Saint Paul speaks to us about running a race and boxing. Of course, he is not really concerned with teaching us about athletics. He is telling us that the Christian life is like training and competing. Our lives are an agonizing struggle, and the crown that is gained is an eternal, imperishable crown - eternal life.
Therefore we ask: What kind of spiritual athletes are we? St. Paul says, we ought to be disciplined. We ought to be in strict training. We should not be aimless, but full of purpose.
Are we like that? Are you like that?
An honest athlete must not delude himself into thinking he is strong when he is not. An honest athlete must know his weaknesses. He must know where he needs improvement so that he is able to train effectively.
We often think that we are strong spiritual athletes, when in reality we are not. Our judgment of our own fitness is impaired by the fact that our sinful flesh wants to believe it is strong even though it is not. How can we train effectively when our judgment is impaired?
If we judge honestly, then we must admit that we are undisciplined. We often talk big and make wonderful promises, but we lack the discipline to put our nose to the grindstone. In earthly matters, we may be very industrious and hard working. But spiritually speaking, we are all couch potatoes, who do not want to walk four steps to change the TV station. Our spirit is willing, but our flesh is weak. We are able to put out brief spurts of energy in our spiritual lives, but when it comes to the long haul, we lack the commitment to go the distance.
We lack discipline because we dislike pain, and who doesn't? Pain is bad. Pain hurts. Self-sacrifice hurts. Discipline hurts. But an athlete must rise above the pain for the sake of his training.
Because we lack discipline, we complain a lot. We may not call it complaining, but that's what it is. For the sake of Christ, how much should we be willing to sacrifice and suffer and endure? Should we not give all, even to the point of death? Should we not do all gladly, with promises on our lips, knowing that Christ has done so much more? Yet we complain, sometimes over the most trivial things. God, our loving Father, sends us hardships for our testing and strengthening. He, our spiritual Coach, if you will, is concerned with our training and gives us those things that are able to make us stronger. In return, we gripe and we grumble.
Many times, we count other things as more important than our spiritual training. In the final analysis, nothing could compare to the crown of life. What should demand our attention besides the holy and gracious God? What in this life is sweeter than His grace poured out in Word and Sacrament?
We sometimes treat other things as if they were weightier than the Cross of Christ, but we know they're not. It is as if a great athlete was about to compete for the gold medal at the Olympic Games, but decided to drop out because he would rather watch his favorite soap operas than practice.
Our priorities are often greatly confused. We allow the smallest things to get in our way. Instead, we should single-mindedly focus so that nothing could disturb our concentration. But we are easily distracted. An athlete cannot afford to lose his concentration. One slip, one misstep, can easily cost him the prize. He never takes his eyes off the ball. He never look back at the next runner. He puts all thoughts out of his head except the task at hand. We should be so single-minded.
Even more than that, our problems go much deeper than lapses in concentration. We are directionally challenged. A runner who goes the wrong way on the track is a laughingstock. A basketball player who scores in the wrong basket will spend a lot of time on the bench. We are directionally challenged because we often get confused in spiritual matters. Sometimes, we mistake right for wrong and wrong for right. Sometimes we mistake emotion for spirituality. Sometimes we think that the things of greatest value have the least. Sometimes, we feel even more spiritual the further we get off track.
Now, considering all our weaknesses, shall we claim to be good spiritual athletes? Shall we even hope to win the crown?
Nothing less is at stake, my brothers and sisters, than the crown of eternal life. If we are tricked or distracted into loving the wrong things, those things may become our gods in whom we put our trust, endangering or taking away our faith in Christ. If our lack of discernment causes us to believe in our own goodness, then repentance cannot last very long, and the Cross becomes of no use. If we ignore those things that are really important, then we might cut ourselves off from the Means of Grace. Heaven forbid any of that should happen. Although we cannot earn the crown of life, we can reject it, and disqualify ourselves, as St. Paul says.
But here is the Good News: The Crown of Life does not actually depend on us. It is not our strength or commitment or directional abilities that win the prize. We, who are spiritual couch potatoes, do not earn our neverending glory. But Christ our Lord wins it, indeed, has already won it for you.
Christ ran a race that lasted over thirty years. He fought against none other than the prince of darkness, the strong man of this world. But Christ, who is stronger yet, pummeled the devil and conquered that serpent.
Our Savior's victory was not easy. He had to sacrifice everything, leaving His perfect existence in heaven to take human flesh - your flesh. He bore all the sorrows, and trouble and pains of life, instead of returning to heaven without completing His race.
Christ Jesus demonstrated such perfect dedication and concentration that He never wavered from His path. He never disobeyed the Law. He never swerved from total perfection - even in His thoughts and His words, as well as His deeds.
His life was the one holy sacrifice offered for us. He, the most excellent athlete ever, gave the perfect performance. He fought the perfect match. All this He did, not for Himself - He did not need to prove that He was holy - but for your sake. The incredible achievement He earned is for you. He could have stayed on His royal throne in heaven, but instead, gave His all for you.
At the very end, He proved that He was able to sacrifice even His life. He died in the worst agony possible as the Father turned away His face. Jesus felt the torment of hell on the Cross. He held back nothing for you - He suffered it all. That is the commitment of the Son of God. That is perfect discipline.
He did all this to win the crown. But His crown is you. The prize that drove Him onward all those years and even through the agony of the Cross was you. He desired to win you, and nothing would get in His way - not death, not hell, not satan, not even the weight of your sins. Christ overcame it all. He won the victory by dying.
Now, the victory is yours. The Judge has declared you the winner, as if you ran the race to the finish. Your life is counted as holy, as if everything Christ did throughout His life was done by you. You are righteous in God's sight. You are declared the winner, the perfect athlete, and worthy of the prize, which you have even now: the crown of eternal life.
Meanwhile, as you live out this present life, you so idolize your favorite Athlete, that you want to be like Him. In your own halting, imperfect way, you imitate Christ. You are learning to sacrifice for the sake of others, to persevere in hardship, and so forth. On the other hand, if you have a few small victories, do not become proud, as if you have become great athletes. There is only one great Athlete: Christ Jesus the Victor.
Let us rejoice in His victory. Let us boast of the prize that we receive in worship, the foretaste of our final victory in heaven, when our lowly bodies shall be transformed to be like His glorious body. Then we shall be perfect athletes. So let us keep our eyes on this crown of glory that has been won for us by our Lord Jesus Christ.
In His Name and to His glory. Amen.
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