Sunday, February 12: The Leper and the Olympian

A family sits on a sofa in front of the TV, holding their lottery ticket. As the announcer lists the winning numbers, the parents grow increasingly excited. Each one matches. 12. 37. 9. 14. They are so close to winning. They are already jumping for joy when the last number confirms that they are in fact winning millions upon millions of dollars. Their daughter, however, looks bored. As her parents raucously celebrate, she rolls her eyes and pops a videocassette out of the VCR. It’s labeled “The Day We Won.” The camera zooms out to reveal that the family is reliving their winning moment in a lavish mansion.

The message of the advertisement is, of course, that people really do win the lotto, and you should run out right now to buy a ticket.

For a society that likes to tell its kids that winning isn’t everything, competitions with clear winners and losers are everywhere. Last week, the Steelers won the Superbowl. On any given night of the week, someone wins a date (or even a wife) on a reality show. The Winter Olympics began on Friday, so for the next few weeks, we will see the best athletes in the world compete for gold metals in figure skating, snowboarding, curling, and other games people who live in cold places invented to keep busy until spring. The music industry is still recovering from the Grammys extravaganza, and the members of the Academy are currently deciding if Brokeback Mountain should sweep its categories at the Oscars.

Many of us participate in competition ourselves. Ben and I play racquetball a couple times a week, and we’re remarkably well-paired opponents. I was doing really well earlier this week, but as soon as I started thinking about how my three-out-of-four game lead would make for a great sermon illustration, I lost my concentration and my winning streak.

People like competition. Sure, it’s an honor to be nominated and it’s an accomplishment to run the marathon, but we’re all paying attention to the name in the envelope and the first guy who crosses the finish line.

Entertainment ordered by the rules and regulations of competition is as old as civilization. Winning, and losing, are universal. So it’s no surprise that Paul uses a sports metaphor to illuminate the nature of Christian discipleship. Like a modern man trying to express himself by alluding to a homerun at the bottom of the ninth, Paul recasts the athletic race for a holy purpose. “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. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.”

I’ll admit—on first reading, this scripture is a bit of a puzzlement to me. Didn’t Jesus say something to the effect of “the last shall be first”? Since when is the Christian faith about racing past the slow folks to grab the prize first? Aren’t we supposed to be loving and serving the least of these, not leaving them in a cloud of dust?

The context of Paul’s aerobic spin on the Christian faith is crucial. The context helps us understand that Paul is not rejecting a gospel of grace for a gospel of power. The last thing Paul would ever imply is that we win God’s love by merit of our own strength and might. Finding liberation in the gospel of Jesus Christ is certainly a prize, but it is not one we earn.

In the ninth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is talking about the freedom and responsibility of receiving the good news of God’s work in Jesus Christ. The gift of salvation means that Christians are free. Free from the shackles of sin. Free from the religious duty to follow the Law of Moses. And the big question is this: what will the Corinthian Christians do with their newfound freedom?

Anyone who’s encountered a college freshman knows that too much freedom too fast can have an unpleasant effect on one’s decision-making muscle. Freedom is intoxicating, and can cripple our judgment. Paul knows this. He knows that this is true about himself, and his brothers and sisters in Christ. And his response is to make himself a servant, bound by the holy burden of sharing the Good News of God’s love with all people. He desperately hopes that all might know the grace of Christ, and his life and ministry are shaped by this hope.

These are the circumstances in which Paul encourages the Corinthian Christians to run to win the race. This is how Paul works; he approaches ministry with unflagging energy, passion, and drive. He races to Ephesus and Philippi, Corinth and Caesarea, with the perseverance and concentration of an Olympic athlete, spending every waking hour devoted to making Disciples of all nations—and becoming a better Disciple himself.

This image of Paul’s is one of strength and self-control. But we are encouraged to be strong and faithful not for our own self-interest, but for the sake of the gospel.

Winning this race means serving God and God’s creation with our whole hearts. It means bearing witness to the gospel of love, modeling our words and actions after the perfect example set by Jesus.

Paul, though humble, is an impressive Christian. His ministry had an enormous impact on the spread of the gospel in the century after Jesus’ death. Paul really is something of a Christian Olympian, a ministry superstar. But it is good to remember where he came from. Paul did not start out as a disciple of Christ. Paul started out as Saul, a persecutor of Christians. He was the worst of the worst, dragging Christians off to prison, and advocating the murder of Stephen the martyr. An observer not well-versed in the ways of the Holy Spirit would take a good look at Saul and bet that this man would never see the light. But he saw the light all right—it bonked him on the head on the road to Damascus.

Saul was anything but a holy athlete when he encountered Jesus on that dusty road. He was a weak and mean-spirited man, enslaved to the powers and principalities that would suffocate the gospel. He was reviled and mistrusted.

Saul was not so different than the first leper Jesus cleansed in the gospel of Mark. The leper was the worst of the worst in Jewish society. Leprosy wasn’t seen as just another illness. It was in a wholly different category than a fever or paralysis. Leprosy made one unclean. It barred one from any participation in religious life. If you were touched by a leper, you became unclean as well—even if you did not contract the debilitating and painful condition. Lepers ended up living in the town dump, completely alienated from the community. Saul might as well have been a leper to the early Christians. Just as lepers endangered the physical and spiritual health of the Jewish people, Saul was a danger to the newborn church. And yet both the leper and the persecutor were touched by Jesus. Both were cleansed and made whole—the leper from his pain and alienation, and Paul from his hatred and weakness. Both were given new life, and were so filled with gratitude that they could barely contain their enthusiasm for the faith. The leper and the persecutor became evangelists of Olympic caliber, proclaiming the redeeming love and healing power of Jesus Christ.

Paul coaches Christians to approach their faith as seriously as runners approach a race. I know from personal experience what its like to run a ten kilometer race with no training. It’s slow, and painful, and you get asthmatic just trying to finish. You don’t even consider the possibility of winning. The athletes who gathered in Turin this week have spent years perfecting their sports. They have run drills and rehearsed routines. We’re supposed to be that devoted to the gospel! We’re called to the life of discipleship, and there’s no such thing as a couch potato disciple. There are too many prayers to pray and people to serve. There is too much infinite depth to the heart of God to be half-hearted about his Kingdom.

We might be weak now. The race might seem too long, the challenge too steep. But through the grace of God we have been given the gift of faith. Grace isn’t simply an invitation to sit on our laurels. It is an invitation to a more abundant, generous, and purposeful life. May we run this holy race to win!

On your mark, get set, go.

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