1 Cor 9:24-10:5
On Tuesday this past week I turned forty four. Forty four itself is no big deal. It’s still closer to forty than it is to fifty. Admittedly, turning forty was something that was far more notable. There was a sense that when I turned forty, I really couldn’t consider myself “young” anymore. I certainly wasn’t “old,” but at forty years with a wife, four kids, two dogs and a job there was no doubt that I had settled into full blown adulthood.
The fact that I was now certainly an adult, and no longer a young man didn’t really bother me all that much. The factors I just mentioned are all good things. Life married to Amy is way better than being single. The kids are a great blessing … even if they are also a lot of work. I always wanted a dog. And my job is far more than a job. I have a vocation that I love doing and a great place to do it.
Instead, turning forty proved to be a major downer for another reason. All the years previously, I was able to eat as much as I wanted of whatever I wanted. I could do this and nothing changed. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day I would indulge in all of the wonderful holiday eating. I might gain a few pounds. But after New Year’s Day I returned to my normal pattern of eating and everything went back to normal – anything I might have gained just disappeared.
However, almost like clockwork, I turned forty and everything changed. Once I had turned forty, in the month after New Year’s Day I realized that the extra weight wasn’t just disappearing like it always had in the past. The ugly realization dawned on me that for the first time in my life, I was actually going to have to start watch what I eat.
I was going to have to watch what I eat, and I was going to have to exercise. In the past I had run just to stay in shape and because it made me feel good. But now, I actually needed to do it. And I have to confess, recently I haven’t been very disciplined about that. I was running in the fall with the intention that when the winter arrived I would run on our treadmill on days when it was too cold to run outside. However I got sick with a cold. I stopped running … and never started back up again. And so when it warms up, I am determined to get going again. And once I get going, I will be disciplined and stay with it.
In our text this morning St. Paul talks about the discipline needed in running. He does this in order to teach about the Christian life – about the need to be disciplined in the face of a sinful world. During these three Sundays of Pre-Lent, we are making the transition into the season of Lent. There we will focus on repentance and the struggle against sin. This morning, our text helps us to begin to think about this.
Our Epistle lesson this morning drops us right into the middle of a discussion that covers chapters eight through ten in First Corinthians. Paul is addressing a situation that was part of the ancient Greco-Roman world. Most likely, you assume that every day you are going to eat meat in at least one of your meals. If you want meat you go to the grocery store and there you can find a basically unlimited supply. Or you can just go to any fast food place or restaurant.
Things were very different in the first century world. There, people ate very little meat. It was expensive and it wasn’t available everywhere when you lived in a urban setting like Corinth. If you wanted meat – and everyone needed to eat some – there was one regular source. There was a regular supply of meat produced by the sacrificing of animals at pagan temples. The animal’s throat was slit, the blood sprayed on the altar, and then it was also caught in a vessel to be poured on the altar. Then the dead animal was prepared. The bones and fat were burned on the altar as an offering to the god or goddess, while the meat went to the priest and the person making the sacrifice.
Now we are talking about hundreds of animals being slaughtered at multiple temples each day. This produced a surplus of meat. Some was eaten on the temple grounds, in areas that were set aside for this purpose. The rest was sold in the market place.
The problem was that some Christians at Corinth were going to the temples in order to eat. They weren’t sacrificing to the false gods. But they were eating in a religious setting directly connected to paganism. They were doing this because they thought they had everything figured out and that they had it made. From Paul’s letter we learn that they said things like, “All of us possess knowledge.” This knowledge was the fact that “an idol has no real existence,” and “there is no God but one.” These Christians said that since they knew the true God and knew that pagan gods were false gods, they were free to eat at the temples. They could do so because they had this knowledge. And in addition, they were baptized Christians who received the Sacrament of the Altar. They were protected. What could a false god do to them?
In addressing this problem, Paul uses two different approaches. The first is to emphasize that the Corinthian Christian needed to think about how this action would impact other Christians. Some would not understand things in this way. They too would eat at pagan temples, but for them this would be a return to paganism. Paul objects: “And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” Paul says that Christians need to put the welfare of others before themselves.
Paul’s second point is that while pagan gods are not the true God, that doesn’t mean that there is nothing present in paganism. Instead, there are demonic forces at work – and Christians are not to have anything to do with them. What’s more the mere reception of baptism and the Lord’s Supper was not some kind of magic protection for those who chose to be involved with these things.
In our text Paul uses the children of Israel in the Old Testament as an example of how mere possession of God’s gifts did not protect those who willingly disobeyed Yahweh. He says, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink.” But then he immediately adds, “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” Israelite involvement with paganism and its accompanying immorality had lead to their destruction. The same thing would happen to the Corinthians if they kept frequenting the temple of pagan gods.
Paul’s point in the midst of all this is that as we live in a sinful world, Christians can’t just do whatever they want. There are real threats out there and we need to be disciplined as we face them. In our text Paul uses the metaphor of running and athletics in order to explain this. This would have been very natural for Corinthians since Corinth hosted the Isthmian Games – athletic contests that were part of a series of games in Greece that included the Olympic Games. He writes: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, 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. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
So the obvious question raised by our text is this: How’s your running going? Are you living in a way that sees sin for what it is and seeks to avoid it? Do you live as someone who recognizes that the devil is always on the prowl, seeking to work every angle in our culture to separate you from Christ? In the music you listen to, the things you watch, the things you read are you choosing to immerse yourself in a worldview opposed to God?
Earlier in this letter Paul reminded the Corinthians about what they had been and what God had made them to be. He did this so that they would now live as what God had made them. He wrote, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
Like the Corinthians, you were washed, sanctified and justified in your baptism. Those same things are true whenever after stumbling you return in repentance and faith to God’s promise about what he did in your baptism. This same forgiveness is present when your hear Holy Absolution and when you believe in the Gospel – the fact that Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead in order to take away your sins.
You live as people who each week in the Sacrament of the Altar eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus Christ, given and shed for you on the cross. Shortly after our text, Paul goes on to say in questions that assume a positive answer: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” Through this food each week Christ nourishes the new man in you.
Through his Word and his Sacrament our Lord feeds you so that you are able to run, and to run well. This running does require discipline as you seek to avoid sin and to live in ways that show faith toward God and love towards your neighbor. Yet you run knowing that it is the Lord through his Spirit who gives you strength. It is he who sustains you so that you can press on in the faith and take hold of the imperishable wreath of resurrection and eternal life.