Sunday, January 31, 2016

Not an athlete? Not interested in competition? We need to be if we are going to make it through to the end.


Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27

WE know all about competition. The world chatters on about level playing fields, and awarding trophies to everyone just for showing up, but the fact is that for as long as we live, we compete.

Our lives as Christians are also competitive. Paul appears to be the biggest contender of all time as he encourages his readers to outdo one another in love and service, to train for the fight and run the race. Even when he was about to die St. Paul spoke of his life as a great sports event, and was happy that he was about to get the Gold Medal of glorious Life in Christ. Could we do that? We have the same promise and same power going for us that Paul had; and we have the same agenda as well: to conquer evil, pursue holiness, and guard the weak points.

What's in it for us? Whatever prizes athletes might win in the Winter Olympics are dung compared to a crown that Jesus has in store for us. The huge payoffs of the Super Lotto perish. The Nobel Peace Prize is subject to oxidation. These greatest honors earth can bestow are nothing compared to what God has prepared for those that love Him. This prize is so valuable that Paul tells us he is going to compete for it as if only one person could have it. Don’t let that thought scare you, it’s only a simile. God will give the crown of life to you and to all who have faith in Jesus; but each of us ought to seek it as if he had to out-distance the rest in order to acquire it.

That makes us very uncomfortable. Most of us are not athletes, our main contact with sports is as spectators, and the muscles that get the biggest workout are fingers pressing the keyboard. We have an aversion to discipline. We consider it a very unpleasant word, so we need to make an effort in the pursuit of holiness. In fact we need a rather constant effort. This race can't be won by fast starts and long rests. The Christian life is more like a marathon. No one can go for the long haul without discipline. All the self-denial, self-control, steady perseverance and grace under fire develop so that we can emerge victorious in and through Christ who has already won the victory for us.

Paul also compares our life to a boxing match, to a struggle against those who try to gain control over our lives. We need determination and vigilance. We must take pains to be on the look-out for the evil foe. God has given us His own righteousness through the blood of Jesus, but the devil wants to take it away. He will tempt us to quit, drop out, cave in and submit to the stress of constant conflict. Flesh and blood are no match for this enemy, and the undisciplined modern man doesn't even make a contest of it.

Our Fathers in the Faith knew that they weren't always at their best. They struggled as we do, and were wounded again and again by the sins and temptations of their day. They needed a regular, systematic renewal, a time to convalesce, a method of self-confrontation. So do we. We need a systematic way to face our personal failures, our lapses into selfishness, our disobedience and apathy to love. Nothing provides a better opportunity for this than individual confession and absolution. In it we confront and confess our specific sins, then gladly listen as God’s Word absolves them one and all, and they are gone. We can't let our faith accounts remain overdrawn, and the window of hope needs regular cleaning. We must forget about our neighbor's faults, our spouse's faults, the president's faults. Which of us has no besetting sin that stalks us day after day? Indeed we are lucky if it is only one. Don't we have enough flesh of our own to crucify, that we must crucify our neighbor’s?

Neither is this an exhibition for the fans. We can't just appear to repent, we can't be merely outward about our renewal. The high calling we have in Christ Jesus is a serious thing. We are involved in a fight to the death. We know about the active power of sin in our lives and we must war against it. We have the grace and power to do so. In baptism God called us into His vineyard, expunged all our transgressions, gave us His Holy Spirit and made our bodies His temple.

In the upcoming Lenten season we will journey with Jesus to the cross. We will watch Him as He walks boldly into the valley of the shadow of death. Like the disciples we can only watch from afar. We will ponder His Great Sacrifice but it remains a mystery to us. A mystery, that is, until we take up the cross of self-denial, and learn to endure all of life’s troubles patiently for Christ’s sake. They contribute nothing to the cause, the Lord’s death was all-sufficient to cancel out every sin, but suffering does help us to comprehend what really happened. Jesus gave up everything for us! He gave up everything, but then He rose again and received the highest honor that heaven or earth could give. To assure us of this He gives us the supernatural food and drink of Holy Communion. In it Christ bestows the benefits and the power of the cross upon us, places it upon our lips, and gives us a foretaste of the feast to come. He seals us for the day of redemption with His grace. The flesh of His sacrifice, the cross of His humility, these strengthen us as we enter the dreaded valley. He has won a glorious victory and received the crown of life, not for Himself but for us. He graciously bestows it upon us. For this He spared no pains, let us also run the race with perseverance in Him. Amen.

Rev. Dean Kavouras

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