Run to Win

Original Date: 
Sunday, October 4, 2015

1 Corinthians 9:24-27 Open Doors 2.0: Run to Win

A Running Phenom?
The first time I ever ran in a cross-country race, I nearly won it.

Now, you know there has to be a story there. Jay and I went to Floyd Valley High School, now a part of the Maurice-Orange City district. We were there for the final years: after us, they knew they couldn’t do any better so they shut the place down. Floyd Valley did not have a cross-country program. But as the school struggled for numbers and finances, they decided to do a sports sharing agreement with nearby Spalding Catholic in Granville. Spalding had cross-country, but not football. So their kids could join us for football, and we could join them for cross-country.

I think this happened during our junior year. Now, I knew nothing about cross-country. I’d never been to a cross-country race in my life. But I cared about basketball, and thought cross-country would be a good way to get in shape. So I went out.

I also talked Jay into going out. (Something Jay has still not forgiven me for. Jay says the only time in his life he seriously contemplated suicide was as we were running on the puddle jumper trail for practice. About 2 and 1/2 miles in we would cross a bridge, and every time he would seriously consider jumping off it. Unfortunately for him, the bridge was only about 10 feet high, so if he had jumped, he probably only would have succeeded in getting wet.)

Like I said, I knew nothing about cross-country. I did no prior training. No summer runs. Nothing. Our coach came from Spalding, and all I remember about him was that his first name was Adolf. (Seriously! I’ve never before met someone named Adolf. Not before, not since. Apparently it was a family name. But still, you gotta wonder what his momma was thinking. He was a really nice guy, but he was careful about never growing a mustache.) Most or our practices consisted of running the puddle jumper trail between Alton and Orange City. 2 miles out, and 2 miles back. That’s it. We had about 6 guys out, so we didn’t have a JV team. We were all varsity.

So, let me tell you about that first race. It was in Sioux City, I think at Sioux City West. It was a really big meet, with teams from big schools all the way down to tiny Spalding Catholic. Well over 100 boys in the varsity race. And, like I said, I knew nothing about cross-country. Really had no idea how a meet worked. Had no idea how to read a course map.

The course was right behind the high school. They had a big bowl behind their gym, and the start was at the top of the bowl, ran down into it, looped around it, did a second loop, and then did a third, smaller loop to finish. Three loops, to run 3.1 miles. Except, I didn’t understand that.

So, we started the race, and I was out there chugging along. I didn’t understand much about pack running, but I suppose I was well behind the pack. And just as I was finishing the first loop, a group of three or four guys passed me. And they turned off the loop. And there was a course official there, and he sort of waved at me to follow them. So I did. And as I ran that second loop, a few more guys passed me. But I noticed it was a lot shorter than the first one. And then, all of sudden, there was the finish line. And I crossed it. And they handed me a medal!

Turned out, I finished at number 14! Not really that close to winning, but considering that there were over 100 runners, and it was my first meet ever, and I had never before even been the fastest runner on my team (I beat them all that day) it was pretty impressive. I wondered if I had a hidden talent for racing that I’d never been aware of before. Coach Adolf wondered if I was some sort of racing phenom. People in the running community were wondering where this kid they had never heard of before had come from. It seemed too good to be true.

It was. Of course, what happened was that as I was finishing the first loop, I was being passed by the leaders who were finishing their second loop. As I followed them, I cut an entire loop, nearly a mile, off my race. And, apparently, everyone behind me at that point also cut a mile off their race (including Jay, to which I say to Jay: You are welcome!) They ended up disqualifying me and giving my medal to the one kid on our team who actually ran the entire 3.1 miles (there’s probably no realistic way he would have finished 14th either).

But the worst part about it all is that I only ran 2 miles while these other guys ran 3.1, and 13 of them still managed to beat me! Cross-country was not my hidden talent.

If You’re Gonna do Something, Do Your Best
Today we are beginning a capital campaign for our church. We are calling it Open Doors 2.0 because it is really a continuation of a capital campaign we did three years ago, which we called Open Doors. For those of you who are new to our church in the past three years (let me say: Welcome! We’re glad you’re here) the point of that first campaign was the building of our lobby. We had a vision to Open Doors for Jesus in Spencer, Northwest Iowa, and Around the World. We were able, with that first campaign, to build the lobby, support some regional ministries, and bless some international mission projects (especially in Haiti and Central Asia). It was a very good campaign, you all, as a church, were very generous.

But, we have some debt. We also had a couple of projects to do to care for our building and make it safer, so the leadership board felt it would be appropriate to do a follow-up campaign. So we’re calling it Open Doors 2.0; and our goal is to raise a bit more than $600,000 over the next three years. (If you haven’t made it to the kick-off meeting in the Harbor, we have a packet of info to get to you).

So as I thought about the sermons that should accompany this campaign, the image that kept occurring to me was that of running a race. The Bible uses that image a lot. It likes to use running as a metaphor for living the Christian life. And the thought that occurred to me was that if we are going to run a race, we ought to run as well as we can.

Here’s the verse that has fired my thinking, the passage that will be our text today, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27:

24Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

The line that stands out to me in this passage is the line at the end of verse 24: Run in such a way as to get the prize. In other words, if you are going to run in a race, you might as well run as well as you can. Run to win. (I’m not saying you should cheat and cut a mile off your race. I still maintain I wasn’t cheating on purpose, I just didn’t know better!) As your mother has probably told you: if you are going to do something, do it well.

And as I thought about that line in relation to Hope Church, this is the thought I had: Let’s make Hope Church the best church it can be. If the race running metaphor can be applied to churches as well as to the individual Christian life, then I think this verse is telling us that we should run to win as a church. We should seek excellence as a congregation. We should care about helping our church to be the most effective church possible.

So that’s our theme for this Open Doors 2.0 campaign. For the next month we’re going to be looking at Bible passages that call us to be the best church we can be.

So let’s look at little closer at this passage from 1 Corinthians 9. I’ve got two questions: What does winning look like? And: How should we run? There are three answers to the first question, and one answer to the second.

Winning Together
First: What does winning look like? What does the Apostle Paul mean when he tells us to run to get the prize? How should we think of this prize? What is it?

For one thing, I need to point out that we win together. This is not about being a better Christian than the person sitting next to you in your pew. It’s not about Hope Church comparing itself to other churches.

This can be a little confusing, because once you start using the language of competition it’s only natural to start looking at where you rank in relation to other runners. Did I finish 14th or should I have finished 114th? Paul can even feed that ranking mentality with the way he phrases verse 24:

24Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.

His point is that in the Olympic Games the athletes are competing for only one prize and so they have to focus on that prize. (The Olympic Games are almost certainly what Paul has in mind here: the original Olympic games took place in Greece—and Corinth is in Greece--every four years without interruption from 776 BC until they were suppressed by the Emperor Theodosius in AD 393. That's 1,169 years. Everyone knew about the games.) But the metaphor doesn’t fit perfectly into Christianity. Christianity is not limited to just one winner. There’s one prize, but many can receive it. In fact, one of the rules of the Christian race is that you help others win. Hebrews 3:13 says:

13But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness.

So when we talk about winning, we’re not talking about being a better Christian than everybody else. We’re not talking about being a better church than the one down the street or in the next community over. We want to encourage everyone on the course to win the prize.

That’s why I phrased the big idea as “Let’s make Hope Church the best church it can be.” The emphasis is on being the best we can be. Winning in this sense doesn’t mean better than others, but the best of ourselves. The goal is excellence.

The Crown that Lasts Forever
Or, again, if we are asking what winning looks like we need to talk about winning a prize that lasts forever. Back to our text in 1 Corinthians 9, verse 25:

25Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.

In the original Olympic Games the prize for winning was a branch of a wild olive tree that grew at Olympia intertwined into a wreath and placed on the winning athlete’s head. That was it. You got a crown of leaves. Talk about a crown that would not last.

Of course, what that crown represented was great achievement. It represented four years of hard training. Just like the point of winning a gold medal today is not the value of the gold in the medal but what that medal represents. For many athletes, the fame that comes from winning can be translated into a nice living. But even the fame of winning gold fades quickly: how many of us remember the names of the man and woman who won the 800 meters at the London games?

The prize Paul is thinking about is not temporary. It’s a crown that will last forever. The closest parallel to this use of the word “crown” in the Bible is 1 Timothy 4:7-8, where Paul talks about the coming to the end of his life:

7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day--and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Paul pictures an award ceremony, at the end of this life, in which Jesus acts as the Judge (think: referee) handing out the Olive wreaths to those who have run a good race.

He’s talking about heaven, of course. The crown or righteousness is what makes us fit to enter heaven. That’s what winning looks like: Being fit for heaven. Not being disqualified, but being found ready for the prize. Having kept the faith, having completed our race, having fought the good fight, the prize is being ushered into the presence of Jesus and being told “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matt. 25:21)

Already Won
Now, we need to be careful here. All this talk of running and fighting and keeping can make it sound like getting into heaven is entirely dependent on our efforts. It sounds like salvation by works. Didn’t we just finish a month-long series about how Christianity is a religion of rest? Didn’t I tell you that getting into heaven is not about how hard you work, but resting in the work that Christ has already done? So what’s with this call to run?

Here’s another thing we can say about what winning looks like, and it is crucially important: We Win What has Already Been Won. Paul’s point is not that we must earn this prize, but that we run to receive what Jesus has already earned.

Let’s go back to our key verse, 1 Corinthians 9:24:

24Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.

The question here is what does Paul mean by the word “get”? Does he mean “get” in the sense of earn? Or does he mean “get” in the sense of receive? I feel confident that he means receive, and I say that because of what he writes elsewhere, in Philippians3:12-14:

12Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

We run to obtain because we have already been obtained. We press on to take hold of that for which Christ has already taken hold of us. We can run to win because the prize has already been won.

Never forget this: Jesus has already run His race, and He’s won. The victory of the cross and the empty tomb is the power by which we are saved. There’s nothing we can do to add to that. Salvation comes from trusting in Jesus.

But Paul is acutely aware of how much he wants his life to demonstrate that he is trusting in what Jesus has done for him. His race is a race to show the glory of Jesus in his life. In other words: the way we live our lives has eternal consequences. Life is a proving ground where we show “who we are, whom we trust, and what we cherish. Eternal life, the upward call, the crown of righteousness—all these hang on what our life says about who we are, whom we trust, and what we love.” (John Piper, Olympic Spirituality, part 2, Aug. 9, 1992)

The point is not that we prove our own strength or stamina, but for us to show the strength of the one in whom we trust. John Piper writes:

The race of life has eternal consequences not because we are saved by works, but because Christ has saved us from dead works to serve the living and true God with Olympic passion (Hebrews 9:14). The race of life has eternal consequences not because grace is nullified by the way we run, but because grace is verified by the way we run….Paul’s running did not nullify the purpose of grace; it verified the power of grace. Eternal life hangs on the way we run and the way we fight not because salvation is based on the merit of works, but because faith without works is dead (James 2:26). Life is a proving ground for whether faith is alive or dead—a proving ground for whom we trust. (Ibid)

This is the totally unique thing about Christianity, and it is totally in line with everything we said about rest: we run to win the prize in the power of having been taken hold of for the prize.

With All Our Might
Now, let’s change gears and ask our second question: how should we run? If we are running to win the prize which has already been won for us, how should we run? In other words: how should we see church and our part in it? How should we think about the kind of church Hope Church should be?

For one thing, we should Run the Way a Winner Runs. In other words, we should run hard. Winners give the race everything they have. We should run in our service for Christ with zeal and passion—not lazy or idle or sluggish or unconcerned. Our key verse, again:

24Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.

When Jonathan Edwards was a student at Yale almost 300 years ago he wrote 70 resolutions to stir him up to run his race. One of them catches the spirit of verse 24. He wrote: "Resolved: to live with all my might while I do live."

"With all my might." That's the practical outworking or the great commandment: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind." Ecclesiastes 9:10 puts it like this: "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might".

This is what I mean when I say we should seek to make our church the best church it can be. This is your mom’s advice that if you are going to do something, you might as well do it well. This is what I feel God is calling us to as we embark on this new capital campaign: Hope Church, we are running a race, let’s run it with all our might.

Language like this is all over the New Testament. Let me throw some verses at you, rapid fire, and just listen to the verbs that call us to give our best to the service of Christ:

Luke 13:24: Strive to enter by the narrow gate. John 6:27: Labor for the food that endures to eternal life. 1 Corinthians 15:58: Be steadfast, immovable always abounding in the word of the Lord. Galatians 6:9: Let us not be weary in well-doing for we shall reap if we do not faint. Ephesians 5:15: Redeem the time for the days are evil. Philippians 3:12: Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. Titus 2:14: Christ gave himself to purify for himself a people zealous for good deeds. Hebrews 6:11: Show earnestness in realizing the full assurance of hope to the end. 1 Peter 1:22: Love one another earnestly from the heart.

Strive, labor, abound, be zealous, be earnest. Run like a winner runs. Be done with half-heartedness and laziness and lukewarmness. This is what Christ has laid hold of you for. You do not run in your own strength. You strive and labor and abound and love in the strength that he supplies. But still, we are called to run with zeal.

Give our best. Pursue excellence. In our individual Christian lives and as a church.

Oh that we would be a church that was always asking: What will make us more effective for the gospel of Jesus Christ? That’s the point of this campaign. Let’s all ask: what is God calling us to that will make Hope Church the best church it can be?

We are in a race. As Christians, we are all running after Jesus. And this is true whether you like physical exercise or not. The Bible is clear: if you are following Jesus you are running.

So let’s run to win. Let’s run to be the best church we can be. Let’s run to show how much we are trusting in our Savior, how great He is, and the beauty of what He has done for us. Let’s run with our eyes on the prize.