This morning, we move on to chapter 9 of 1 Corinthians. We're focusing on a small section, but it's a piece that I think helps us get to the heart and the urgency of Paul's message. Join me as we listen for God's Word in 1 Corinthians 9:19-27.
Once upon a time, there was a young woman who worked for a local non-profit organization. Ever year, the organization held a charity 5K race and every year, the young woman worked at the registration tables the morning of the race. One year, she decided she would run the 5K instead of just working the registration table. The morning of the race, she woke up bright and early, but instead of putting on jeans and a t-shirt like she usually did on the morning of the 5K, she dressed in brand new running clothes she’d bought just for that occasion. She looked in the mirror and thought, “That’s right! I can do this! I’m going to be fast and this will be awesome!”
The excitement crackled through the air at the start line. The young woman just knew that this would be one of her finest moments. She was going to race! She was going to be a runner! She was going to win one of the medals and everyone would cheer! She knew she wouldn’t win first place, but any old medal would do.
A girl from the local high school sang the national anthem. It was nearly time! The announcer began the countdown and the gun went off! She took off with all her might and began to run as fast as her legs would carry her! This was easy! As she flew past the other runners, she realized that she was a natural! As she started to grow weary and out of breath, she reminded herself that she only had to make it to the finish line, which would be coming into view any moment now. Then she saw it! A sign! This sign must say they were almost there. As she neared it, she read the sign’s declaration that they had just finished. . . 1 kilometer. She was 1/5 of the way finished with the race.
Panic set in. How could this only be 1/5 of the race? She’d prepared for this. She was ready for this. She had registered for the race, she’d bought new clothes to run in, she had even been there on time that morning to stand on the start line and stretch with the other runners! True, she hadn’t actually tried running 5 kilometers before the race, but she had run before. There was that time she’d nearly missed her bus and had to run to the bus stop to catch it. Then there was the time her little daughter had escaped her hand at the mall and she had to chase her down before she disappeared in the crowd.
As she slowed down to try catching her breath, she realized that training for the race might have been a good idea. Her legs were burning and her heart felt like it was going to explode out of her chest. The other runners began to pass her. By the time she passed the 2K sign, she had slowed to a jog. By the 3K sign, she took a walking break, gasping for air. By the 4K sign, small children began to pass her and her knees felt ready to buckle. When she finally spotted the finish line, she picked up her pace a little bit, but barely pulled her tired, road weary body over the line, swearing off 5K races forever and definitely not winning any medals.
That young woman learned the hard way that day that training is pretty important. You can’t just jump into a race right off the couch and expect to win it. You’re lucky if you jump into a race right off the couch and even finish it. Paul says that if you’re going to take a race seriously, you have to go into strict training. Now, he’s not going off onto some weird, unrelated coaching session for Olympic athletes here. He’s using it as an analogy for the Christian life. If you’re going to take the Christian life seriously, he’s saying, you have to go into strict training. Athletes are competing for prizes that don’t last and they beat their bodies into submission to get into tip top shape. But the goal in the Christian life is something far better and long lasting – eternal life with God – eternal life with God that starts now, not later! That’s way better than any leafy crown or medal or anything.
God’s love. . . that endures forever! God never gives up on us! God never stops loving us when the going gets tough! How dare we think that we can enter into relationship with God without bothering to take it seriously enough to train for living out that love and for living in that love?
If people train like crazy, whip their bodies into submission just to win a race, what would it look like to take the Christian life that seriously? It’s not that we’re competing for God’s love or trying to earn it, but if we’re to share God’s love with the people around us, and if we’re to have abundant life like Jesus promises, life full of the Holy Spirit we have to train for that! We can’t just call ourselves Christians and assume that’s enough to spread God’s love and share the Gospel and live a good life! We can’t just assume that if we have a nice church building in a nice neighborhood that people are just going to show up and that’s all we have to do to be a witness. We can’t just talk about running or look like runners, we have to train!
Every runner trains differently. You have to figure out what works for you. For me, I have to be out on the road 4 or 5 days a week to train for a big race. If my husband goes out more than 3 days a week to run, he starts to break. I run best early in the morning, but some runners like to run in the evening. I hate the treadmill, and . . . well, I don’t know any runners who actually like the treadmill, but sometimes you just have to get on the stupid treadmill.
The Christian life is the same. We call the personal acts of the Christian life “Spiritual disciplines” because they aren’t always easy. There is an amount of self-control involved. They are this training that Paul is talking about. And it looks different for different people. Some people like to get up early in the morning and start the day with reading scripture. Some people prefer to pray at night before bed. Spending time outdoors hiking or running is part of how I connect to God. I pray better outside than inside. Some people need a quiet chapel or a CD player blasting worship music. Fasting, study, meditation, worship, prayer, silence, solitude, retreat, these and many more are elements of training that we as Christians must take seriously if we’re to truly endure in the race. You’re all here this morning – even after an exhausting day of flea market activities yesterday - so that’s a good start. But it’s wise for us all to remember that serious training happens more than just one morning per week.
We have a few new things going on that I hope will help us as a congregation in our training. The first is that I have put together a daily Bible reading calendar for us as a community. If you already have a Bible study pattern that works for you. . . feel free to stick with it. But if you need a change of pace or haven’t been spending time daily in the Bible, it’s a good place to start. The Bible is called a lamp for our feet – it lights up the path for us. Without it, we’re just running in the dark with no streetlights. Running in the light is hard enough. We’re supposed to write the Word of God on our hearts and put it everywhere. We can’t do that if we don’t actually know what it says. It takes more than just reading it once or taking my word for it that it says something.
And I get it. . . there are weird things in the Bible: confusing things. It’s not an easy read. That’s where our community comes in. That’s why I stand up here nearly every week and try to explain some small part of it and how it fits into our lives. That’s why it’s important to go home and talk to our spouses and kids and parents and friends about this stuff. That’s why we go to Sunday school and Bible study. That’s why I welcome questions about the Bible and our faith and beliefs. Many people start off asking me about things with, “I’m so sorry to bother you with this question, but. . . “ Don’t be sorry! You don’t have to apologize for taking the race seriously! Call me, email me, text me, drop by the office – old fashioned, I know – I’m happy to help explore scripture. I wouldn’t be in this line of work if I wasn’t.
We need to encourage our youth. Start them out training early on! We have awesome kids here! Alyssa just got back from Summer Youth Institute at the seminary last week and it was an amazing time. This kid voluntarily spent part of her summer learning to read Hebrew and studying spirituality! Another one of our youth, who I’ll leave nameless to avoid embarrassment – I’ll just say that it was NOT any of the pastor’s kids - was reading the book of Isaiah the other day and asking me questions about it. . . for fun. A teenager. . . reading Isaiah. . . for fun. What a treasure trove of young people here who are eager to learn how to run this race! We need to cherish that, encourage that, run with it, friends! Teach a Sunday school class or stop them after church and talk – get to know them. I’ve spent over a decade working with teens and young adults, so I can tell you from experience that this church is deeply blessed by the amazing, faithful young people here. When most churches are scraping around to find one or two children and many are scrapping children’s sermons and youth group altogether. . . we have kids learning Hebrew and reading Isaiah in their free time! We not only need to encourage that and cheer them on, we need to look to their example of head-first, full throttle exploration of their faith! We have something to learn from these kids.
The other thing we can do as a community is to let everyone around us know that we’re training. Runners are known for spending 50% of their time telling other people about their training. I really don’t know why we do that other than it’s harder to slack off when everyone knows that you’re training for something. So let’s make sure everyone knows that we’re training for something over here! Worship is an important spiritual discipline and that’s why it’s always been central to Christian communities, but we don’t have to leave it for Sunday morning only.
Starting this Saturday, we’ll be having a monthly service out on the lawn. We’re going to try this out through September. This will be another opportunity for us to worship and study together, but it’ll also be a chance for us to show the neighborhood that there is life here! It’s a chance to invite people to come see what’s going on here. It’s a chance to talk about what we’re doing. I encourage you all to join us for these services and to bring the whole neighborhood with you!
These new members that are joining this morning are joining our team, so to speak. It’s not that there is one team that is better than the others, but there is something so important in community – in camaraderie and working together. They have made a commitment to the life and work of this church and as we receive them formally into our membership this morning I encourage those of you who are already members to rededicate yourself to the Christian race that we are running. Those of you who aren’t formal members, I encourage you to think about how you’re running the race as well. You don’t have to be a member of this or any specific church to start training for this race. It helps, but it’s not the end all be all. As we welcome Joann, Peggy, Mindy, Andrea, and Tim into our membership this morning, let it be a reminder of the important race that we are training hard for.
In case you were wondering, the young woman in the story at the beginning of the sermon. . . she did run another 5K. It took her 6 years before trying again, but she decided to give it another shot. And this time she trained. She ran the whole race, start to finish. She still didn’t win a medal for it, but the finish line itself was enough prize. There was something of a prize just in the training itself. A few months more of training, and she ran a 10K, then a half marathon, then a full marathon. Sometimes, it takes a while. But we keep training. We keep running, knowing that the prize we are after is something so much brighter or better than anything we can win on earth and that there is joy in the training itself, even when it’s hard. Friends, run in such a way that you might win the eternal prize – so that you might bear fruit and spread the love of God and share the Gospel and live to the fullest.