No one would deny that sports play a significant role in modern society. The Super Bowl, the World Series and the World Cup hold the attention of millions and generate high levels of excitement and enjoyment. Competitive sports on the professional, collegiate and high school levels draw in people of all ages and backgrounds. We live in a world that loves sports.
Of course, enthusiasm for sports is nothing new. The people of the Greco-Roman world in New Testament times held athleticism in high esteem. During that time, the gymnasia were places for both athletic training and intellectual instruction. Preparation and discipline were essential for those aspiring to compete. Long jumping, boxing, wrestling, discus and javelin throwing, and footracing were the competitive sports at that time. Each of these games required a tremendous amount of training and dedication on the part of the athlete. St. Paul and other New Testament authors were familiar with these games and, at times, used them as metaphors for a life of faith.
The Acts of the Apostles tells us that St. Paul went to Corinth during his second missionary journey. (Acts 18:1) Why did he choose Corinth? Some biblical scholars conjecture that it was because Corinth was a vital link in maritime trade between the east and the west. That made it a vibrant hub of communication, which St. Paul would have seen as strategic for the spread of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Another reason may have been that the Isthmian Games were held at the Isthmus of Corinth, and St. Paul would have seen this as a great opportunity to reach people from all over the Hellenistic world. What we do know is that he saw the value of drawing analogies between athletic activity and living the faith.
In St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, he writes, “Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win.” (1 Corinthians 9:24) He goes on to say that athletes exercise great discipline to win, and they do it for a perishable crown; but the crown that people of faith must strive for is an imperishable one. (1 Corinthians 9:25)
Competing, finishing and winning the crown were all ideas reflective of the athletic festivals celebrated in the Hellenistic world in the first century. So was the idea of faithfulness. Competing athletes had to make a pledge to follow the rules of the game, and breaking the rules would result in disqualification. St. Paul uses all of these athletic terms to describe a life of faithfulness to God, striving to overcome the struggles of life with faithful devotion to God, awaiting the crown of salvation.
In St. Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy, he once again compares the Christian life to running a race. St. Paul speaks of himself as competing well, finishing the race, keeping the faith and winning the crown. Just as athletes had to keep their pledge to follow the rules of the game, St. Paul understood himself to be keeping the faith by holding fast to all that Christ revealed to him. (2 Timothy 4:7-8)
In our times, footraces are very popular events. Many people enter runs either for competition or simply for fun. Runners of varying ages and abilities enter 5K and 10K runs, and whether they enter as serious runners or just for enjoyment, there is always excitement in the air. Knowing that their time will be recorded is a great motivator for the runners. Best of all, there are always crowds of people on hand to cheer on the runners, no matter how fast or slow they may be.
The idea of being “cheered on” appears in the Letter to the Hebrews. However, instead of crowds of people in a stadium cheering runners on, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of “a cloud of witnesses” surrounding the faithful. (Hebrews 12:1) These witnesses are martyrs and saints, who stayed true to the faith despite suffering and persecution. They are models of the faith for us, and they cheer us on as we run the race of lifelong fidelity to God.
Just as athletes go through disciplined training, and during the race give it their all to win the prize, so, too, we Christians must train ourselves to live faithful lives and struggle ahead to finish the race. (Hebrews 12:1-4) This passage from the Letter to the Hebrews encourages us to rid ourselves of the things that would hinder us from running well, namely, sin and distractions. The author describes Jesus as our leader, who endured the cross “for the sake of the joy that lay before him.” (Hebrews 12:2) As we run the race, we must keep our eyes fixed on him, just as an athlete’s eyes are fixed on the finish line. Jesus remained obedient to the Father’s will, passing through death to fullness of life, showing us the way that leads to eternal happiness. The Letter to the Hebrews offers encouragement and positive reinforcement to those who seek to live a life of faith amidst the struggles of life and the contradictory attitudes of the world we live in.
How do these athletic metaphors from the New Testament speak to us, who strive to follow Christ today? I believe the concepts of training, following the rules and perseverance are extremely valuable for us as we seek to put our faith into practice.
Training for any competitive game is a rigorous process. Wind sprints, weightlifting, sit-ups, stretching and pull-ups are just a few of the training activities that athletes have to undergo. Training in the life of faith is all about prayer. Maintaining a disciplined approach to participating in public worship and practicing personal devotion is indispensable for growing in our relationship with God.
Dedicated athletes commit themselves to following the rules of the game. Staying faithful to the rules preserves their integrity as competitors. Faithful Christians commit themselves to obeying the Word of God. Reading and studying the Sacred Scriptures and striving to live according to the values of the Gospel are essential to Christian life.
Athletes push themselves to the limit in order to win. It is hard work to reach the goal, and it does not happen without some degree of suffering and pain. To win, an athlete must persevere. Perseverance is also the mark of a Christian. To follow Christ is to take up the cross. The faithful ones persevere knowing the cross is not the end of the story. What the Father has done for his Son Jesus, he will do for us.
The Sacred Scriptures encourage us to keep our minds and hearts fixed on the goal — the crown of salvation. As St. Paul tells us, “Run so as to win.”