1Cor. 9:24 ¶ Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.
1Cor. 9:25 Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.
1Cor. 9:26 So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air;
1Cor. 9:27 but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.
I wrote about this a couple of years ago but the scripture grips me again. Paul was talking to the Corinthians about the need for spiritual discipline in their lives. He spent quite a bit of time around the athletes of the day for there was a major sports arena between Athens and Corinth. Paul, as a tent maker would have been kept busy at such events making tents or repairing the tents of different participants. Can't you just envision the brightly colored tents surrounding the stadium where each participating athlete stored their equipment and made themselves at home during the events? And there was Paul, in the midst of it all.
Paul had watched as these racers had disciplined their bodies day in and day out. They were cautious about everything that they ate, they exercised regularly and would push their bodies to run further and faster than ever before. And all of this was to win a prize -- a wreath of olive leaves! Multitudes of athletes participated and were willing to show this type of self-discipline and yet, only one would win the prize.
And now Paul switches scenes and brings us to the life of the believer. The hope of winning for the believer was much greater than that of an athlete. Everyone can win the prize -- and if that is so -- why wouldn't we want to bring self-discipline to the spiritual life. Paul is making an example of himself. He knows that he must show self-discipline in his daily life so that he can continue to live the life of faith.
In the west we will soon celebrate Palm Sunday, a day in which the Church celebrates Christ's entrance into Jerusalem. The crowds were chanting and the palm branches were being waved as he entered the city to prepare for the final lap of his mission. Jesus, the incarnate one, knew very much what it meant to be human and to live life in the flesh. Jesus Christ is our ultimate example when it comes to self-discipline. He was going to face the greatest challenge of his life and we know that later in this week he will struggle with the temptation to run from what he knows lies ahead. And yet, he knows that he is in this for the long haul with his eyes on eternity and the salvation of all humanity. He showed incredible self-discipline as he began the holy week and then ran with perseverance the final lap of the race -- in incredible pain and humility.
No one ever promised that the Christian life was going to be easy. There are the uphill runs and the flat open wide territories, but all must be run with perseverance. As followers of Jesus Christ we must be willing, just as Paul was, to discipline ourselves. Just as the athlete cannot survive without training his/her body, neither can the Christian survive without discipline for the spiritual life. How much time did Jesus spend in prayer during that final lap? He had to go to the Father again and again for the strength and power to make it through that final lap. If Jesus needed that kind of help and support -- how much more so do we? As we run the laps of life we need sustenance. This will only come from the One who provides all that we need for life and that can only happen as we set-aside time to be in his presence in prayer and in Scripture reading and study. We are not asked to run this race without the training of a skilled athlete. However, if we take off and run without working at getting into shape we will slip and fall laying on the ground in agony.
My oldest daughter and her husband ran a half-marathon this last Sunday. For them to prepare for this event they had to train for months. Every day they ran a different distance as they trained their body for what would lie ahead. They were careful about what they ate and drank and studied up on just the right things to do. All of this was in an effort to run the race well!
Just as Palm Sunday was a great high in the life of Jesus, we will celebrate highs, but then came passion week, and so come our weeks of distress. They will come and we need the grace of God to take us through. The grace of God was with Christ because he continually disciplined himself to be with the Father. If we are to make it through the final laps of life, we must keep our eyes on Jesus Christ, the one who has already run this race before us, and is cheering us on into his presence. The grace of God will sustain us as we dwell in his holy presence. Make time for him -- and he will bring us through.
Lord, please help me in the weaknesses of my flesh to bring them to your feet, to be graced by you as I run this race. Amen.