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Gospel Disciplines

February 13, 2012

“Gospel Disciplines” 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 © 2/12/12 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I was a huge fan of novelist Tom Clancy. These days I don’t know if he’s still writing or even living, but back then my morning ritual after Susan left for work was to curl up with the dog in a favorite chair and read one of Clancy’s books for about 30 minutes. (Actually I read; the pup slept.) I think I began with The Hunt for Red October. Then there was The Sum of All Fears and Patriot Games. All those novels featured a character named Jack Ryan, who rose from a minor job at the CIA to the presidency.

One of Clancy’s works that wasn’t about Ryan was titled Without Remorse. Its main character is a former Navy SEAL named John Kelley. Though retired from service, Kelley is still a physically imposing man, hardened by combat in Vietnam. His strength saves him and enables him to recover when he is badly wounded in an encounter with drug dealers. His girlfriend, however, is killed by the same people, and Kelley is now on a mission, which he intends to see through to the end. He will not stop until he has exacted revenge on those who hurt him and took away the one he loved.

Kelley prepares for his coming confrontation with evil just as he did for war in the jungle. He recovers strength in his wounded shoulder through long-distance swimming and other exercises. He hones his skill for hand-to-hand combat with Tai Chi. His planning for his foray into the urban war zone includes making his own silencer, coming up with a convincing disguise as a street bum, doing reconnaissance of the area, and keeping long vigils at night, watching the street from an upstairs window. Nothing will stop him.

If someone had asked the apostle Paul to comment on John Kelley’s activities, he might have found much to admire. For one thing, he would say that if you’re going to go into a contest, you ought to make sure you’re putting everything you’ve got into what you’re doing. Why run, why play, why do anything if you’re not seeking to succeed, to reach the goal? For example, who would enter a romantic relationship hoping it would fail? No; the hope is for mutual enjoyment and companionship. Or who would go into an athletic competition with his mind made up to fumble the ball or earn penalties or score for the opponent by mistake? Who starts a new job intent on making the boss angry, alienating co-workers, and getting fired very soon? Who studies for a test, hoping for an F? No—we want to succeed: to win the game, to keep the job, to pass the test.

Next, like Kelley, Paul is realistic about the kind of world we face. Just entering the race doesn’t mean you’re going to win. Put another way, overconfidence can be deadly. John Kelley underestimated his opponents, forgot some of the lessons of war, and got hurt. His girlfriend was killed.

Paul would say there are also spiritual enemies that we need to be aware of, which elsewhere someone calls “principalities and powers.” But many times, let’s admit, our greatest enemy is ourselves. So we need to know our limits. We never take ourselves—our abilities, our goodness, our spirituality—for granted. We don’t become overconfident in situations we know are difficult for us or are likely to compromise us morally. There’s always somebody who knows which button to push so we become angry or anxious or confused. And there are some things that tempt us more than others. Maybe what we want is money or power or sex or prestige or popularity or recognition for our service. We have to know and be on guard against our particular weakness. We can never let up on the vigilance or forsake our discipline.

Athletes and musicians train themselves through practice and hard work. So it is also in the spiritual arena, the spiritual stage. We practice what we believe by being part of a community of faith and engaging in service; we gain strength in prayer and study of Scripture and from Holy Communion. We channel the energy of our anger and fear and prejudice and jealousy into more helpful pursuits with positive return for ourselves and others. We decide to use our very bodies as instruments of God, holy and dedicated. God values our bodies, and so should we.

That last statement is very important—that our bodies are valued. There is a kind of Christianity that equates the body with sin and takes Paul’s teaching about punishing the body to mean that it is the source of all that is evil and unholy. If back in the day you read or saw the movie version of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, you know of the killer monk who after murdering thinks he can cleanse himself by severely whipping his back or can keep focused on the holy by wearing a barbed ring called a “cilice” around his thigh, a device that constantly brings him pain. That approach to Christian living is entirely wrong-headed and not even Christian, in fact, because it implicitly denies one of the central doctrines of our faith. Our bodies are not the problem; remember God chose to be incarnate, to take flesh, as a human being. We are not spiritual beings trapped in flesh. We are our bodies, we are our souls, one united with the other.

What Paul is recommending is spiritual discipline that focuses our physical energy in a direction other than fulfilling our appetites, other than getting what we want. With Lent approaching in ten days, this is a good time to consider that ancient discipline of fasting, certainly a practice which involves the body. I should say, if you can, because not everyone’s health will allow going without food.

Now, you can look at me and tell I haven’t missed too many meals. And I’ve only tried fasting a few times in my life—once in high school, once again in college, and then fasting for lunch every Friday during Lent about a decade ago. So I have little personal experience with the practice to share with you.

But refraining from food or certain kinds of food may not be the discipline you or I need, because it won’t teach us the lessons we need to learn about the power of our appetites. But what about other sorts of doing without that could also be a spiritual discipline, freely chosen? What if you or I fasted from Facebook and our phone for Lent? And we spent the considerable time freed up volunteering in some worthwhile cause? Or say we refrained from shopping online, from downloading that album or that new book or we decided we really didn’t need this or that item? (To which we say “It ain’t a matter o’ need.”) And we gave the money we would have spent to a charity? What if our fast were to drive more carefully and patiently? Suppose we fasted, refrained, from attitudes and practices that potentially harm others, like prejudice, jealously, anger, intolerance, hatred, playing emotional games, dishonesty, and whatever else we could name. Whatever is hard for us to give up, and then take up something in its place, is fasting.

But, again, we need to choose it freely, not have it imposed. As one writer has said: “Because fasting is chosen, not imposed, it teaches important lessons about will power and making life-enhancing decisions, as well as the critical importance of choosing to seek God, rather than passively waiting to be found” (Tom Ehrich).

So, discipline freely chosen, whether through fasting or some other practice, is key. Focusing on a goal is all-important. Being aware of who we are and what our limits are is essential. But if Paul would admire Tom Clancy’s character for all those things, he would be very concerned about the goal Kelley pursued. Revenge is not a worthy aim in life. Instead, Paul recommends worthwhile goals, based on what I call “gospel values.”

One he holds up for us is being a good role model for others. He’s concerned about being disqualified in this race of life. In other words, after he has preached to people, after he’s tried to help them find a better way to live, he doesn’t want a lack of discipline and focus to mean he’s not an example of the message.

So that’s a good goal for us: to be a role model. I urge and encourage you to be aware of who is watching you, who looks up to you, who seeks to copy you. There’s a funny commercial running these days that teaches that lesson. It’s for satellite TV—I don’t remember which one—and reminds people not to get frustrated with cable, but to get a dish instead. A dad whose TV reception has quit yet again is pounding on the table in anger while his little girl looks on and copies him. So she learns to deal with her frustrations through violence. Because of that, years later, she gets kicked out of school and starts hanging with the wrong crowd. She gets married young to a guy she met, and in the last scene, she presents her stunned father with a baby wearing a dog collar and his little bit of hair full of gel and sticking way up. The announcer says “If you don’t want a grandson wearing a dog collar, get [our satellite TV].”

You never know who’s watching you or me and what they will do with what they see, what they will become because of our example. So we need always to think about what and whom we represent. Our behavior as believers needs to reflect who Jesus is.

That’s not at all an unreasonable expectation. In a business, the lowliest intern up to the CEO is a representative of the company, and people will judge it in part by their behavior. Warmth and welcome and ethical actions pay off long-term, just as sloppy work for clients or immoral living outside the workplace will have a negative effect on the bottom line. In the world of faith, ruling and teaching elders especially, but really all members of a church, are expected to act in a manner consistent with the gospel. And that’s true whether someone is watching or not. We don’t have a public face and private face; when we are being faithful to Jesus, we’re the same authentic people everywhere and all the time.

So authenticity is a gospel value, as we’ve noticed in recent weeks. The other goal Paul invites us to adopt is building a community of people. Along with others, we try to discover something better than the typical way people live these days, namely, hateful, arrogant, violent, suspicious. The Church—that’s you, that’s me—the Church is to be the visible demonstration of what God intends for all humanity. We are sacraments: ordinary people who are concrete signs of the grace of God. Rob Bell, in his book Jesus Wants to Save Christians, calls every believer a “living Eucharist.”

We can show the world by our disciplined actions in a Christ-centered community that there is a better way. What if we worked for a world where people get along without violence and war, where those who were previously excluded were included? Or chose as our focus a world where the seas, the land, the air and the airwaves are not polluted? Those are worthwhile, gospel goals, worth disciplining ourselves for. And what about our use of resources: our money, our time, our talents? How do we use those sacramentally, to show in a concrete way the grace of God? Bottom line: let’s ask about what’s important in our lives.

History—yours, mine, the whole world’s—is moving toward the goal God has for it. He won’t give up until he gets there. Until he sees his will for a just and generous church fulfilled, until he sees a world where his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. What God asks of us is to join him in what’s he’s doing and travel with him where’s he’s going. To discipline ourselves, run the race, and gain the victory in Christ.

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