By Paul Koch –
In his letter the to the church in Corinth, St. Paul speaks in sobering terms about his role in the mission and work of our Lord’s church. He seems to understand the magnitude of what he is doing and the crucial nature of just what it is that the church is called to do while awaiting the return of Christ. What he pictures is not some weak and inconsequential gathering that drifts along unnoticed in the massive workings of the world. Nor does he imagine some brutal or tyrannical operation where fear and oppression guide the daily activities. Rather, he describes a congregation driven by the gospel, driven by the proclamation of salvation that is freely, even recklessly, given to those who do not deserve it. This message compels him to take up the life of others. To the Jews he becomes a Jew. To those under the law he becomes as one under the law. To those outside of the law he becomes as one outside the law. To the weak he becomes weak. He becomes all things to all people so that he might save some of those he meets.
You can sense the urgency in his words. His passion and worry that the task is too big, too much, but what else can he do? For he possesses a gift, and for the sake of that gift he must carry on. He says that what he is involved in, in fact what you are involved in as well, is a great race. It is a grueling endeavor with a finish line. On the other side of the finish line is your rest and joy and no more tears or fear or worry. But it won’t be easy to cross it. No, the path between here and there is beset on all sides with distractions and hindrances. Those that would lead you astray and those that would lure you to sleep, but all of them seek to have you do anything but finish the race.
So, Paul speaks about training the body, about preparing for the race, being ready for the battle that is to come. Now, I’ve never been much a runner. In fact, I was never a great athlete. But I have always played sports or at least been involved in some sort of training regimen. Looking back, I have had a consistent attraction to the more violent sports. For more years than I remember I played rugby, a brutal and wonderful sport that was physically demanding and steeped in incredible comradery. I gave up rugby when I moved back to Ventura, figuring I was getting a bit too old. It was too hard to keep up with the young guys. Then, just over a year ago, I found Jiu Jitsu. It has been like a breath of fresh air. It is violent and exhausting and wonderful. Every sparing session is an opportunity to learn, but learning doesn’t come without strife and failure and hardship. The struggle of it is necessary. It makes you humble at the same time it fuels your resolve to press on, to not give up, to get better, to be better.
So, Paul says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, 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.” (1 Cor. 9:24-25) He exhorts the church to run the race, to prepare yourself, to exercise self-control, to learn from the hardship and the strife so that you will receive the promised blessing. Wound throughout this exhortation is the warning that what has been given, what has already been won by Christ alone, can be lost by you. That’s right, the shocking thing that echoes in Paul’s urgent words is that the gifts you been given, the very gift of salvation can be lost. You can reject it, you can stop before you cross the finish line, you can flat out refuse to run! Now people don’t like to talk about this much these days. In fact, many will go out of their way to speak about how God’s gifts are irresistible. Yet Paul seems worried that even he himself has at least an outside chance that he might walk away from this treasure and give up in the strive of the battle. And I think he is worried perhaps you might give up, as well.
Paul steps back and looks at the task that he is giving; that there can be no rest, no sitting on the couch and eating potato chips and when it comes to your faith. You must run. You must engage in the battle and endure the strife until the last day. Just think of your own lives. Think of those that you know and love. Those who were raised in the faith, those who were part of the faithful congregation. They fed upon his gifts, they were nourished by his words, they were loved by his people. But slowly other temptations came calling. Perhaps it was the wisdom of the world. A wisdom that spoke of the foolishness of the faith, about the lack of proof and the delusion of the masses. Perhaps they were enticed and forgot the old rituals and meanings behind them. Soon it was all a shallow façade in their eyes and so they willingly walked away from hearing and tasting and singing that the Lord is good.
Then again, perhaps it was something far more brutal, a hardship in life, a form of suffering that was too much for them. And the church had no answers, or even worse, no love for them. No one to sit with them in their pain, no one to listen as they yelled at God. And so, as the strife builds they begin to let go. Slowly and but surely, they no longer see the need to push through to endure the pain to make sense of a life of faith. And so, they too walk away. They give up on the race. You know these people, don’t you? They are part of your families, they are even some of your closest friends. They might be your children and grandchildren. They may have never even learned how to run, not really, not when it matters, so they stopped before the finish line.
This is the consuming urgency in the words of Paul. This is why he is so willing to become all things to all people. You see he knows that you are set free in Christ. Free means exactly what it says. There is nothing you have to do for your salvation, nothing that you need to accomplish to secure your place in heaven. The finish line, if you will, has already been won, it has already been crossed for you. It was crossed at Calvary upon a literal cross and that victory was made yours through the open tomb. But the race still goes on, this age with all its evils and distractions remain as you await the final victory. And the world, the devil and your own sinful hearts will do everything they can to prevent you from claiming the prize secured by Christ. So, Paul uses his freedom to do whatever he can so that no more will be lost, no more will give up.
I have learned something from the hard and violent sports that I play. Something that I am still learning about our life in the church. There is no way any of us will complete this alone. There is no way that you will endure by yourself. I could go to battle on a rugby field because I had 14 other brothers there ready to shed blood along side of me. I can shake hands and engage in combat with another person at the Jiu Jitsu academy because in the end they are not my enemy. They are there to help me get better, and I’m there to help them get better. The struggle is the real and necessary and part of learning to endure, learning to press on, learning to run. And I need others to do that.
And it is the same way with this race we run together. This most important of all races, this battle not for temporal glory but for eternal paradise itself can only be won by running together. Together we are learning to run. Together we can get better. Together we can help one another. We can become a beacon for those who are about to throw in the towel, those who have lost the will to run.
You are free in Christ, my friends. Your salvation is secured by what he has done so you are free to work for one another, to become all things for your neighbor. You give and support the work of the church not to secure your spot in heaven but to ensure that the proclamation of the Gospel is not hindered. You pray for you brother and sister, not to earn bonus points before your God but because you are free to care and love them out of our abundant blessings. You care for each other not out of fear but out of love. For like Paul, you don’t want to lose any more. We are just beginning to learn to run, my friends. Let us not stop now.