Sermon: Running To Win

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow from 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.  I hope your Sunday is great!

Running To Win
1 Corinthians 9:24-27

24Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.

25Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
From Accommodation to Competition

Last week we looked a Paul’s testimony in which he said:

22To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Paul is explaining to the Corinthian church his credibility as an apostle, which has led him to accommodate himself to various situations so that he can effectively communicate the gospel.

But this week, Paul uses a different metaphor — that of a runner in a race.  And he says,

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.

Paul now compares the Christian life to a competitive race, and he urges his hearers to run to win.  What’s this new argument that Paul puts forth about?  What situation is the idea of running a race addressing in the Corinthian church?  To understand Paul’s imagery of runners in a race, we have to understand the culture of sports in that day.

In the city, there was a place called the Campus . This was the old drill ground for soldiers. It was a large section of plain near the Tiber River. Over time, the Campus became ancient Rome’s field and track playground. Even such famous people as Caesar and Augustus exercised on the Campus. Young men, all over Rome, gathered at the Campus to play and exercise.

On the Campus, men participated in foot racing, jumping, archery, wrestling and boxing. After a bout of exercise, they might jump in the Tiber River for a swim, or wander off to the Baths, to relax. All over Rome, men practiced riding, fencing, wrestling, throwing, and swimming. In the country, men went hunting and fishing. At home, men played ball before dinner, which were games of throwing and catching.

Women were not allowed to join in these games.

The activities on the Campus of Rome were preceded by the Greek Olympic games in which there were several types of running contests:

The Olympic events were held in the stadium and the horse races took place in the hippodrome. The Olympic events included the following:

1) The stadion: a foot race the length of the stadium. The athletes stopped at the end of the stadium without returning to the starting line.

2) The diaulos: a foot race the length of two stadia, where the athletes finished at the starting line of the stadium.

3) The dolichos (long distance race): a foot race which probably had a length of twenty four stadia.. A notable dolichos runner and Olympic winner was Ageus who ran from Olympia to his homeland Argos to announce his victory.

4) The hoplitodromos (race in armour): a foot race the length of two stadia in which the runners were dressed in full armour.

5) The pentathlon: an athletic event made up of five separate events: the stadion, the discus throw, the javelin throw, jumping and wrestling. The winner was the athlete who came first in three of the five events. The pentathlon, according to Aristotle, is the “best event of the Greeks because it is the embodiment of the ideal type of athlete: powerful, fast and flexible”.

6) Boxing was one of the most popular events. The training of the athletes was carried out in the Palaestra and the rules of this event were defined by Onomastos of Smyrna, who was an Olympic winner in 688 BC. The family of Diagoras of Rhodes were the eminent boxers of the 5th century BC. The father, three sons and two grandsons, all earned Olympic titles.

7) The pankration is an event that combining boxing and wrestling. It is a violent event and many times the lfes of the athletes were endangered. One famous pankratist was Polydamas from Thessalia.

As Paul describes the runners in a race, or boxers swinging wildly, the Corinthians know exactly the images Paul is using because they have seen these games, and perhaps have participated in the games themselves.

The Rules of The Race

In a very brief passage, Paul gives us a clear picture of his rules of the race.

  1. A lot of people can run in the race;
  2. Only one wins;
  3. Run to win.

So, Paul’s rules of the race are clear.  And he goes on to point out that runners in a race in Corinth run for a crown that doesn’t last, a laurel wreath.  Paul says Christians are running for a crown that will last forever.  So what’s the point?  I think there are several and here they are:

Paul Is In A Race, a Fight, For The Corinthians’ Faith

Read all of 1 Corinthians 9 and 10 and you get the picture of a man who is making his case in the strongest possible terms.  Paul asserts his apostolic credentials because some have challenged his position.  Paul asserts his right to be supported by the Corinthians, but then says that he didn’t insist on their support.

Paul then reminds them that he has become all things to all men to win some, for the sake of the Gospel.  In other words, for Paul this business of being an apostle, of being sent by God to Jews and Gentiles, has not been easy.  He has had to support himself.  He has not sacrificed having a family of his own to do this work.  He has used his personal skills in speaking and writing to communicate with as wide an audience as possible.  He has traveled tirelessly, been shipwrecked, beaten, arrested, ridiculed, threatened, rejected, abused, mistrusted, misunderstood, and gossiped about.  But still he pushes on for the sake of the Gospel.

From Paul we can learn three things about the race he’s in:

  1. It’s not a game, it’s life and death.
  2. It’s not easy, it requires training and commitment.
  3. It has a goal, a finish line, a winner’s circle, and Paul wants to stand in it.

Why is Paul running this race, fighting this fight for the Corinthians?  To keep them from abandoning the faith they have found in Christ.  And, to help them train to run their own race.  So he counsels them on how to conduct worship, how to solve problems in their church, how to observe the Lord’s Supper, how to practice the spiritual gifts evident in the congregation.

But he also cautions them against quarreling, lawsuits against each other, sexual misconduct and immorality, falling back into the old habits of eating food offered to idols, of disrespecting one another and by doing so disrespecting Christ.

Paul has his hands full with instructions, admonitions, guidance, cajoling, and criticism of the Corinthian Christians.  But this is also personal.

The Race Is Both Taught and Lived

Paul explains it this way:

Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

This is not just a game for Paul, it’s life and eternity.  Paul says, I’m not running aimlessly like those men of leisure in Rome who worked out on the Campus in Rome.  No, Paul says, I’m in training.  I’m focused, I’m disciplined, I’m making my body my slave.  That might sound unusual, until you remember that Rome and the Roman empire was all about appetites.  If you wanted food, the empire had more than enough.  The Caesars kept down the revolt of the poor by handing out bread each week.

The Romans had gods for food and drink, for partying, for love which really meant sex, and for any other appetite you might want to engage.

Paul reminds the Corinthians that a runner in training, a boxer in training, has to follow the rules of training.  To master your own appetites.  Paul’s concern is that the gospel of Jesus that he preaches is not just an abstraction for others, but is real for him, too.

The New York Times carried the story yesterday of the arrest of Bobby DeLaughter.  Bobby DeLaughter was a judge in Mississippi accused of taking a bribe to rule in favor of one party over another in a multi-million dollar lawsuit.

The sad part of the story is that Bobby DeLaughter is the same prosecutor, who in the 1990s, tried and convicted Byron De La Beckwith, a klansman, in the assassination of civil rights leader, Medgar Evers.  Evers was gunned down one evening as he arrived home, killed in his own driveway by an assassin shooting a high-powered hunting rifle.

De La Beckwith and others had been tried twice in the 1960s and found not guilty by local juries, but the word on the street was that De La Beckwith was the killer of Medgar Evers.  By the 1990s when Bobby DeLaughter became a prosecutor, evidence had disappeared, witnesses had died, and yet Bobby DeLaughter believed that justice had not been done.

So DeLaughter reopened the investigation, located a trial transcript that had been missing from a previous trial, and prosecuted Byron De La Beckwith for the murder of Medgar Evers.  DeLaughter was threatened, discouraged, and ignored by those in power in Mississippi.  Men who had known him all their lives refused to shake hands with him, and yet he persisted because he believed that Medgar Evers’ killer should be brought to justice.

DeLaughter’s words to the 1994 jury that eventually would convict Byron De La Beckwith were:

“Is it ever too late to do the right thing? For the sake of justice and the hope of us as a civilized society, I sincerely hope and pray that it’s not.”

DeLaughter was a hero to some, an overzealous prosecutor to others, but De La Beckwith went to prison.  DeLaughter’s story was made into a movie, Ghosts of Mississippi, and DeLaughter was played by Alec Baldwin.  He went on to become a judge, and that is where his ambition apparently became his downfall.  He was accused of unduly favoring one client over another in a multi-million dollar civil suit.  Standing in shackles and leg irons, he pleaded not guilty to the charges against him this week.

“It’s really tragic,” said Rims Barber, a civil rights veteran who heads the Mississippi Human Services Coalition.

“DeLaughter stuck his neck out, and learned he could make friends with Myrlie Evers, and he prosecuted that case and got a conviction, and that was an amazing start to something,” Mr. Barber said, referring to the wave of later prosecutions.

“DeLaughter became a hero, and now he’s fallen,” Mr. Barber added. “It’s terrible.”

Paul said, I don’t want to lose the race I’m in after helping others win their race.  I want to run to win.  I want the prize, too.

The prize for winning in the Roman games was a laurel wreath, a branch of green leaves woven into a very temporary crown.  But the prize was not the laurel wreath itself.  The prize was having the emperor place the victor’s wreath on your head and proclaim you the winner of the race.  Paul was running, not for the crown, but for the King.

5 thoughts on “Sermon: Running To Win”

  1. Poweful, powerful sermon. One that comports with me and comforts me, right now, in Jesus’ name.

    Thank you Pastor Chuck Warnock.

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