If you're anything like me, you are growing tired of seeing biblical stories, characters, and images used as metaphors in the popular culture.
Or should I say misused. The next time I hear the little school/big school football upset described in terms of "David vs. Goliath," I might just seize up. Read 1 Samuel 17 again sometime and you'll get the point. Big as he was, poor Goliath never had a chance. He was going up not against little David, but against the Lord of Hosts, God of the armies of Israel, and it was the Lord who did all the doing in that contest, through little David. The David and Goliath metaphor is more often than not taken in exactly the wrong sense. And while the metaphorical usage of biblical material is a cause of some distress from time to time, the need for metaphors is clear and worthy of some attention when we think about the task of preaching.
Ours is a culture that is obsessed with finding metaphors for life; what it is all about, what its meaning is, how it is best and most fully to be lived. And the wide world of sports provides ample grist for the metaphorical mill. Google some combination of "sports," "life" and "metaphor," and you'll be overwhelmed with sites and quotations to check. "Sport is a metaphor for life," be it baseball, football, golf, or presumably even water polo. Sports "teach lessons" about personal conduct, trial, and adversity, "for life's most difficult moments," thereby offering "preparation for life." One site even extends the claim beyond the merely metaphorical, "The idea is that sports aren't a metaphor for life, sports are life." While the story of David and Goliath may oft be a misunderstood metaphor, the need for ways to think about the meaning of "life, the universe and everything" is alive in our culture, in our world, and very much in our churches.
Paul seems to have anticipated the need for and the usefulness of metaphor. He uses sports very effectively when thinking about the spiritual life and the calling of the child of God. Here are some examples where Paul uses the language of athletics:
Each of these examples is taken from Paul's correspondence to his protégé Timothy. While Paul's sports metaphors are not limited to 1-2 Timothy (cf. Philippians 3:12-16), he frequently offered his encouragement to Timothy with metaphors and contrasts drawn from the arena of...well, of the arena. In Paul the struggles that come with the work of the apostle are brought to bear in the imagery of athletic contest; compete, run the race until you've crossed the finish line, fight, struggle, persevere. These are Paul's metaphors of encouragement for his disciple in apostleship.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 is another example of Paul's sports theology at work. Paul uses two metaphors here, one of running the race and the other of boxing. He urges a similar commitment to that of the athlete; exercising self-control and "punishing" the body; in those who hope to receive an "imperishable" victory-wreath. There might be some temptation to read and then preach these metaphors as exhortations to upright and committed Christian living. Certainly the language and imagery lends itself well to this reading. But in the broader context, both of 1 Corinthians 9 and of Paul's references to the "imperishable" wreath or crown, this striving seems to be something different.
Following Paul's description of the calling and appearance of an apostle in 9:16-23, the urging to run and box with commitment and purpose is striking. Paul has described the course which he has run, which has included a fair share of "congregational alligators." The work of the apostle is not easy, according to Paul, but in the face of adversity and controversy he has "run the race in such a way as to win it." This, Paul urges in all who share in the work of the gospel; Timothy, me, you, and those to whom you proclaim Christ crucified. Run the race in such a way that you may win it. Do not flag or fail, "so that after proclaiming to others" you yourself "should not be disqualified." Preach, or be damned.
In sharp contrast to the exhortation to general righteous Christian living, this passage may also seem like a text that is really for the insider, the professional disciple, i.e. for you, the preacher. On one level, it is. The office of ministry is not always an easy space to occupy; the stole not always a comfortable fit. There will be times of struggle, of controversy and, yes, even suffering for the parish worker. This is one manifestation of what Luther called anfechtungen, the trials, sufferings, and temptations that are often a mark of service to Christ. For those called to leadership in the church, Paul offers this exhortation: run-on, fight-on, preach-, teach- and visit-on.
But in another and equally important way, this encouragement to strive, train, learn, grow, and exercise, is a call to everyone who runs in the Way, for all who are in relationship with Christ Jesus. As Paul puts it, "Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete...?" The gospel is not the sole purview of the clergy; rather it is for all to share in. All are to run this race, and all of us are encouraged to run and box with heart.
One final word about Paul's use of sports metaphors in 1 Corinthians 9. Paul talks about the victory wreath that is the prize for which we run our race. It is crucial both to understand and to preach this "wreath" for what it actually is. The wreath itself is not one's own resurrection or prize of eternal life. Neither is the wreath one's own glory. Rather it is the faith and the salvation of those to whom you proclaim the gospel. In almost every case where Paul speaks of the wreath or crown, he is talking about "you" to whom he has preached the gospel and who have come to believe (cf. Philippians 2:16, 4:1).
The proclamation of the gospel, be it public or private, in front of an audience or one-to-one, can be difficult. As Paul says elsewhere it may seem like foolishness and folly to many who hear it, and this will, from time to time, reflect back on we who proclaim it. But this is our imperishable wreath, the life and salvation of those for whom and with whom we run this race. "So [let us] not run aimlessly...so that after proclaiming to others [we ourselves] should not be disqualified."