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Spiritual Training

Spiritual Training

The football season is right around the corner. 

Two weeks from last Friday, Lincoln Christian, with one of our members on the coaching staff, opens against Platteview High School from Springfield, Nebraska.

Two weeks from yesterday, Go Big Red hosts South Alabama.

The week after that, as Big Red plays its second game, Nebraska Wesleyan, with another of our members on that coaching staff, opens its season against Westminster College from Fulton, Missouri.

Football season is of course entertaining, I join millions of others, including many right here today, in looking forward to another round of games. 

However, while the game of football should hopefully be fun for the players as well, which is more likely to be the case if their teams win more than they lose, winning will not happen without a lot and a lot and a lot of hard work and sacrificing in weight rooms and dining tables and practice fields and study halls.

It is sports-related work and sacrificing that is the gist of today’s message, which is based on I Corinthians 9:19-27.

The passage was written by the apostle Paul. Of course, 2000 years ago, Paul knew nothing about high school or college football, but he was familiar with athletic contests, including Isthmus Games, patterned after the official Olympic Games, which were contests for which there was a lot and a lot and a lot of training. Paul teaches that is what Christians are to do spiritually.

To introduce today’s passage, Paul explained to the Christians in the city of Corinth that he himself had a history of making sacrifices in his ministry for Jesus. He added more in the passage, but before it he wrote that while ministers should have the right to earn a living by what they do, he had not, was not, and never would do so. He refused to take monetary rewards for preaching the Gospel of Jesus. We know Paul was a tent-maker. That is how he made most of his living. I assume he accepted the hospitality of other Christians, which helped with lodging and food. But he ministered for free, his hope being that no one would accuse him of preaching only to get rich.

Preaching was very important to Paul. It can be worded that preaching is who he was. In fact, he wrote, woe to him if he did not preach the Gospel. It was what he had to do because it is what he had been called by Jesus to do.

In verse 19 of I Corinthians 9, Paul continued the thought. He identified himself as a “slave.”Not forced into that position. He made himself a slave. A slave “to all,” willing to labor for the good of others. In this case, the spiritual good of others.

Paul had a reason for that. His goal was “to win more and more people to the Lord” so they would join him in being Christians. The good of that was blessings now and Heaven later for all who would accept Jesus as their Savior.

“All” included Jews. Verse 20. To the Jews, Paul “became as” a Jew, meaning he, as long as it did not interfere with his relationship to Jesus, followed Jewish law.

Verse 21. “All” also included those “not under the law,” which were Gentiles. Paul “became as one outside the law.” Again he never did anything that would dishonor Jesus, but when with Gentiles, Paul did not do anything with Jewish law.

As mentioned, Paul’s purpose was to “win as many as he could” for the Lord. To accomplish that, consider what it means to “become as” someone else. It does not mean to be so wishy-washy that Paul flitted from one lifestyle to another. Instead, it means to be able to “be alongside” someone. What that means is having the willingness and ability to look at things from another person’s viewpoint, trying to understand the mind and heart of someone else, never condoning or excusing bad behaviors or attitudes, but trying to figure out how to best lead others to the Lord, then helping them to grow in their faith, doing so to display God’s love.

I read the story of a minister of years past. A minister who was known for being able to talk about animals with vets, about dancing with dance teachers, about glasses with makers of glasses, about law with lawyers, about diseases with doctors.

To evangelize effectively, we need to speak the language of and see things similar to the other person. Again, not to the point of forgetting or dishonoring our Christian standards, but being willing and able to be alongside another person.

Handel Smith, our national office friend and partner, said a similar thing at the recent state Church of God Convention. He taught that we need to help people belong. Only then can we help them move toward becoming spiritual. Only then will they be most likely to believe in Jesus as Savior. Belong, become, and believe.

Paul was able to be alongside both Jews and Gentiles. That was true as well for those who were weak. Those even now who struggle to accept Jesus, and those who are Christians but struggle to live according to Jesus’ standards. Paul never was weak in his acceptance of and living for Jesus, but as mentioned, being alongside those who do struggle means he tried to understand them - their viewpoints, minds, and hearts. For the weak, that included Paul not despising them for not being as strong as Paul was, not ridiculing them because of their struggles, not judging them.

Paul wrote that he had become “all things to all men” - Jews, Gentiles, the weak - that he “might be able by all means to save some.” He did it for “the sake of the Gospel” - the Good News of Jesus - so that he could share in the blessings of the Lord with others. With as many as would accept Jesus.

Paul then, using two sports analogies, challenged fellow Christians, then and now, to work hard at doing what he did.

The first analogy is in verse 24. It is running. Paul encouraged his fellow Christians to run. To keep running spiritually. Which can be done - verse 25 - by “exercising self-control in all things,” which is a key part of training to work with others for the Lord.

Self-control, for instance, over our bodies. How we use our bodies. How we prepare our bodies for our Christian work. 

It is easy to think about having a proper diet so we are not slowed down, but there are other parts of body work, including getting proper rest. Back in the early 1970’s, I attended a music conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I still remember the teaching at the conference that leading worship does not begin at the start of a Sunday morning serviced. It begins Saturday night in getting enough rest.

Self-control over our minds. We need to keep our minds centered on the race we are called to run. Apparently, that is difficult. Thinking of football players, some of this year’s Nebraska team have recently been cited for marijuana violations. They might not play because of those violations. How sad they let their minds wander. That they were not able to stay focused and disciplined on their training.

Self-control over our souls. Here is how I read this one explained. Train, with the Lord’s help and coaching, to face life’s sorrows with calm endurance, temptations with the strength God gives, disappointments with courage.

Paul added the teaching that such training - strict training of our bodies, minds, and souls - is worth it. He made that point by comparing the rewards of physical and spiritual running. He wrote, “Every athlete [every physical runner] exercises self-control in all things. They are willing to do that so they can receive “a perishable wreath,” which, for the Isthmus Games, to which Paul was referring, was a crown made of laurel leaves. Such crowns certainly looked nice when they were awarded, but the leaves quickly withered and died, thereby losing their beauty.

The prize for a Christian “runner” is much greater. Our crown is not perishable, but imperishable. The crown for the Christian “runner”is better. It is permanent. It is eternal life, which is well worth the self-control required to stay in the race.

To stay in the race. What an important phrase that is, which helps to explain what Paul wrote back in verse 24. 

The first part of the verse sounds pretty grim. “Do you not know that in a race, all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize?”

Before the recent national Church of God convention in Orlando, I took part in the 5K Pink Door Race. I came in about 120th out of 125 or so participants. I of course did not win the race. If that would be the case in the Christian race, I would be in big trouble. I am not the fastest. I am certainly not the smartest. I am way back in the pack of being the most skilled person. There are still some spiritual characteristics I am working on. If only the winner of the Christian race received the crown, I would be doomed before I even started.

To answer that concern, Paul added the second part of the verse. “So run the race [the spiritual race] that you may obtain the prize.” The prize of eternal life.

I did a bit of research on the second half of the verse. I read it means that whether you come in first is not the important thing. In a physical race, it is, but not in our spiritual race. What is important is to keep running until the finish line, which takes the training of self-control Paul teaches in today’s passage.

Back to the 5K Pink Door Race, toward the end of the 3.1 miles, I was walking with a young man and one of his parents. Suddenly the young man took off running. His parent did the same. Some race monitors said, “Great way to finish strong.”

When I got to the monitors, still walking, I said, “Here I am, finishing weak.” Their response was what I think Paul meant with verse 24. “Do not worry. You are finishing. That is the important thing.”

Yes, I did receive a medallion when I crossed the finish line. I received it even though I did not win the race. I did not win, but I finished the race.

Staying with the Christian race. Running the race, fast or slow. Crossing the finish line. That is the important thing. All who do that will obtain the prize of eternal life.

Again, every athlete exercises self-control in all things. Paul taught the same is to be true for every Christian. Which, in verses 26 and 27, Paul again claimed he himself was doing. 

He wrote, “I do not run aimlessly.” He then added the second sports analogy. That of boxing. He wrote, “I do not box as one beating the air.” That was certainly the case. Paul always had the goal in front of him of leading others to Christ. Every part of him was dedicated to that, including how he trained spiritually. 

Back to being aimless, something I heard on the radio a couple days after the mass shootings in Texas and Ohio a couple weeks ago was a commentator suggesting at least part of the problem with so much violence is that so many young people these days seem to be aimless.

Proof the commentator gave was how so many, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, no longer say policeman or fireman or astronaut, but “I want to be rich” or “I want to be famous.” There seems to be, at least for some, no connection to having to do something. To be disciplined in something so they can be rich and/or famous. No plan how to get there.

Paul did not run aimlessly spiritually. He did not beat the air. Lest, he added, after preaching to others, he himself would be “disqualified.”

Neither are we to be aimless and pointless. May we be disciplined and trained so we can be worthy of receiving the prize of eternal life as we help others do the same.

Speaking of that, a couple weeks ago when Handel Smith was with us, he told a story in the adult Sunday School class that fits very well into this message. The story was about a father and his son who were out running. It was a long run, including a long hill to run up, which the father had a lot of trouble doing. Maybe halfway up the hill the father was out of breath and his legs hurt.

For some reason, instead of complaining, the father started encouraging his son. “You’re doing great. Looking good. You’re almost there.”

Suddenly, not only the son, but his father, too, were at the top of the hill. What had helped the father was getting his attention off his own struggles as he concentrated on encouraging his son.

Paul’s training - Paul’s ministry - was not easy. Our Christian race may have difficult times. The point is to keep training and keep being with others and keep running. The reward for Paul was - the reward for us will be - a prize that is imperishable. The prize of eternal life.

There is one song in our hymnal that is based on today’s passage. It is Lord, Lay Some Soul Upon My Heart. Let’s sing the song as our prayer that we will indeed keep running, for our spiritual good and for the spiritual good of others.

Lord, lay some soul upon my heart,

And love that soul through me;

And may I bravely do my part

To win that soul for Thee.

Some soul for Thee, some soul for Thee,

This is my earnest plea;

Help me each day, on life’s highway,

  To win some soul for Thee.

Lord, lead me to some soul in sin,

And grant that I may be

Endued with power and love to win

That soul, dear Lord, for Thee.

To win that soul for Thee, my Lord,

Will be my constant prayer;

That when I’ve won Thy full reward

I’ll with that dear one share.

Lord, training for football, training for running, training for boxing is so important. So, too, is training for our spiritual work. Keep us disciplined. Keep us focused. Keep us eager to stay true to You and Your work. Again, certainly for our own benefit. For the crown of eternal life all who stay in the race will wear. And for the benefit of those who we will be privileged to bring with us. Amen.

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