Sporting competition has once again gripped the nation. After a long time off, we are catching up with events that were cancelled or postponed last year. Major tournaments and grand international contests are all lined up and it’s like a feast after a famine.
For many people watching global organised sports gives joy and inspiration like nothing else. Sports stars and athletes push themselves to the limit and battle it out. For them it is the highest honour to represent their nation and compete at the highest level. For spectators it is truly thrilling to cheer them on and urge them to victory (and truly gutting when they lose).
In sport we can savour and celebrate the best of humanity. It gives an exhilarating boost to our wellbeing, a tremendous sense of something bigger than us, something we can get behind. As we look in hope to extraordinary people who can represent us and win for us, we leave behind our worries and anxieties for a while.
We are drawn into a pure focus on a narrow field of excellence, awed by the scintillating display of prodigious talent finely honed by relentless dedication. When we watch the greatest physical feats human beings are capable of, we are inspired because we share in the same humanity, and connect with the triumph of being the best we can be.
There is also an aspirational collegiality and integrity to the sporting world. Wholesomeness is celebrated as well as excellence. Cheats are excluded, optimal facilities are provided and there is one set of rules for all. Team spirit fills the atmosphere and, in principle, everyone stands on a level playing field. We believe fairness, equality, honour and mutual respect to be pillars of all stadia, and, when these values are violated, it cannot be tolerated.
Within the hermetically sealed confines of a truly great sporting event, we experience momentary and rarified perfection. We bear witness to an unsustainable pinnacle of performance, which stands in arresting contrast to the default human experience of weaknesses, frustrations and failures. If we think about it, it shows us how we are all failures in every way. Yet, when we watch iconic sporting achievements, we are not dragged down into such negative contemplations. We are awakened to our desire for glory and reminded of its uncommonness.
Little wonder then that Paul refers to the athletic arena when he speaks of glory in 1 Corinthians 9. “Run in such a way,” he says in v24, “to win the prize.” Those who compete go into strict training, v25, but they do it for a crown that will not last. Even the prodigiously talented, who are relentlessly dedicated only experience a moment of glory; the pinnacle of their performance is unsustainable. The rest of us look on in awe, but then the moment is gone.
Our desire for glory can only be completely fulfilled in Christ’s glory as our champion. He shared our humanity so he could share his victory. He represented us and won for us. He triumphed over sin and death and when we put our faith in him, we are connected directly to him. Continuing the metaphor, Paul tells us that we get his crown and it is “a crown that will last forever.”
For Paul, Christ’s glory gives him a singular focus in his life as an apostle, a singular focus that he passes on to us, his readers. Running to win the prize means going all out for the gospel that saved us. Our desire for glory overflows in a desire for others to share in the glory with us. Paul regards his salvation and calling as a prodigious gift from God and dedicates his life to honing and sharing it: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (vv22-23).
This article was first published in the Church of England Newspaper and is reproduced here with permission.