Olympic fever is about to strike the world! The summer games are set to begin in a few days in London with opening ceremonies to be held July 27.
You may be surprised to know that Olympics were a pretty big deal when the apostles were alive and, as you read Paul’s letters, it appears he was a fan. The games, races, and even the crowns given to victors are mentioned more than a dozen times in the letters of the New Testament, always as metaphors for the Christian spiritual life.
So, as the Olympics take center stage across the world, I’ll be preaching a five-part sermon series titled, The Games: Faster, Higher, Stronger. Sermons in this series will examine the spiritual lessons and metaphors the apostles found in the ancient games.
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. I Corinthians 9:24-25
Beloved…this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:13-14
In the ancient games athletes did not receive medals, but crowns, and the crowns weren’t made of metal. The Olympic athletes won a crown made of olive branches. In Corinth it was at times a crown made of pine branches, but it is thought in the mid-first century when Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians, the crown was made of celery!
Paul notes, however, that we do not compete in this race of faith for a crown of celery—a perishable wreath—but for the crown of life—an imperishable one. In competing for the crown of life, we compete for the chance to honor God, to change the world, and to receive eternal life.
This idea of the Christian life as a race was one Paul used throughout his life. Of course, metaphors always break down at some point. The Christian life is not a competition against others, for instance. But the idea of athletes racing towards a prize works well to convey Paul’s message.
Like Olympic athletes, we’re meant to be self-disciplined, to focus on the goal, and to be wholly committed to finishing well. The Christian life was not to be pursued half-heartedly, but full-on. We are to give it our all as we go for the “gold.”
Take a moment to watch the video I've posted here from Candy Merrill who won Gold in 1984 for synchronized swimming. She speaks of what's required of an Olympic athlete. (Pastors, if you'd like to use this video clip as a sermon illustration, you may play it from this page or download it here.)
For more about the Olympics and the Christian Life, listen to the latest sermon series, The Games: Faster, Higher, Stronger.