Heart of a Champion
based on Corinthians 9:24-27
by Rev. Thomas Hall
Youve all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race. Everyone runs; one
wins. Run to win. All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes
and fades. Youre after one thats gold eternally.
I dont know about you, but Im running hard for the finish line.
Im giving it everything Ive got. No sloppy living for me! Im staying
alert and in top condition. Im not going to get caught napping, telling everyone
else all about it and then missing out myself.
Recently our citys professional sports team made the playoffs. What a religious
experience. The Iggles, as we affectionately call them-needed but one more win to earn
them a ticket to the National Championship game. The final week bordered on hysteria. Fans
showed up at diners, management meetings, and city hall clad in green and white. The mayor
of our city even had a wager going with the mayor of the opposing teams city:
whoevers team lost had to do "jail time" in the other mayors city.
The sports page in USA Today looked like a worship bulletin with its
section-"Key Areas of Concern." The city even held a pep rally in downtown
square-everyone wearing the green jerseys of their favorite athlete.
They lost the game. But my fanatic friends revealed something about the national
psyche: our country is obsessed with sports. Whether the Olympics, the World Series, the
Stanley Cup, the Tour de France, or World Cup, sports gets our attention. Great athletes
hold our respect-Jesse Owens, Babe Ruth, Tiger Woods, or the Williams sisters-we
vicariously enjoy the greatness that these champions have achieved. And I think we spoof
ourselves into secretly thinking that with a few more pushups, a few more tucks and nips,
we too could have become athletic greats. Weve become a little like ancient Rome-a
little flabby as we sit in the stands and watch others sweat it out.
Paul must have been a die-hard fan just like many of us. In fact he wrote our lesson
today from a big sports-crazed city. Corinth was about six miles from the Isthmian Games
and he would have been in Corinth at the time the games were held. Could be that several
athletes were members of the Corinthian church.
Paul is in his own right an athlete. He left one of the most powerful messages to the
Church that compares the world of sports with the world of the Christian. He says that we
are all in a race; the moment we become Christians we are ushered into the greatest race
of our life.
Coach Paul picks two qualities from the Games of Isthmus: eyeing the prize and paying
the price. Paul says, "I dont run aimlessly, dont box as beating the
air." Can you imagine the starters pistol sounding and the runners all darting
off in all directions? That might happen in a turtle race, but it doesnt happen in
professional sports. And the boxing image refers to a boxer who, before the match, expends
all his energy in an impressive show of power to the spectators so that he has used his
energy up before the bell even rings to begin the match!
Wheres our focus as Christians? What compels us, motivates us in Christian life?
Paul says that athletes went to all the effort of training and careful diet and discipline
just to win a garland of flowers. Actually, truth be known, years before Paul arrived on
the scene-beautiful and ornate flowers were woven into a garland for winning athletes. By
Pauls day, however, Josephus says that celery strands were woven into the wreath
that adorned champions heads. Paul sees these wilted pieces of celery and that
contrasts for him the great difference in what drives Christians: a reward that will never
tarnish or wilt.
Roger Bannister was the first runner to break the four-minute mile. And he did it at a
time that no one thought it humanly possible. In the 1952 Olympics Bannister placed a
disappointing fourth place. He said to his coach after his run, "Im through.
Im going back to my studies." His coach looked him straight in the eyes and
said, "Roger, youre the only one that can do it. Roger, you can do it."
He said at the time he didnt believe his coach and returned to Edinburgh. One
night as he was studying, he got to daydreaming and imagined himself breaking the
four-minute mile. He began a touch regimen of eight hours of study and four more hours on
the track. Five months later on a cold blustery day, he trotted down to the track. He
turned to his pacer, Chris Chataway and said, "Chris, today Im going to break
First lap: .57 seconds. Second lap: 1.58 seconds. Third lap: 3:00 minutes. As he was
finishing the third lap, he says that his head was throbbing and his lungs felt like
bursting. But when he made the final turn and saw the tape, something inside him snapped
and he realized that he could do it. He sprinted the last 50 yards and although it seemed
like an eternity, he hit the tape at a world-record of 3:59.4 seconds.
When we see the prize-its much easier to pay the price. What drives your life?
What is the goal toward which your life is turned? Heres what Paul say at the finish
I have fought the good fight, I have finished
the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness
which the Lord will award me on that day.
Paul knew that what he was running for was at the finish line. Nail prints in
outstretched hands and a voice urging him on: Cmon Paul, give it all youve
got!" Paul was so focused on the prize that he ran like no one before or since has
ever run. Jesus himself is our goal who urges us to run the race with diligence.
Paul noticed how athletes were willing to pay the price in view of the prize. In
Pauls day, athletes trained for ten months in order to compete in the Games; their
diet was strictly monitored and they had to train under a tough schedule of physical
preparation. Any athlete who took shortcuts got a one-way ticket home. So Paul wrote to
the Corinthians that every athlete in training is temperate in all things-they restrict
themselves, treat their body roughly, discipline themselves by hardship.
We have a young lady in our congregation from Uyu, Nigeria; she came to America
speaking only Ibibo and without parents. As Imo cleaned houses she listened to television
newscasters and slowly gained command of English. She managed to work her way up to the
top of her class in a large New York high school and then enrolled at Swarthmore College.
Having never participated in any sports, one day Imo went down to the track and decided
to run. She would be down on the track early in the morning and after school in the
evening and sometimes in-between. Four years later Imo became the toast of United States
Track Coach Association after winning six gold medals at the Centennial Conference indoor
championships. Imo went on to set school records in the 55-meter dash (7.2 seconds), the
200 (25.51 seconds), the long jump (18.25 feet), and the 400 (58.34 seconds). Sports
Illustrated picked up her story along with other national sports writers. But her
congregation remained her greatest fans. Standing up to sing one Sunday morning Imo said,
"I have not had parents near me my whole life. So God has sent you to be my parents.
And when I sing, His eye is on the sparrow-I am that sparrow that God has
Lance Armstrong knows what paying the prize is all about. He begins his book with these
I left my house on October 2, 1996 as one person and
came home another. I was a world class athlete with a mansion on a riverbank, keys to a
Porsche, and a self-made fortune in the bank. I was one of the top riders in the world and
my career was moving along a perfect arc of success. I returned a different person,
literally. In a way, the old me did die, and I was given a second life.
Lance goes on to describe how a cancer that was found in a tiny part of his body
quickly spread through and threatened to end his life. Yet, Lance refused to give up.
Looking back he says, "Cancer made me stronger." Still a survivor, Lance
Armstrong has gone on to become a four-time winner of the grueling 3,350 kilometer Tour
d France. Its not about the bike; its about the prize he pays in training to
be the best of the best in his field. "Everything hurts," he says, "your
back hurts, your feet hurt, your hands hurt, your neck hurts, your legs hurt, and of
course, your butt hurts."
Such athletes inspire the human spirit. If athletes go to this length to become the
best, Paul might ask us how much more we be inspired to do and live our faith as
Paul the coach. Paul the spiritual athlete. The guy knew how to endure. How to channel
setbacks into a winning game plan. He knew what paying the price was all about. Looking
back over his life he recalls . . .
Five times I received the forty lashes minus
one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pummeled with rocks, three times I was
shipwrecked and I survived for 24 hours in an open sea . . I have been in danger from
rivers, bandits, people who oppose the gospel, and false friends.
So here we are. In a specific time and place. In a particular vocation. But actually
were on the playing field in a huge stadium that spans the ages. The stands are
packed with fans who watch us run the race. The great crowd of witnesses urge us on to see
the prize and pay the price so that we too, we finish the race and hear from our Coach,
"Well run, though good and faithful servant." Amen.