Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. (25) Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. (26) So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; (27) but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.
“I do not box as though beating the air,” says St. Paul, and all the boxers in the congregation say … Amen!
OK. I’m conscious of the fact that not everybody here would have chosen this passage as his or her choice text for the sermon this morning, but I am sure that you can appreciate that, for me, this is one of the few times where boxing gets an explicit wrap in the Bible, and when it comes leaping out of the lectionary at us like this it is hard for me to overlook it.
In my defense I note further that this is only the second time I have ever preached on this text. Going back over my sermon notes from some years ago, I noted too that on the last occasion I dealt with this text I actually had a black eye, which served as an excellent opening illustration.
I no longer have a black eye. I’m no longer competing quite as vigorously as I once did. Indeed, I am conscious of the fact that I am a fair bit older and flabbier now than last time I dealt with this passage. Having said that, while I readily acknowledge that my physique is in steady decline, I would like to think that my spiritual six-pack, as it were, is tighter now than it was then!
For that’s the real thrust of the passage, isn’t it? It’s about spiritual training, and the development of the spiritual athlete. And in as much as Paul seems to be drawing upon his own experience as a ring-fighter, his application is to the spiritual arena, where he sees the real fight taking place.
I must say though that I do in all seriousness believe that St. Paul had genuine first-hand experience as a ring-fighter (and quite possibly as a runner too). And if he did it wouldn’t have been in the relatively sanitized style of modern pugilism either. There were no ‘Queensbury Rules’ matches back then. The ‘boxing’ St. Paul would have been familiar with was that practiced in the ancient Pankration – the greatest of the sporting contests of the ancient Greeks.
The Pankration, in St. Paul’s time, was the final climactic event in the early Olympic games. The Games used to conclude with this event – featuring two naked men tearing each other to pieces in centre ring. Legend has it that when Ulysses returned from the Trojan wars his own mother couldn’t recognise him. According to my friend Kon (Vice-president of the Australian Pankration Federation), when the Pankration champion returned from the Olympic games, his own dog couldn’t recognise him.
The traditional Pankration was not a sport for women and children. It was designed for hard men who were just a little bit crazy – and that fits St. Paul to a tee I think. Indeed, it’s one of my quiet hopes that when the Kingdom comes I’ll get the opportunity to do a few rounds with St. Paul. I suppose that might not be everybody’s idea of Heaven but …
The reason I’m so convinced that St. Paul knew the fight game first hand is that he understands what fight training is really all about. It’s about self-discipline.
“Athletes exercise self-control in all things … So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air.” I do the hard yards so that I might develop self-control or self-discipline.
People outside of the fight game generally don’t understand the fact that self-control is the most fundamental thing you learn through fight training. Some think it’s about learning to be more aggressive and uncontrolled. Far from it!
I had to go through this again with a new student I had last Thursday night. She was a 15-year-old girl- not our typical fighter profile! Even so, this girl was very keen and very aggressive. I don’t know exactly what baggage she was carrying with her, but she seemed very keen to start hitting me. Ironically, she wasn’t at all keen to be hit herself. “Couldn’t I just hit you?” she said “without you hitting me back. Shouldn’t I learn how to hit first, and learn how to take a hit a little further down the track?”
“No, no, no” I said. “No one boxes as one beating the air around here”. It’s unbiblical! “We pummel our bodies so that we might enslave them,” I said. Well, I didn’t really quote St. Paul, but I did say to her that learning to get hit was even more important than learning to hit, because it was through getting hit that she would learn self-control.
Fighting is about self-control. It’s about controlling your fear. It’s about learning to function under pressure. It’s about learning how to repress your natural instincts either to run away from danger OR just to hit back mindlessly. It’s about putting yourself at risk and experiencing the pain, but maintaining your focus and keeping your cool under pressure, so that you can make a serious and reasonable response to the force that opposes you.
Let me say that again in case you missed it. Real fight training is about putting yourself at risk and experiencing the pain, but maintaining your focus and keeping your cool under pressure, so that you can make a serious and reasonable response to the force that opposes you.
That’s what real fight training is about, as against the ‘beating the air’ type of fight training, and I’m repeating it because I think that this is more or less what the apostle believes real spiritual training to be.
For let’s face it friends, there are plenty of forms of spiritual training that we can engage in, but I suspect that the vast majority of them don’t prepare us at all for the real fight!
There are plenty of spiritual gurus out there who will take our money and who will teach us how to contemplate our navels or how to separate our minds and hearts from all things painful in this world, but these are not disciplines that will turn us into the sort of spiritual warriors that St. Paul is urging us to become.
Engaging in a cheap and easy form of spiritual training isn’t too hard. We can even spend time reading the Scriptures and admiring their beauty and their historical significance. In itself this is about as valuable as punching the air!
Real spiritual training doesn’t come from reading the Scriptures and admiring them, but from allowing ourselves to be pushed by them, to be changed by those words, so that we put our lives at risk, experience the pain, but make a real and effective response too!
Real spiritual training isn’t just reading Jesus saying “blessed are you poor” and admiring the beauty of His words. It’s hearing those words and then making the deliberate decision to become one of those poor. It isn’t listening to the story of Jesus touching the leper and thinking ‘oh, wasn’t that sweet of Him’. It’s allowing the story to penetrate us so that we begin to think about people we need to touch, barriers that we need to break down, people that we might be able to bring healing to.
That’s why we gather together to listen to the Scriptures read today isn’t it? We don’t gather round to listen to the Bible simply because we believe that this book relates significant historical events that are worth remembering. We read the Scriptures together because we believe that those words still have the power to change us.
That’s one of the reasons we come to church, isn’t it? We’re come for a spiritual workout. OK, we’re come to worship primarily, of course we do. And we’re come to take our place as part of this spiritual community too. I appreciate that. But we do come looking for a bit of a spiritual workout too, don’t we?
We come with a desire to immerse our minds in the Scriptures so that our perspectives on life might be changed, so that our lives might be further radicalized.
We come to be further challenged and inspired as we hear our sisters and brothers share about their spiritual pilgrimages, and so we share our pilgrimage with them so that we might help them lift their game.
We come looking for real opportunities for ministry with one another, and we come looking for people that we can team together with on specific projects designed to bring healing, light and life into our world.
I trust that we do come together in church, looking to flex our spiritual muscles.
I trust we have moved beyond the perspective of that one ex-parishioner who was good enough to tell me why he no longer attended church. He said, “Well, sometimes I’d leave the church feeling worse than when I came in.”
Oh, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve left the fight club gym feeling worse than when I walked in – for every time I’ve stumbled home bruised and bloody and aching all over, but going home and sleeping soundly in the knowledge that I had come home stronger and more ready to handle the fight that lay ahead of me!
“I do not box as one punching the air,” says St. Paul. Why not? Because he takes his fighting seriously. Those who take their fighting seriously train hard, and what’s more they train often.
Serious fighters don’t just turn up to training once per week. They turn up two or three times per week. And serious spiritual warriors likewise tend to find that church once per week is not really enough. They look for other training opportunities – for mid-week Bible-study or prayer groups.
And serious fighters find themselves supplementing those training sessions at the gym with regular sessions hitting the pavement in the early mornings. And serious spiritual pugilists likewise find themselves setting aside time each day for prayer and spiritual reflection.
Now I must be honest with you. Not all the fighters I have had in my stable have taken their fight training that seriously. I can think of two fighters in particular who were both very gifted athletes, but who were convinced that they could get by on a minimum of training. In the old days I still used to let guys like that fight, hoping that the ring experience would change their perspectives on training. But every time I’ve done that the result has been the same: the fighter lost, got hurt, and never came back.
There is a parallel here in the spiritual arena. Don’t underestimate the seriousness of the fight friends! Don’t be naïve about the strength of the enemy. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can live the life Jesus is calling you to without it costing you in every area of your life.
The enemy is strong and the enemy is clever. He will be at you from the moment you leave this building today. He’ll be at you through your car radio on your way home – through pop songs that try to sell you some cheap version of love and through adds that tell you to sell the kids for the sake of some new car. He’ll be at you on the Tele again if you can’t resist to turn it on a little later. He’ll be telling you that ‘Coke’ is what you really want and that you deserve to have more food and drink than you can possibly consume, even while half of Zimbabwe is starving at your doorstep.
The evil one will be at you when you return to work, driving suspicion and bitterness into you through office politics, chipping away at your integrity subtly through the values that you find your forced to espouse because they are the values your company is committed to. He’ll be at you when you get home again, using your lack of focus and exhaustion to bring unnecessary tensions into your most significant relationships so that you gradually become a failure as a father, a mother, a partner and a friend.
He’ll be at you 24 hours per day, and the only way to stand up to the force of evil that opposes us is to fight back, and to fight back hard. And the only way to condition ourselves to become hard enough for that fight is to put in the hard yards in the arena of spiritual training.
I always warn my boys in the Fight Club: ‘Fighting is glorious, but training, after a while, is just plain hard work.’ Perhaps that sums up how some of you are feeling about church and Bible study at the moment. Well, you don’t have to enjoy every session, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be there.
For we didn’t join Christ’s church because of its entertainment value, just as we didn’t decide to follow Jesus because we thought it might be fun.
We look around our world today and we know that the battle for the Kingdom of God is not a fight for the faint-hearted. We know that if we are truly going to follow Jesus in this world that it is going to cost us everything that we have got. But we know, too, that if our resolve is firm and if we have trained hard, if we have developed our spiritual muscle and self-control, if we can endure the pain and keep our cool, that we will survive until the last round is over.
We will hear that final bell, we will see the enemy at our feet, and we will receive that imperishable wreath that the apostle speaks of, reserved for those who have fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith.
Fighting is glorious, but training is just hard work. It’s true. But the other side of the equation is equally true: if we do put in the hard yards in training, we do get to glory!
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, February 15th, 2003.