Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.
It’s not always, possible, taking him out of context, in little snippets, to catch the sustained passion in Paul’s writing. This passage comes at the end of a chapter where Paul defends, defines, lauds even , his freedom. Defiantly he asks those who challenge his authority – wanting to question his status, to place him under the Jerusalem church: ‘Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? ‘ And in those remarks we hear echoes of his earlier remarkable claims that all things are permitted to him; all things are lawful .
But such freedom brings its own costs and demands. ‘For though I am free from all people – or from the law of Moses – I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more.’
It’s this tension between radical freedom from all laws, demands, controls on the one hand and the deep inner discipline which rules his life in the gospel as the slave of Christ on the other, which defines Christian existence for Paul.
The great prophet of religious freedom, Martin Luther – the greatest of all Paul’s interpreters? – put it like this: ‘A Christian is a perfectly free Lord of all, subject to none; a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.’
How does this service in and out of freedom work? How do we as 21st century Christians find the freedom perfectly to serve all?
The paradox is rooted in Paul’s love of Christ: he is captured by this figure who gives his all for others, regardless. And his love for Christ both frees him from fear and guilt and the compulsive striving to please AND frees him to share that love, to win others to this loving life of freely given service.
The trouble is it all sounds too good to be true and anyway we all know that Paul could be pretty savage when roused; so do Paul’s claims ring somewhat hollow?
Perhaps that’s precisely the point that Paul is addressing here: however much we are captured by the beauty of the Christian vision of God’s love, of that free-flowing, healing and self-giving love: we are all too likely to be brought up short by our failure to live up to it; by the ease which we are drawn off to cultivate our old fears and compulsions, to give way to those old patterns of behaviour which promise peace and happiness but prove to be false friends.
There has to be a shape to our Christian lives, we have to discover new patterns of living, we need to enter a community, a school of faith which can help us focus our minds and hearts on that living, healing love, which can foster our timorous faith, strengthen and embolden us to embrace the true freedom of the Christian.
Paul – here- chooses the image of the athlete: the disciplined training, the self-control, focus, pushing one’s body as far as it will go – and there’s a whole history of Christian asceticism to go with this: fasting, vigils, scourging, complex patterns of prayer. All that has its place within the wide array of different Christian spiritualities which have emerged in the course of church history.
Today I would like briefly to explore a rather different tradition of Christian spirituality (with roots in the Dominican and Luther an traditions (Thomas Aquinas, Hooker, Bonhoeffer!) This sees Christian discipleship – the following of Jesus – less as an individual struggle against the flesh – pummelling the body – more as a communal exercise in growing together in love and service of Christ.
On such a view, we seek to become a community of friends who through dialogue and careful listening to each other seek to learn more of Christ’s love, more of his concerns and purposes for the world with its sorrows and deep needs, its suffering. We need to allow ourselves to be caught up in the beauty of God’s world and to be moved to anger and action by what we are doing to it. We need to allow ourselves to be entranced by the beauty of God’s people and to be moved to compassion as we share in Christ’s suffering for his poor and oppressed brothers and sisters.
This process of mutual learning focuses our minds, our senses, our desires on Christ’s love and Christ’s world; and it prepares us for our worship, for our communal acts of prayer.
Again, it’s when we meet together for worship that our prayers are most focused on God’s love in Christ: as we are caught up in the beauty of holiness, as we bring to him our concerns, our hopes and fears for our friends, our world, and are drawn together into the community of those who are kindled by the fire of his love, renewed in the service of his love. All that we have learnt is refreshed and given new definition and meaning as it is brought in the eucharist into the circle of his love.
And from here we are sent out to act, to serve Christ and his world, to further his Kingdom, to fight for justice, well-being for all, an end to the terrible inequalities and discriminations of our world; for peace, security, food, education, health for all.
Learning, praying, acting together, supporting each other: all these three mark out the life of Christian discipleship, as we are drawn deeper into his love. It is a rhythm which will lead us into the liberty of the sons and daughters of God, will free us from fear and compulsion so that we may serve, may act with compassion, drawing others into the circle of Christ’s love.
Over this year, as we work out our common vision for justice and aid, we shall use this pattern to structure and support our common purpose.
Let me finish with a prayer of St. Augustine which reflects and draws together a number of these themes:
Let your light, O Lord, shine on our path. Refresh our senses and our minds that we may be able to encourage the souls of all those who journey with us on the road of life to you. Amen.