Cross Training by Rev. L. John Gable
August 28, 2016
So, have you recuperated from the Olympics yet? Just watching them can be exhausting, much less competing in them. They truly are a magnificent spectacle, not only of sport, but of human dedication and achievement which is nothing short of awe-inspiring. ABC’s Wide World of Sports had it right when they spoke of “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” We witnessed it all during these past several weeks. Are you aware that the Greek word for game (these contests) is “agon”, as in agony? As we’ve seen these games are not just fun and play, they are struggle and fight and testing which requires dedication and discipline and an unwavering desire to finally win the prize. For these very reasons it is so easy to use the Olympics as an analogy for the Christian life, which Paul does in both of our lessons this morning and elsewhere in his letters.
Certainly there is no record of Paul ever attending the games, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility and he certainly would have been very familiar with them, as were his first century hearers. So when Paul references some kind of athletic endeavor or competition in his letters he is using a contemporary sermon illustration just as I am this morning.
We are well aware that the modern Olympic Games were re-instituted in Athens in 1896, but the ancient games date back to 773 BC and lasted until 393 AD when Christian Emperor Theodosius I banned them as being too pagan. That means the games were active during the time of Paul’s, and Jesus’, ministries, and they were central to the life and ethos of the Greco-Roman culture. Perhaps you are aware, there were four ancient Panhellenic games, not just the Olympics, which were held in different Greek cities in consecutive years. The Greeks actually used the games to keep track of time, by four year periods called “Olympiads”. For instance, we know that the Battle of Marathon took place in the 52nd Olympiad. Year 1: the Olympics in Olympia dedicated to the Greek god Zeus, the prize, an olive branch. Year 2: the Nemean Games held in Corinth, dedicated to Zeus and Hercules, the prize, a piece of wild cherry. Year 3: The Pythian Games held in Delphi (as in the famed Oracle of Delphi) to Apollo, the winner receiving a laurel wreath. And year 4: The Isthmian games held in Isthmia to the god Poseidon with the prize of a pine bow, then the 4 year cycle of the Olympiad would begin again.
So the games were more than mere athletic competitions, they were a shaper of culture in the Greco-Roman world. Announcements of the games would be sent throughout the empire a year before the games commenced. Athletes and trainers and coaches would travel great distances, not only to compete, but to learn: different cultures, different languages and experiences. They studied not only their sport but music, art, literature, poetry and history. Wars would cease during the time of the games and would resume at their conclusion. We got glimpses of that in the Rio games, didn’t we, as athletes from different nations not only competed against one another, but also walked and talked and embraced one another. We saw the true Olympic spirit in a poignant way when the two runners, Abbey D’Agostino from the US and Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand stumbled together while running the 5000 meter race, then stopped to help one another up. In that instant, for that moment, wars ceased and the world was at peace.
We can see then why Paul would draw on the games as a way to describe the Christian life. Both speak of decision and commitment. One doesn’t wake up one morning and say, “I’m going to be an Olympic shot putter”, but it begins there. That “yes or no” decision is the beginning of a life time of “yes or no” decisions to continue to commit, to train, to discipline oneself to compete, just as the decision to follow Jesus when He says, “Come, follow Me” also requires a “yes or no” decision that then leads to subsequent “yes or no” decisions every day thereafter. Today I am going to decide to be Christ’s man, Christ’s woman. Today I am going to discipline myself to follow in the way of Jesus. It is no coincidence that followers of Jesus are called “disciples”, because we are called to lives of discipline following in the way of our Master.
The analogies go on. Making the decision to follow Christ requires a commitment to change, or in athletic terms, to train. In the Christian life that change is called conversion, taken from another Greek word “metanoia”. Athletes require a singleness of purpose and focus, as does a commitment to follow Jesus, abandoning all others. Just as athletes need trainers and coaches, so we need teachers and mentors to guide and instruct and encourage us in the faith. Just as they have a set of skills and rules to learn and live by in order to compete, so we as Christians have spiritual disciplines which we need to learn and live by as they guide us in the way of Christ. Just as they needed benefactors to support and under write their training and expenses, so we need financial supporters to maintain our ministries. In every event there may be one or two or a handful of players on the field, but countless thousands in the stands cheering them on, so we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” cheering and encouraging us to keep running the race set before us. The possible analogies are almost endless.
In his letters Paul speaks of any number of these, but in I Timothy he speaks specifically of this one lesson: “Train yourself in godliness, for while physical training is of some value; godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” As important as physical training is, and it is, there is something more important still, training in godliness, in righteousness, in right living with God and others.
It is appropriate that we talk about this today, on this Tab Rec Sunday, because it is essential that we as members and friends of Tab understand that this is what this wonderful program is really all about. Tab Rec was founded in 1924, 92 years ago, as a ministry of Tab. In many ways it is a premier, flagship program, one of the best not only in the city but in the nation, and has been a model for many other Church recreation programs. Just this week someone mentioned to me that Tab Rec is an important part of the “Tab brand”, and I agree, it is one of the ways we are best known in this community. Everywhere I go people say, “I played ball at Tab. My daddy and my granddaddy played ball at Tab.” It truly is remarkable to me. For that reason we need to understand this clearly: Tab Rec is not a sports program with a Christian influence; it is a Christian ministry which uses sports and recreation as our “hook.” Every year Ben Hughes gives me an opportunity to talk with the coaches during their training at the beginning of the season. So speaking to a roomful of men and women who will coach and train our kids I remind them of what we are asking of them, what is of primary importance that they teach and instill in these young athletes. It is not how to block and tackle and shoot. Drawing on Paul’s teaching, while that is of some importance, of greater importance still is the influence they have over the over the faith and character development of these children to follow Christ, and grow up to be mature, responsible adults and contributing citizens.
The development of faith and character is the end goal of Tab Rec. Sports and recreational activities are the means to that end.
Sometimes I believe we have forgotten that purpose and priority, so you need to know we are recommitting ourselves to it as a Session and a staff, and we need your help.
Last Saturday the Session spent the day talking about ways to implement the new Vision Renewal report. Remember there are three focal points to that report: greater faith, deeper relationships, and a stronger community. Using that rubric we focused specifically on two program areas: Tab Rec and the creation of deeper relationships (we’ll talk more about those opportunities later.) As a Session and staff we are committed to re-engaging Tab resources and Tab members to the faith and character building component of our Tab Rec program and we need your help in order to do that. You don’t need to know anything about blocking, tackling or shooting, we’ve got coaches who can do that. We need you to come along side our Tab Rec kids as mentors, tutors, supporters, encouragers, planters, to be part of that “great cloud of witnesses” cheering them on.
Friends, there is a generation of young people out there that I know we care deeply about and for whom we are concerned. I know we want to help improve their lives and their lot in life by encouraging them to stay in school, stay off drugs, not get pregnant, develop life skills that are employable. I know that we want to do our part in addressing all of the ills and demons that threaten them from street violence to childhood obesity. I know that about us and the beauty of the Tab Rec program is those very kids are coming to us. We don’t have to go find them, they are already coming, about 1900 of them a year are coming through our doors and on to our fields. They are already well within our reach, now all we need to do is reach out and touch them with the love and care of Jesus Christ.
One of my favorite quotes coming out of the Tab Rec program was given by Mitch Daniels, once a starting guard on a Tab Rec basketball team. He said, “I learned the love of the Lord and the pick and roll on the same hardwood floor”. We want that for every kid who plays ball at Tab and we are the ones who can make that happen.
I want you to pray about this, about what your role in this renewed commitment might be. Today when you go into the gym for the reception honoring our Dawson Award winner, Nancy Gates, you’ll see a table where you can sign up to express your interest in coming alongside the kids in the Tab Rec program, building a relationship, offering a word of support and encouragement. I’ll be honest, at this point we don’t yet know what all of this means, so we are kind of building the plane as we are flying it, but we are committed to it because we know it is important.
One last thought before we leave this Olympic and athletic theme. We all know and likely will remember names like Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, Simone Biles and Usain Bolt, and well we should for their incredible accomplishments in their respective sports. But we cannot forget the thousands of others who also are called Olympians, who have dedicated themselves to this pursuit, or the 10s or 100s of thousands of young athletes who participate at every level, experiencing both the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” There was a clear understanding in the times of the ancient games that “participation counts”- to participate is to have achieved. The same is true in sport and in the life of faith.
Paul writes of there being only one winner in each race, and we know that every athlete at the line has that same desire, to beat out the others, to win the gold metal or the laurel wreath. But the life of faith is not a competition, we are not competing against one another, but we are all running a race, the prize being faith in Jesus Christ, He is the goal. At one point in history the Persians stopped coming to the Panhellenic games. They didn’t think the chance to win an olive branch was worth the struggle and expense of training and travel. On a certain level they were right, and the same is true for us as well. If you are chasing after anything less than a right relationship with God by faith in Jesus Christ, be that riches or fame or status, success or security, anything less than Christ Himself, you are chasing after a perishable wreath. He alone is the “imperishable” prize.
“So do not run aimlessly”, rather let us be convinced together that: “While physical training is of some value; training in godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” Amen.