The Epistle. I Corinthians 9. 24.
Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one recieveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we, an incorruptible. I therefore run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection; lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.
Remember that old saying, “it’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game”? I always used to think that that was so much hogwash because, as history seems to constantly remind us, it very much IS about whether you win or lose. We are the champions. To the victors go the spoils. Winning isn’t everything, it’s the ONLY thing. History is written by the victors.
At the same time, we cannot say that all those who were victorious throughout the ages used methods that were consistently altruistic or morally pure. Some of the greatest empires the world has ever known were forged on the blood and bones of conquered civilizations. Even today, we are continually presented with examples of people who attain wealth, power and status using unscrupulous or even illegal means. Once in a while, these people receive a “comeuppance”, but by and large, they still end up rich. They’ve won, haven’t they?
But what is it that they have won? Money, trophies, social status or popular acclaim; perhaps even the authority to tell others what to do for a brief time. The common denominator here is that all of these things are things of this world and not of the Kingdom of God. These are examples of what St. Paul calls a corruptible crown.
This reference to a corruptible crown was an image which Paul’s audience in Corinth would have been able to relate to quite easily. The city of Corinth played host to the Isthmian games, which were athletic contests similar to the Olympic games. The winners of the various events, the sprints, the wrestling, etcetera, would receive as their prize a crown of laurel leaves. And quite naturally, after a few days, these leaves would whither and die, and the “crown”, would be worthless.
The point here is that the “prize” that all these athletes worked and strived for, was ultimately temporary. Such is the nature of any “earthly” victory. Fame is fleeting. Power corrupts. Money; well, you can’t take it with you. All of the ways that society measures “success” are, in the end, worth what?
But of course, the message here is not that we shouldn’t work hard or strive to achieve. Nor is it necessarily bad to want to “win”. But as St. Paul tells us, we must make sure that our goals are the right ones, and that the methods we use to obtain these goals is important. As you probably already guessed, it is indeed about “how you play the game”.
Knowing this, we can go back and take another look at those people who seem to have “won”. Would any of us want to trade places with one of those Wall Street tycoons who have faced criminal prosecution and the public humiliation that goes with it? Would we want to be in the position of a politician who is caught taking bribes or compromising their ethics? Would we want to be that athlete whose accomplishments are tainted after the disclosure of their use of performance-enhancing drugs? In each of these scenarios, we see people who have “won”; but their victories were made hollow, their crowns made corrupt, because of the way they “played the game”.
This is a danger for Christians as well. Since we have accepted Jesus Christ as Our Lord and Savior, and been regenerated by our Baptism and made members of his Church, we can say with confidence that we have “won”. But there is still that little matter of “how we play the game”.
We have our Faith; but how is it that we practice that Faith? We claim to be Christians; but if our actions, how we live out our faith, came under public scrutiny, would we be seen as shining examples of the Love of Christ, or would we be like those businessmen, politicians and athletes; shamed and humiliated?
What I am talking about is discipline. In order to win a gold medal or hit a home run, an athlete must train and prepare, honing his skills and gaining control over his body. A successful businessman will prepare by spending long hours studying markets and economics and creating a business plan. A politician…well, never mind. But the point is that the truly successful, the truly victorious, those whose achievements will last for generations, come about those victories as a result of personal discipline; the culmination of a process by which they gain control over their minds and bodies, to the point of mastery.
Today is Septuagesima Sunday. This is the first week of the “pre-Lenten” season. In other words, Lent is just two and a half-weeks away. This day is a reminder that we must begin our preparation for that penitential season, which is itself a time of preparation. This is a reminder that it is time for us to “get in shape”. It is a time for us to begin the process of gaining control over our minds and bodies. It is a time for us to study and to create a plan. It is a time for us to discipline ourselves.
Our witness exemplifies this discipline. Successfully living out our Faith requires us to dedicate ourselves even more to the Word of God and to His Church. It requires us to ensure that our actions, our words, and our deeds are displayed in such a way that there can be no doubt that we are true disciples of Christ. It requires us to temper our thoughts with our love of God, our love of His Son, and our love of His Gospel. It requires us to strive for mastery over our own lives; so that by our example the lives of others may be affected and turned to Christ as well.
Today we see many others who claim to be Christians who refuse to believe that such discipline, such mastery is necessary, or even attainable. They will tell you that the traditional tenants of the Faith are outdated and no longer relevant. They preach a gospel devoid of personal responsibility or accountability. And they measure “victory” in terms of personal comfort and convenience. Their goal is an earthly, temporary, and ultimately corrupt crown.
Our goal is that achievement that will last forever; that incorruptible crown that is our Salvation. History is written by the victors. Our history is the Gospel of Jesus Christ which tells of that Salvation, that victory, guaranteed by the Cross of Christ. And the way in which we witness to this victory does indeed make all the difference. Our witness will tell the world that it is indeed about “how you play the game”.
“Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we, an incorruptible“