"And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in
all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible"
(1 Corinthians 9:25).
It is easy to forget that the original audiences of the various epistles
werenít made up of "fairy-tale people" living in some vague "once upon
a time," but of flesh and blood men and women struggling through their
daily lives in real cities with their own histories and customs.
Yes, what the Apostles like St. Paul have to say to these people matters
to us, because we share a common humanity. Fallen human nature and the
human need for salvation from sin are constants throughout the Scriptures
and throughout all of history. At a basic level, fallen Adamís needs remain
our needs today, and they will remain the needs of all people until the
end of the world.
What the Apostles had to say to the infant churches in this city or
that, therefore, they were truly saying to us, in Godís Providence. Nevertheless,
those messages come to us through those infant churches, so that getting
to know them better will often help us to understand the apostolic preaching
of the Gospel better.
In particular this morning, we need to know something about the city
and people of Corinth to follow St. Paulís teaching in our Epistle. For
us, this sort of information is literally "ancient history," but for the
people of the first century, when the two epistles to the Corinthians were
written, it would have been general knowledge. We have the same sort of
general knowledge today about places in our world like New York, San Francisco,
Paris, or London, even if weíve never been to any of them.
So what would almost anybody have known about Corinth in the first century?
People would have known that Corinth was a city on an isthmus of the same
name, a narrow strip of land that separated the Ionian and Aegean Seas.
Ships could be dragged over the isthmus, in a short route between the two
seas that saved many miles of sailing or rowing. This geographic fact made
Corinth wealthy, as a main port connecting Europe and Asia Minor, and it
made her a crossroads of ideas just as much as a crossroads of merchandise.
Corinthian wealth purchased for many Corinthians the leisure time to
argue about the ideas flooding into their city, and to experiment with
a variety of religions. It would not, therefore, have come as a surprise
to Christians in other cities of the time that the Corinthian Church frequently
broke down into a debating society or that St. Paul had to warn them against
Corinthian wealth also paid for a famous festival. Weíve all heard of
the Olympic Games, which began as a festival to honor the gods of Olympus,
but these were not the only games of the ancient world. Almost as important
were the Isthmian Games, held in the spring once every two years at Corinth.
It is these Isthmian Games that form the background of St. Paulís words
this morning: "And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate
in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an
The words "every man that striveth for the mastery" can be translated
even more literally as "everyone who enters into the games." The Corinthians
would have known how serious a business it was to take part in their Isthmian
Games. There was room only for the very best and the most dedicated competitorsóin
other words, only for people who were serious about winning.
And winning didnít begin on the day of the games. It began in long training,
in being "temperate in all things." This sort of "temperance" meant strict
"self-control," both in diet and in exercise. We should also remember that,
in the pagan origins of these games, competition itself was meant to be
an act of worship, so that only a best effort before and during the games
was considered good enough for the gods or as a proper sacrifice to the
The self-denial of the participants in the Isthmian Games moved the
focus of attention in large part from the athletes themselves to the honor
of the gods and to the honor of the city of Corinth. There was a true element
of selflessness in the athletesí striving, and this higher religious purpose
of the Isthmian Games was also represented by the prizes that were given
to the winners. All the winners received was a wreath (originally made
of parsley and later of pine) to be worn on their heads.
A wreath of parsley or of pine is certainly "a corruptible crown," drying
up and withering in a matter of days, but the honorable competitors at
Corinth gave their all to win it. Thus, the question St. Paul is asking
the Corinthians and Christians everywhere is this: "If pagans will discipline
themselves for a meaningless wreath, how much more should those who claim
to follow Christ discipline themselves to receive the crown of life that
Christ has offered to the faithful?"
It is a tough question, but it is a fair question, and it can be translated
into the civic life and culture of any place. Can the Super Bowl, or Mardi
Gras, or St. Patrickís Day really warrant more time and preparation than
living a Christian life? Do we put the same energy into the things of God
that we put into the things of men, which will all pass away like the Corinthiansí
St. Paul offers his own prescription for living: "I therefore so run,
not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air" (1 Corinthians
9:26). These are obviously comparisons with the games at Corinth, too.
The runners in the games are tempted to look over their shoulders to see
what the other runners are doing. When they begin the race they do not
know the outcome, and they may even be uncertain of the course that is
laid out for them.
But these things are not true of faithful Christians. They can know,
because Christ has promised and he is faithful, that if they run after
Christ, he will receive them. They donít need to look over their shoulders,
because it doesnít matter what other people are doing, but only that Christ
has promised life to everyone who gives his all in following him. They
donít need to worry about the course ahead of them, because whatever happens,
if they are faithful, Christ will lead them to victory. He is already the
victor and the winner, so that following him they have taken the victorís
path and are assured of the winnerís crown of glory.
Boxing was also a part of the Isthmian Games. St. Paul fights, then,
as every Christian should fight, not beating the air, but landing his blows
against the enemies of life precisely where and how Jesus Christ has beaten
those same enemies. Christís victory, however, was not an accident, and
so neither can the Christianís victory be an accident. St. Paul explains,
"But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any
means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway" (1
He tells us in the literal Greek, "I beat my body and make it my slave."
Talking about Christ, or even teaching him to others, simply isnít enough
to obtain eternal life. Our fallen human nature fights against our following
Christ and obeying his Father, just as the fear and temptations that Jesus
Christ suffered for us had to be overcome for him to climb the cross and
win our salvation. If God has allowed himself to be tempted and beaten
for our sake, then for his sake we can discipline ourselves to his honor
and glory. We can make every act of our bodies, every act of our lives,
a sacrifice to the glory of the True God we worship. If pagans could do
this great thing for false gods, then we can do it for the True.
Lastly, buried in these images, is the reminder that the spring is not
only the season of the pagan games. It is the season when Jesus Christ
underwent his passion and rose again from death. The Church appoints this
lesson to remind us that our time of training and self-discipline, the
holy season of Lent, is almost upon us. In about seventy days we will celebrate
the resurrection of our Lord from a tomb that he entered on our behalf
in the most terrifying way.
We have before us, then, an opportunity to prove to God, to ourselves,
and to the world that our eternal life in Jesus Christ is worth more to
us than the things of this world, including our own self-indulgence. We
would think a person who had an opportunity to play in the Super Bowl or
in the modern Olympics but who wasted his time and his opportunity in eating,
drinking, and doing whatever he pleased not very admirable at allóa "bum"
Now approaches our time to demonstrate that we can be admirable as the
saints were admirable, and lovable to God in heaven as his Son Jesus Christ
is lovable in his obedience and service. Lent is our time to become both
admirable and lovable in our Christian discipline, with the promise that
our good and gracious Lord will never call anyone who does his best to
follow him "a bum," and with the promise that God in heaven will call those
who follow in the victorious way of his Son Jesus Christ his own and beloved
children. That is a prize beyond all value, and worth our every effort
to win, in the grace and mercy of God.