Now here’s an open invitation for me to talk about sports again in the pulpit, if ever there was one! Did you hear St. Paul today in his letter to the Corinthians? He is talking about the self-discipline and dedication of marathon runners and professional athletes, using imagery that seems as alive to us as it did in ancient Corinth, seat of the famous biennial Isthmian Games. We’ve all seen the discipline of body and spirit required by today’s Olympic athletes as they train for years in their special events. We’ve watched all of the heart-warming movies about the rag-tag sports team who pulls together and practices night and day in order to triumph over the big, mean team that has been lording it over them for so long. Perhaps you have even prepared yourself for a marathon or perfected your body in a dance studio? I don’t know much about sore muscles or athletic competition, but I have experienced the same all-consuming drive and self-control necessary for musical accomplishment: the solitary hours spent practicing, the discipline of giving all of oneself to one single pursuit, the family investment of time and money spent on lessons, the mind games involved in constantly measuring oneself against one’s competition. Such a pursuit of individual excellence demands utter commitment and purpose, and like the Corinthians, we understand the image of the struggle for salvation that Paul is conjuring up in our minds …. Or do we?
Taken alone, these few verses from Paul’s letter sound as if they are inviting us Christians into some kind of individual competition with one another or with the rest of the world. Who can live the holiest life? Who can push through the mediocre crowd first to snatch salvation and approval from God’s almighty hands? Who has the self-discipline to perfect his soul like an athlete perfects his body? Thanks be to God, such self-perfection is not what Paul is arguing for here in his letter to the Corinthians. Taken in the context of the whole letter, these few verses are part of Paul’s over-arching argument that the squabbling Corinthian Christians need to take care of one another, that they need to love one another and work together in unity. As he writes in the beginning of his letter, “I exhort you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be of a same mind...” Paul is asking us, then, in today’s lesson, to apply all of the self-discipline of the athlete to our difficult relationships with one another in community, to work to perfect the divided body of Christ with all of the effort and dedication that it takes to win an Olympic gold medal.
Paul is indeed arguing for that struggle, self-control, and discipline that we all know so well in our individual accomplishments—but he is switching the goal of all the hard work from our own growth and healing to the growth and healing of our brothers and sisters. The crown of laurels that we are striving to win, says Paul, is not the personal “perishable crown” of first place in a sport, or of an Oscar, or of a Platinum album … or of my own Glory in any shape or form—but it is the “imperishable crown” that the Good News of God’s love places upon the heads of our brothers and sisters. The crown that we are working so hard to win is woven from the healing of the world around us. Paul names his victory crown when he calls the Philippians, “my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown.”
We in the Church have a long way to go to measure up to Paul’s dreams for us. At our clergy retreat this week, we talked about a video that the Presiding Bishop made for the deputies who will be attending General Convention this summer. It is a wonderful video all about the mission of the Episcopal Church, about how the structures and resources of the Church should be focused on spreading the Good News of God’s Kingdom and on responding to the needs of the world, rather than on internal dynamics and a structure of command and control. Yet the speech itself has caused a tempest in a teapot, because the President of the House of Deputies is upset that the Presiding Bishop has addressed “her” House of Deputies directly and out of turn. What if the energy spent on internal squabbling between branches of our national church could indeed be turned toward spreading the Good News of God’s love for all people? And closer to home, what if the squabbling within our parishes and dioceses about everything from the color of the carpet in the parlor to the size of the organ to diocesan funding or same-sex blessings could, with great discipline and self-control, be treated as less important than the faith and salvation of the world within and around us? How would that effort change the dynamics and growth within this Body of Christ?
As a “liberal Christian,” I was convicted years ago by a comment in one of Rowan Williams’ sermons that the problem with “liberal indifference” is that it “seeks to draw the sting from bitterness and conflict by suggesting that both sides should stop believing things so hard … yet that is saying … that [our] struggles aren’t worthwhile, that [our] life is not at stake here [in what we believe.]” Indeed, “not believing things so hard” is not the answer that Paul gives us to our conflicted life together. Rather, Paul wants for us to believe with all the strength and focus and energetic spirit that we can muster, and then some. He does not want us to be boxers who stand around “flailing at the air,” ineffectual and unconvinced. Yet, all of our labor needs to be turned to the race being run by our brother or sister. “It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain,” he writes to the Philippians. Why do we have to get along? Why do we care about the Christians who don’t agree with us? Because without them, we lose the race.
Some of you may have seen or heard about a You-Tube video sensation a few weeks ago made by a young Christian rap artist named Jefferson Bethge. Called, “Why I hate religion but love Jesus,” Bethge’s message that skewers the Church and its hypocrisy, while contrasting it with the loving freedom shown to us in Jesus Christ, has been seen by over 18 million people on the Internet. His message picks up on our overwhelming feeling these days that all institutions, from the Church to the government, have failed us in their squabbling and hypocrisy. Last week, writer David Brooks wrote about the video sensation, pointing out that when Bethge was challenged in his statements by older theologians, he immediately recanted, changing his once-passionately-stated position. Why did Bethge agree, “not to believe too hard?” For Brooks, “Bethke’s passionate polemic and subsequent retreat are symptomatic of a lot of the protest cries we hear these days. This seems to be a moment when many people — in religion, economics and politics — are disgusted by current institutions, but then they are vague about what sorts of institutions should replace them.” The answer that Brooks offers to this phenomenon is that we have forgotten the benefits of a tradition, a set of practices and beliefs that ground us in a way of life. “Effective rebellion isn’t just expressing your personal feelings,” he writes. “It means replacing one set of authorities and institutions with a better set of authorities and institutions. Authorities and institutions don’t repress the passions of the heart …They give them focus and a means to turn passion into change.”
I think that St. Paul would agree with David Brooks on this point. As the one body of Christ, we Christians share in a common “end” or goal; we are part of one overarching story of hope and forgiveness and love. It is the common race that we are running for the sake of the world that gives us the focus and the means to turn passion into change. At the same time, we are a mess of squabbles, indecision, and “flailing at the air.” If we give up on ourselves and our story, though—if we strip off our team jerseys to sunbathe naked in our own individual brilliance or if we offer up only defensive strategies—then we will indeed “fail to qualify.”
We don’t need to back down in what we believe, as long as we are communicating with a shared vocabulary and striving for a common end in God’s Kingdom. We can still play the tough game, still run the difficult race. The question that we need to ask ourselves, individually and as a community, is whether we are willing to ache and sweat and give our all so that others (even our enemies) can receive the crown of life. For such is the paradoxical race for which our Lord is gathering us, the Church, for spring training as his Body in the world.