Isn’t today exciting! The Bengals are in the Superbowl! Many thought they would not get by the Titans, and then they did. Many thought they would not get by the Chiefs, and then they found a way! And now we have to face the Rams! Some Browns fans do not want to see the Bengals win simply because they are division rivals. But I took it personally when OBJ left the Browns and got picked up by the Rams. As a Browns and Bengals fan, I have a double motivation to see the Rams get beat and beat badly! Plus, how can you not love Joe Burrow? A solid Ohio boy from Athens. It is an exciting day for Cincinnati and the state of Ohio.
On top of all the excitement about the Bengals, we are also in the middle of the Winter Olympics. I watched the opening ceremonies and felt a wave of excitement when Team USA entered the arena representing our country’s best athletes. Now, I’ll have to admit, when it comes to watching the Olympics live, I have a hard time doing it, especially any type of skating. To know in the back of my mind that these athletes have trained their whole lives to get to this point and then have something go wrong, like a slip or fall on the ice, makes me feel horrible. I’d rather watch curling, hockey, or snowboarding than wince through figure skating competitions.
Since we are talking about sports, I am also a huge Cleveland Cavaliers fan, and I just got to say that they are killing it right now! They are playing some exciting basketball.
With all that said, I want to give you a little background on our passage today. Paul was a church planter and went on several trips to plant churches throughout the ancient world. You can read about his journeys in the book of Acts. In fact, in Acts 18, we can see Paul’s work in the city of Corinth establishing a church and empowering them to grow. He most likely wrote this letter from Ephesus on his third missionary journey sometime between A.D. 54-56. Paul received some bad news on how the church was doing, which inspired this letter.
Now, some interesting things about Corinth are that they loved their athletes. They sponsored the biannual Isthmian Games, which were second in importance only to the Olympic Games. They held these games only 10 miles from Corinth so that most people would be very familiar with athletic training for the games. Many would also be audience members of the games. Paul was in Corinth in A.D. 50-52, so he would have been around for the Isthmian Games held in the Spring of A.D. 51.
The games would include six events: wrestling, jumping, javelin and discus throwing, and racing and boxing, which Paul alludes to in our passage. Athletes for the Olympic games went into strict training for at least ten months to qualify. It is most likely that requirements like this also existed for the Isthmian Games, which would explain Paul’s reference to strict training and disqualifications. Winners would receive a crown made out of pine or celery, which would be perishable.
Now let’s talk about the Corinthian church! Paul begins his letter in a typical fashion with some encouragement. Paul says that the church does “not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.” Once he encourages them, he launches into some of the problems he hears about: the divisions being created by who is following who: Paul, Apollos, or Peter. Paul resisted the desire of those to make celebrity pastors out of them and take their focus off of Jesus. Instead, he wanted to refocus their attention on Christ alone, with everyone serving the same person. Paul then launches into addressing issues related to sexual immorality, lawsuits being thrown at each other among believers, questions about singleness and marriage, and food sacrificed to idols. The church was couched in one of the largest cities within the Roman province. It was also one of the most wicked cities of ancient times, and the lines between the church and the culture were getting blurred. While many heathen religions practiced in Corinth, the most well-known was the worship of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. The temple of Aphrodite stood on the most prominent point of the city and housed one thousand temple prostitutes. So, you can see why it was important for Paul to make a massive distinction between how the culture defined love and how God defined it. Finally, we get one of the most famous chapters in the Bible of 1 Corinthians 13, which lays out the case for what Christ-like love looks like in contrast to the pagan culture’s abuse of it. This is a great letter to read all the way through as it has so much to say that was relevant to the church in Corinth and our modern-day church.
I want us to focus on one passage in this letter found in chapter 9, verses 24-27. As we begin to pick apart this passage, we need to understand that the church in Corinth was getting very lazy with their faith. They allowed all these sins, encouraged by the culture, to impact the church community. And it was having a very negative effect on them. It was causing a lot of division, selfishness, and immorality. What is interesting about Paul is he takes something very popular within the Corinthian culture, athletics, and he relates it to the spiritual development of the believers.
He begins this chapter by talking about our freedom and rights as believers. As Americans, we like those topics! We subscribe to the freedoms we have outlined in the Constitution and our rights as explained in the Bill of Rights. But Paul gets down to the fact that just because we may have the freedom and rights to behave a certain way, it does not necessarily mean we should. We need to consider what is best for everybody in the body of Christ. We need to have a team mentality. We need to consider the greater good in light of the church, not just my freedom and rights. The way I live my life in the context of the community will speak volumes more about what I believe than just by what I say.
Paul explains in the first part of chapter 9 that he is willing to give up any rights he has not to let anything hinder the gospel, which is the good news of Jesus Christ. In fact, he says that he is willing to make himself a slave to everyone to win as many as possible to Jesus. Unfortunately, now we live in a time where there is a rise in the worship of Nationalism within our country. People who say they claim the name of Christ, but are more interested in worshiping the idea of America instead of living into the fullness of the kingdom of God. This is very dangerous and must be avoided. Our loyalty needs to be Christ and Christ alone.
Now we come to v. 24, where Paul reflects on their love of sport and how this can help us understand our motivation to develop our spiritual lives. He says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?” We are seeing this play out today with our beloved Bengals and Team USA at the Olympics! Many athletes train for their particular sport, and many compete. But only one person or team will get the ultimate prize: The Gold Metal or the Vince Lombardi trophy. While Paul is getting his audience to think of all those who like to run, whether competitively or casually, he then tells his Corinthian church to “Run in such a way as to get the prize.”
Believe it or not, I have run the Flying Pig Half-Marathon 3 times. Did I run to win the prize? To be the first to cross the finish line? No way. That would have involved extremely strict and disciplined training. My goal was just to cross the finish line in one piece. The first year was scary because it was my first time doing it and because it started in the middle of a storm. So, I started the race soaking wet! The second time was a little easier because it was a beautiful morning, and I was familiar with the race now. The third time I did not train as well, and my time showed. Thousands of people run in the Flying Pig just to say they did it. Everyone wins a medal and gets awesome gifts and food at the end of the race, but only one person can claim 1st place. Paul tells us to look at our spiritual lives with that kind of attitude. Don’t be sub-par, average, mediocre, or even halfway decent. Run in such a way as to win the prize!
Paul says that “Everyone 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.” Now I have helped raise four wonderful kids of mine. And as they grew up, I watched their rooms pile up with trophies, awards, certificates and pictures, and posters of all the things they were involved in throughout their school years. All of that had meaning and significance for them during that time of their lives. Now, most of that stuff has either been boxed up and put on a shelf or thrown out. We have even seen star athletes who at one time won a ring or medal or trophy take their award and try and sell it to make ends meet when they fell on tough times. So, the accolades or awards we may receive at the moment may lose their significance over time. But Paul here talks about a crown that we will receive from Christ that will last forever! This is the motivation we need to put in the forefront of our minds to live a Christian life!
Paul finishes out this passage by saying, “Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, 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.” He makes several points here:
1) STAY FOCUSED! Don’t run aimlessly or beat the air. Be focused on who you are in Christ and why we are here. Jesus gave us the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. We are to love God and love others. We are to go out into the world and make disciples of all nations. We are to live into what it means to be the people of God. What rights we may think we have because of our national citizenship or because of our freedom in Christ are rubbish if we are using those freedoms to cause any hindrance to the way of Christ. Remember! Paul also wrote to the church in Philippi saying that “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross.” Jesus gave up all his rights as God and allowed himself to be born human. He lived the perfect life we were unable to. And then he went to the cross to deal with our sins once and for all. Jesus was focused on what he had to do. We are invited out of our laziness, where we tend to blur the lines between the world and the church. We are invited to take the faith seriously and strive to live fully into it as if we were training for gold in the Olympics.
2) BE DISCIPLINED! Paul uses the idea of the physical discipline of an elite athlete in relation to our spiritual development. We need to be disciplined so that we are not disqualified from the prize. If you are paying attention to what is going on in the American church, there are so many religious leaders who have disqualified themselves by being unfocused and undisciplined. Their ministries may have appeared to do good at first but are now leaving a path of destruction with people leaving the church and abandoning the faith. This has led to a wave of people deconstructing what they have been taught as they are left being disillusioned about the faith. This is not good.
So how do we stay focused and disciplined like an elite athlete? I watched videos of what basketball G.O.A.T. Lebron James and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps would do to train for their sports. Needless to say, that in our day and age, they are on a level that only a few will ever achieve. I did not want us to leave here discouraged that we could not achieve that level of spiritual training. But, what can we do to get started?
Have you ever noticed the video that runs at the beginning of the service? It highlights all five purposes of our church. All five commitments that each member commits to when they join the church. If you were not here at the beginning of the service, let’s run it right now!
Let’s talk about what things we can commit to in order to “run to win the prize.” The most basic thing some of you need to do for your first step is to simply become a MEMBER. With membership, you enter into a community of faith that will inspire, encourage and uplift you to grow spiritually. Also, you would take on some “basic training” commitments.
The first is to be here in attendance as a WORSHIPPING member. Our online presence will not go away. It is a new reality for most churches now. It has become a necessary part of what a church needs to offer. But here is my beef! I believe that there are people who have gotten comfortable watching their church service online because of the pandemic we have gone through. In reality, they are healthy and capable of attending church. However, there is something to be said about being present as a body of believers, worshiping and praying together that online ministries will not fully achieve.
The next commitment is towards making sure you are GROWING spiritually. This is primarily done by getting connected to a small group. We practice spiritual accountability and spiritual practices such as prayer, Bible study, and dialogue in small groups. I am starting a small group this week which you are all welcome to join. The study will be on a book called “A Pray in the Night” by Tish Harrison Warren. If you are going through a tough time, this book is definitely for you as we will explore themes of doubt, insecurity, suffering, and vulnerability. We also will have Lenten small group studies starting at the end of the month. If you want to get plugged into a small group right away, please see Pastor Tracy. She will take care of you.
The next commitment is to be SERVING in a ministry. We have multiple ministries every month, serving people in downtown Cincinnati, Goshen, and Milford. In addition, we have ministries that we are connected to within Loveland that offer opportunities all the time. Also, we have three mission trips this Summer to Chicago, Puerto Rico, and Alaska. Chicago is primarily for our Junior High teens, Puerto Rico is for our Senior High teens, and Alaska is for our college and 20 to 30-something people. We need adults for all three trips. These are excellent opportunities to put your faith into practice as a community of faith.
The next commitment is to be a GIVING member. If one thing is true about Epiphany, you are generous when needed. But everybody should be giving regularly. This helps support the church and all the missions we can connect with locally, nationally, and internationally. If you are not a regular giver, there are ways to help you begin to give a tithe and be faithful stewards of your finances. Please call the church, and we will connect you with Mitch, who can help you become a regular giver.
The final commitment is to be an INVITING member. We are all challenged to bring in at least one new person each year. Now, I don’t usually like to brag about worship leaders because I have always felt it was important to keep everyone’s egos in check as a pastor. But let’s consider Corbin for a second. He came on as the Contemporary worship leader. But look at what he has done in the area of inviting. He has invited Tori, Bobby, Audra, Ian and Ivory, and others to become connected to our church. We have been blessed by all of them as well as those on the team who have been long-time faithful band members. But imagine if we were so excited about what is going on here that we were inviting in new people all the time to plug into all the opportunities available here. Many of you have done an incredible job inviting others to celebrate the big game tonight as many gather to watch the Bengals disappoint the Rams, hopefully. What if we had that same enthusiasm about bringing people into our community of faith here at Epiphany?
So, this is basic training, folks. Let’s get on board and practice our faith in such a way as to win the prize. Let’s stop wandering aimlessly or beating the air and instead focus our attention on Jesus, the author, and perfecter of our faith. Let’s rally together as a faith community to practice our spiritual disciplines of worshipping, growing, serving, giving, and inviting. And this is basic training people. There is so much more we can all be doing to expand the Kingdom of God in our context. So, get excited about your faith. Get motivated towards growth. And get committed as a member to help make a difference.