Within the first few months a few of the older members told me they were no longer going to volunteer for certain things. They had put in their time and now the younger members should step up. It wasn’t that they were shifting focus or going all in somewhere else; rather they were just done. Somehow retirement from the work force equaled retirement from running the race or fighting the good fight. These examples go on and on. We don’t have to try very hard to see that our dedication to handing over the goods is quite often tied to how comfortable we want to be, how old we feel, or how much credit we receive.
We lie to ourselves. We tell ourselves that we are all in all the time, but it simply isn’t true. We even sing hymns that attempt to fool us into believing we done it all. For example, the great old hymn “Take My Life and Let It Be, “ do you remember how it goes? Verse four goes like this, “Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold…” Yeah right! Not a mite would we withhold? That is just a bold face lie.
How is it, then, that Paul can speak about going all in when it comes to preaching the good news? Was he just a more perfect Christian that we are? Is he just singing some hymn that we could never live up to? Did he possess some greater character than us? Perhaps. But then again perhaps it was that Paul still remembered what it was like to be struck blind after encountering the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. Perhaps he still can’t get the image of Stephen’s martyrdom out of his head. He still remembers his firm confession of the faith even as the rocks struck him down. In fact, since his conversion, he has learned time and again that God was not joking when He declared to Ananias that He would show Paul how much he must suffer for His name’s sake. Paul is all in because everything else has been stripped away from him. In powerful ways he had been taught to fear, love and trust in God above all things.
In this way he makes this call for you, as well. When everything else is stripped away, it is possible to go all in. Now you may think, “But Pastor, I haven’t been struck blind or shipwrecked or chased out of town under the threat of death.” Well perhaps not; but I tell you that you too have had everything stripped away. In the waters of Holy Baptism your sin and pride were drowned and put to death. In that blessed washing you joined our Lord in his death so that you might walk in newness of life. In his gracious gifts to you he has stripped you of your false gods and taught you to fear, love and trust in him above all things.
Your salvation is secure in the works of Christ alone. Your hope is found in his death and resurrection and never in your faithful living or good deeds. All this means that you are free. Free to be his children, free to run the race, free to go all in. What is there to fear when you are free? Why hold back when your outcome is already secure? The good news of Jesus Christ has stripped you of your works, of your fear, of your hesitation. You are free.
Paul’s words this morning are words of encouragement for a people who have been set free. It is not a new law laid upon us but a call to go ahead and go all in. And I get it. I get why he makes this call. Imagine, for a moment, what it might look like. Imagine this group, stepping into the ring, holding nothing back. Imagine us standing together like a giant awakening from sleep. Imagine the force of the blows and the endurance of our attack. Imagine going all in to make sure that the gifts of Christ were handed over, and freedom is proclaimed to those bound in their sin!
What a sight it would be.