Dear Fathers, Brothers, Sisters in Christ,
"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 weren’t 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 Adam’s 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 God’s 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. Paul’s 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 we’ve 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 this fault.
Corinthian wealth also paid for a famous festival. We’ve all heard of the Olympic Games, which began as a festival to honour 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. Paul’s 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 incorruptible."
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 competitors—in other words, only for people who were serious about winning.
And winning didn’t 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 gods.
The self-denial of the participants in the Isthmian Games moved the focus of attention in large part from the athletes themselves to the honour of the gods and to the honor of the city of Corinth. There was a true element of selflessness in the athletes’ 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 honourable 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. Patrick’s 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 Corinthians’ little wreaths?
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 don’t need to look over their shoulders, because it doesn’t matter what other people are doing, but only that Christ has promised life to everyone who gives his all in following him. They don’t 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 victor’s path and are assured of the winner’s 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. Christ’s victory, however, was not an accident, and so neither can the Christian’s 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 Corinthians 9:27).
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 isn’t 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 all—a "bum" even.
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.
Father Ed Bakker
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne