1 Cor 9:24-10:5
Next Sunday the Kansas City Chiefs will play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Super Bowl. The two teams will compete for the National Football League championship. They will be each be trying to win the symbol of that championship, the Lombardi Trophy. Officially known as the Vince Lombardi Trophy, the trophy is twenty two inches high and weighs seven pounds. It depicts a football in a kicking position on a three concave sided stand, and is made of sterling silver.
The trophy didn’t receive its current name until Super Bowl V. We are all familiar with the scene of the trophy being presented to the winning team’s owner on the field after the game. However, this practice didn’t begin until twenty five years ago at Super Bowl XXX.
In past years this presentation was part of a great celebration as the trophy was passed around among the winning players who hoisted it into the air and often kissed it. The result is rather amusing, since the trophy which began the presentation with a pristine silver finish, soon becomes covered with smudges through all of the handling. I suspect that in the present situation of Covid, the whole thing will be quite different this year. It’s hard to imagine that the NFL is going to allow the trophy to be passed around to be touched and kissed by dozens of people.
A symbol of victory given to the winner of an athletic contest is nothing new. It goes back to ancient times, and is mentioned in our text this morning from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. He refers to a prize and a perishable wreath. Corinth was the site of the Isthmian Games – athletic contests just like the Olympic Games that were held in Olympia, Greece. At the time of Paul in the first century A.D., the winner was crowned with a wreath made out of celery.
In this section of 1 Corinthians, Paul is in the midst of addressing a significant issue faced by the early Christians. The primary source of meat in Greco-Roman cities came from animals sacrificed at pagan temples. Often, the temples had banqueting facilities on site where people could hold celebrations.
There were Christians at Corinth who believed that since they were baptized and were receiving the Sacrament of the Altar that they were free to eat meat sacrificed in these pagan settings. They thought that faith in Christ gave them the protection to do as they pleased.
However, the apostle is warning the Corinthians that this is not how life in the faith works. At the beginning of our text, Paul says that he knows full well that it doesn’t work this way for him either. Paul has just described how he has given up freedoms he has in order to win people to Christ. He says, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.” But even this faithful work does not mean the Paul can do whatever he wants.
Paul begins our text by saying, “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.” Paul uses athletes competing as a metaphor for talking about the Christian life. The apostle says that there is need to for self-control in the Christian life in the face of sin. In fact he says of himself, “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.”
Paul wants the Corinthians to know that they can lose what they have. And what they have is an amazing gift of God’s grace in Christ. In the first chapter the apostle reminded the Corinthians that most of them were nothing as far as the world was concerned. He said, “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;
God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
God had called the Corinthians to faith, and the apostle went on to say: “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” Through faith and baptism the Corinthians – and you – have been joined to the saving work of Jesus Christ. You are “in Christ” – the One who died on the cross bearing your sins, and then rose from the dead on the third day. Because of this, God’s saving action in Christ to put all things right, he has made you holy in his eyes. Because of this saving work of Jesus, you have been redeemed – you have been freed from slavery to Satan and sin.
We are sinners. But through baptism the saving death and resurrection of Christ has freed us from sin. As Paul says in chapter six, “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.”
Paul’s words this morning are something that we need to hear. We face the exact same threat as the Corinthians. True, none of us have to wonder about eating meat sacrificed to idols. But the same basic question presses in on us in ways that Christians have not experienced since the first four centuries of the Church.
The question is whether we will accept the belief of the culture around us. The world today says that there is no such thing as truth. Instead, you as an individual must decide what is true for you. The individual is god, limited by no external law or standard. You are master of your own life and are free to believe what you want, and do what you want. And the place this becomes most obvious is the exact same place it was seen in the first century. The world says that you can use sex in any way you desire. It defends abortion at all costs because that is essential for continuing in this so called sexual freedom.
Paul warns the Corinthians – and us – that you can’t have it both ways. You can’t think and act like the world, and remain a child of God. He uses Israel’s experience in the Old Testament in order to make this point as he writes: “For I want you to know, 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.”
Just like Christians in baptism, Israel had been miraculously saved by God through the water of the Red Sea. Just like Christians in the Sacrament of the Altar, God had miraculously fed them with manna from heaven and water from a rock. Yet then Paul adds, “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.”
Simply being part of God’s people and experiencing his saving miracles had not saved many in Israel when they chose to disobey God. Right after our text the apostle writes, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” Paul says the judgment that came upon Israel at different times are examples that teach us. Referring to Israel’s worship of the golden calf, Paul says, “Do not be idolaters as some of them were.” He writes, “We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day” – a reference to how Israel became involved with the daughters of the pagan Moabites.
Paul recounts several examples like this before finally saying, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” Israel’s history teaches us that the people of God cannot embrace the idolatry of the surrounding culture. We cannot take up the culture’s views about sex. Choosing to ignore and reject God’s will eventually leads to rejection and condemnation by God.
Paul urges us not to do this because we know that we are people upon whom the ends of the ages has come. We know the that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has begun the end times. In the resurrection of Jesus, the resurrection of the last day has already started.
Because of what God has done in Christ, we are now God’s people. We are holy in God’s eyes because of Jesus. Paul began this letter by writing, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.”
As we call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, our text today reminds us that we must continue to engage in the struggle to resist the idolatry of the world – the idolatry of self – and its sexual immorality. Instead as a new creation in Christ, we seek to live in God’s ways.
We listen to God’s Word, for through its teaching and admonition the Holy Spirit represses the old Adam to aid us in the struggle again sin. Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar are God’s gifts by which he strengthens us for this struggle for through them we continue to receive the forgiveness Christ has won for us. Through Christ’s gifts we receive the grace of the Holy Spirit’s work by which we are sustained in the faith. We live in the knowledge that through the work of the Spirit we are seeking to live as what God has made us to be. We are striving to remain part of the forgiven people of God who will receive the crown of eternal life.