February 15: Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Every year, people gather in Halifax to run the Bluenose Marathon. Each runner receives an attractive shirt of that wonderful fabric that makes perspiration disappear into the ether. I'd love to have one of those shirts. And I can. A couple of weeks after the race I can go to the thrift shop and buy a Bluenose Marathon shirt. It might be last year's, but it's still real. I could put one on and look like a marathon runner! Who would know I wasn't? (I couldn't have run, anyway. I was in church during the race.)
It's easy to look like you're running the race. I have a (plain) shirt, shorts, and shoes. But not the legs or the lungs. Paul isn't sure the Corinthians have the legs or the lungs for the marathon of discipleship. Paul tries to tempt the fickle, competitive Corinthians to imagine the Christian run is a one-race-one-winner affair.
With their eyes on that enticing prize, their effort will be purposeful. Their dedication will be as intense as a marathoner's. Anyone in Corinth who has watched a footrace can imagine athletes, magnificent in both speed and beauty. They run naked, or nearly so. Every muscle shines as it works, coated with a sheen of sweat and oil. A runner's devotion in body and spirit is a sign of the highest ideal of humanity.
We watch athletes today with the same fascination. We can usually tell if they're pumped up on steroids. We want Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps to show us what a human body can be and do, with natural capacity shaped by passion and desire, despite adversity or illness.
Paul says, “Athletes exercise self-control in all things …” That's an understatement, given the way runners trained in his day and athletes work today. Paul is amazed anyone would work that hard for a “perishable wreath.” The victory wreath is already dead when it's placed on the winner's head. Shouldn't disciples work hard as they strive toward a reward that won't dry up and fall to pieces?
“So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air …” Sometimes I run to catch a bus. The rest of the time I run on a treadmill. Inside. Where it's warm and dry. There's a television, or music to distract me from the numbers on the treadmill's computer. It feels good when I do it. It's not aimless! I'm working on my lungs and my legs! Then I read Paul's words and wonder if my running is aimless after all. What if I pray while I'm on the treadmill? Maybe I should jump off the treadmill and offer to spar with the guy who's shadowboxing in the corner. At least we'll both be aiming at something real! Aren't we good at justifying what we do – at work, at home, in church – without ever asking why we do it?
Paul stops us and asks what we're training for. What can we say? None of the noble goals we might suggest offers anything truly lasting. Better health, better looks, better days and nights: all good things, none of them eternal. I may buy myself a few more years of healthy living by punishing my body a little today, but I can't exercise myself into everlasting life.
When Paul says he punishes his body and enslaves it, he's not describing a physical training program. His body stands for human sin and selfishness. All that balks at the hard work of discipleship. Desire that settles for the good instead of holding out for the best. The “me” that wants the crown before the race.
I'm proud of myself for driving past Tim Horton's on my way home from the gym. Paul says I have a lot further to go than that, “so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.” It's not enough to put on a sweaty shirt and tell you about the race. I have to get on the road myself.