I do not box as one punching the air! (A sermon on 1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

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. 25Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. 26So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; 27but 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!

There was a great choice of readings to work with today – from Elisha’s healing of Naaman the Syrian to Jesus’ healing of the leprous man in today’s Gospel reading – but I don’t think anybody will blame me today for choosing this passage from St Paul’s first epistle to the Christians at Corinth – “I do not box as though beating the air” – when today we have baptized a lad of such prestigious pugilistic pedigree and who promises to be such a fantastic future fighter!

“I do not box as though beating the air”!  You might have thought that I had dug through the Scriptures and specifically plucked this passage out today, but it is not so!  This is the reading scheduled in our lectionary, believe it or not!

Evidently it was meant to be – predestined from before the foundation of the world perhaps – that on this auspicious day, when there are so many boxers in the house, that St Paul’s one and only reference to boxing would be read!

Of course, Paul wasn’t referring to the Queensbury-rules-style of boxing with which so many of us are familiar. In St Paul’s day boxing was far more brutal!

There are no shortage of people today, of course, who consider modern boxing to be barbaric. It might help put such things in perspective by comparing the type of sport-fighting to which St Paul was accustomed – namely, the ancient Greek Pankration, which was the original fighting art of the Olympic Games.

Even though it was considered a noble sport, the Pankration was a brutal form of no-rules fighting where too naked men tore away at each other until the one left standing was ultimately able to claim the wreath with which he would be crowned Olympic champion!

Legend has it that when Ulysses returned from the Trojan wars his own mother didn’t recognise him. I’m told though that when the Pankration champion returned from the first Olympics that his own dog couldn’t recognise him!  First-century boxing was a brutal activity, which is why it might strike a to be a strange sort of metaphor to use with regards to the Christian life!

In our culture, being a follower of Christ is often considered to be a bit ‘girly’.  Indeed, not only in our 21st century Australian culture but worldwide, Christianity seems to have taken on a certain feminine character.

I remember our dear friend Father Elias (the colourful Catholic monk who served us so well here as a part of our community a few years back) saying to me that in France now, where his community is based, you are considered a Christian if your wife goes to church!

Now … I am not regretting that it is chiefly women who are now leading the church into the future (and this despite the best efforts of certain elements of the church’s leadership to hold them back) but I am sensing a certain cognitive dissonance between the imagery of the Christian life that is current in our own culture and that which is here being propagated by St Paul.

“I do not box as though beating the air,” says Paul, and his point is that real faith is a hands-on experience, and there is an implicit contrast here between two ways of trying to follow Christ – one that is a hands on, body-on-the-line type of stoush, and another which is something more akin to boxercise, where you appear to be fighting but when, in fact, you’re only punching the air!

Now I’ve got nothing against boxercise, but as a boxing trainer and fight club manager I can tell you that I often have to make the point to our clients that “this is not a boxercise gym”.

Most people do recognise that of course when they turn up to ‘Father Dave’s Fight Club’.  They realise that they are joining a fight club and not a boxercise class, but occasionally people do need to be reminded, because there is a big difference between the two types of gym, and people attend the two for very different reasons, just as people attend church for very different reasons.

Some attend because they want to look good, and because they are interested in self-improvement.  Am I talking about the gym or the church? I’m talking about both!

I can tell you though that in our case people do not join because they want to look good nor simply for the sake of self-improvement. They join because they want to fight!  Am I talking about the gym or the church? I hope, once again, I’m talking about both!

For this is the key difference between the Fight Club and the boxercise gym.  When you come home from Fight Club you sort of expect that you’ll be a little bruised and bleeding.

As most of you would know, I’ve been training pretty hard of late, and I’ve been coming home bruised and bleeding pretty regularly.  Indeed, as I look out on the congregation today I think I am in a reasonably unique position as a preacher, as I am looking at most of the people who are responsible for those bruises and blood loss! There’s quite a few of you in fact!

I’ve had the privilege of doing quite a few rounds lately with my brother, Lovemore, and I can tell you that I have come away bleeding on every occasion, though I must add that the only person who has actually stopped me recently (that is, the only person to have actually forced me to stop fighting and take time out before being able to continue) is young ‘Bruiser Dayal’ (16-year-old Irena).

Anyway, the point is that the path of Christian discipleship is likewise a bloody experience.  We wish it were not that way but it is.

We wish we could love others without having to make real and costly sacrifices but we cannot.

We wish that we could speak out against injustice without having people ridicule us, malign us, and deliberately misrepresent us, but we cannot.

We wish that it were possible to care for the poor without having to impoverish ourselves but it is not.

We wish we could care for the homeless without having to open our own homes or sacrifice our own privacy, but it is just not possible.

We wish that people weren’t so complicated, and that all our friends and family and children needed was just a few wise words, after which they would sort themselves out, but instead it turns out that family and parenthood and even friendship itself is a life-long commitment where those we love never seem to get things entirely right and where nothing ever seems to get ultimately resolved and where we are nonetheless expected to continue to pour ourselves out without ever necessarily seeing any results for our efforts.

We wish that Christian discipleship was not like this but it is!  We wish that fighting the good fight was something more like a boxercise class, where we can go through the motions, look good, improve ourselves, and do so at a minimal personal cost, but this is just not possible. The path to glory is soaked with blood.  Am I talking about the Fight Club or the church? Both!

I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it – I do the training.  I put in the hard rounds. I put in the work in the gym and in the ring – so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

The path of Christian discipleship, like the path of the athlete, can be a hard and lonely path.  And just as the boxer needs to train properly if she is going to survive in the ring, so the follower of Jesus needs to take her training seriously, to focus, and to put in the hard yards if she is going to make it to the final round.

I know that there are a lot of theories going about as to how best to accomplish that training (and I’m talking both about the Fight Club and the church).

In the world of boxing there are a lot of theories as to how to best prepare for a fight, and I’ve heard most of them. Most recently though, in my own training, I’ve been taking my lead from a wise indigenous friend and boxing trainer who told me that I should simply follow the example of the indigenous fighters of this country in my fight preparation.

Our indigenous sisters and brothers tend to excel in boxing like no other group in the country and this guy swears that all his indigenous fighters do in preparation for their fights is two things – they run and the box.

So that’s all I’ve been doing for the last 12 months in my own fight preparation – I’ve been running and boxing (trying to box at least 10 rounds per night and run a minimum of 10kms/day, six days per week).  And I have found that it works!

And at the risk of being simplistic, I want to suggest that, spiritually speaking, there are really only two things we need to focus on in preparing ourselves for the spiritual fight too, and they are ‘prayer’ and ‘praxis’.

Prayer and praxis – those are the keys I believe.

Prayer is what we are doing now – meeting for prayer and worship, and we can’t expect to progress far as a Christian warrior unless we spend time with the commander in prayer and worship.

And praxis is the other key element in the training program.  Praxis means doing.  It means getting our hands dirty and vigorously doing the work of Christian ministry – feeding the poor, working for justice, sharing the Gospel of hope, and doing all the ordinary, every-day works of love that Christ calls us to do.

I often reflect on the words of Jesus recorded in John chapter 8: “If you hold to my teaching … you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (vs. 31-32)

Doing the truth leads to knowing the truth (rather than the other way round).  The more time we put in to actually doing the work of Christian ministry, the more we understand of God and of ourselves, and the stronger we become as Christian pugilists, just as the ring-fighter, the more times he boxes, the better boxer he becomes.

Prayer and praxis – that’s the exhortation I want to finish on today. That might not sound like much of a climax for the sermon but hard work is the flip-side of glory!

I always warn the boys in the Fight Club, ‘winning a fight is glorious, but training, for the most part, is just hard work.’  Perhaps that sums up how a lot of us feel about church at the moment too?  Well, we don’t have to enjoy every session, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be there.

For we didn’t follow Christ for His entertainment value, or because we wanted to look good or simply because we wanted to improve ourselves. If those were our goals we would have joined the boxercise class at the local punching-the-air boxercise gym.  No! We knew what we were letting ourselves in for when we chose to follow Christ. We knew we were getting ourselves into a fight.

For we don’t have to look to hard around our world today to know that there’s a war going on, and it’s 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.  But we know, too, that if our resolve is firm and if we train hard, if we develop 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.  Training is hard, but victory is glorious.  Amen!

First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, February 12 2012. To hear the audio version of the sermon click here

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.


About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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