Running With Olympic Faith

(From a Sermon at Carillon Beach Chapel- 9-4-16  by Cathy Byrd)             Olympic Medals in Faith’s Race

1 Corinthians 3:10-15.
The Apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthian Christians and to us:
“By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will himself be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.”     May the Word of God reside in our hearts and bring us ever closer to the heart of God!

In the summer of 2016 we witnessed the quadrennial celebration of the Summer Olympics.  More than 200 nations participate in the Olympic Games. The 2016 Rio Summer Olympics was the 31st Olympiad of the modern era. Athletes spend years of preparation and training for the privilege of competing in their respective sports events. 2016  was and outstanding year with many records broken,  new levels of excellence demonstrated… physical feats and in inspiration of spirits. The US athletes took home 46 Gold medals, 37 Silver medals, and 38 Bronze medals, for a total of 121. Pre-game projections had expected the US team to win 108 medals. Performance was actually 11% greater than had been expected!  The next highest nation, China, had 70 total medals. Great Britain had 67. Russia-56. Germany and France each had 42 and Japan had 41.

Here is a brief history reported on the Olympics in a published tourist guide from Athens, Greece:
“The original Olympic Games were held in the ancient Greek city of Olympia that since the 10th century BC. was a religious and political meeting place. The first recorded celebration of the Games at Olympia was in 776 BC. The games were dedicated to the 12 Olympian Gods and were hosted on the ancient green plains of Olympia. The place was famous for its magnificent great temples of the two gods, Zeus and his wife Hera. The games initially had a very religious character combined with a number of ancient sport events. As many as 40,000 spectators would come to cheer on the athletes. Athletes represented their respective city-states or other kingdoms and all hostilities between such groups were halted for the competitions.
The ancient Olympic Games had an important position in the life of the Ancient Greeks. Every four-year interval, participants came from every corner of the Greek world to compete for the ultimate prize, the olive wreath and the return to their city-states as heroes.

Other sources note that the winners of the games were admired and immortalized through poems and statues. But the Olympic values, apart from winning the victory, inspired participants to noble competition and extraordinary effort to combine the body, mind, and will in a balanced whole. The games epitomized competition, displays of human capability, desire to please the gods, and a desire for fame.

In the 4th century A.D. after the Roman Empire’s rise and Christianity’s arrival on the scene of history, the games were banned as pagan excesses. Interest in resuming the games began in the 19th century and the first summer games of the modern Olympiad were held in 1896 under the direction of French organizer Pierre de Coubertin. He defined the goal of the games as aspiring to an attitude that transcends nationalism and brings out the finest in the human spirit — generosity, honesty and good sportsmanship. In 1924, the Winter Olympics were begun and alternated with the quadrennial Summer Olympics with 2 years between them.
In modern times, the games have become highly commercialized and branded. Budgets for the games have ballooned to extraordinary heights, controversies have arisen, cities across the globe have competed to become venues for the games or been priced out of the market.

Controversy seems as common as the trademark rings in Olympic years. In addition to demonstrated excellence in many ways, this year’s games in Rio de Janeiro were marred by some pretty bad behavior, too — gold medalist Ryan Lochte and three other Team USA swimmers reportedly lied about vandalizing a gas station; an Egyptian athlete refused to shake the hand of his triumphant Israeli opponent; an Olympic official was arrested for scalping tickets; and several athletes were robbed at gunpoint. There were also bold expressions of faith and goodwill evident such as that of runners Allyson Felix and Usain Bolt and others, who made their faith in God clear in their words and actions. Such faith expressions reveal that the level of competition for many demands that they reach deeply into their spirit, relying on their faith and seeking God’s help to sustain them through the difficult training and competition. Usain boldly proclaimed that God had given him the gift of speed in order to bring glory to God and to spread the Gospel!

Although their neighboring countries are officially at war, that didn’t deter gymnasts Lee Eun-ju of South Korea and Hong Un-jong of North Korea from taking a smiling selfie together before their competition. “This is why we do the Olympics,” one analyst said. Another commented with a Twitter post, saying, “Sports bring everyone together.”

Prior to the start of the 2016 Summer Olympics, I heard a message on Christian radio by James MacDonald that was very apropos, in which he related the degrees of honor conferred by the three winners’ medals- bronze, silver, and gold- to standards of conduct to which we may aspire in our Christian faith. Today’s scripture from 1 Corinthians 3 demonstrates that there are indeed varying degrees of quality in how we live out our Christian lives that will be tested on the day of judgment. Such metaphors for the quality of our works, whether it is the quality of training and performance in athletic competition or the quality of materials we use for construction of the house of our faith on the foundation that is Christ, speak to us about the reality that what one gets out of an effort depends on what one puts into it.

Instead of athletic competition, let’s think for a moment about moral decisions in situations in which we have a choice about how we respond. First, let’s consider the situation in which someone has harmed you. There are several ways that one may respond in Christian character. The first way is in not seeking revenge, not repaying evil for evil. Instead, as Christians we are told to trust in God’s justice……We are to turn the other cheek and overlook the offense. That is a high standard, indeed. And rising to that standard will, no doubt, represent Christ well and please God. But, in considering all the biblical responses available to us in Christ, this one may be compared to obtaining the bronze medal. What, one may ask? Overlooking and offense is a very high standard. How can it only be bronze? Well, bronze is still quite an accomplishment, one that is obedient to Christ’s teaching and honors God. But, there is another standard in the Bible that is even greater:

Forgiveness. Write it off. Release the person from debt. Expect nothing. Require nothing. In this response, one does not even plead to God for justice, but simply extends forgiveness, even if no apology is made and even if no repentance is demonstrated. That degree of active forgiveness is an even higher response to being wronged by others.

By way of example: Recall when Dylan Roof, a sick and vilely motivated young man, went into a church Bible study in Charleston in June of 2015 and shot and killed 9 innocent, unarmed, non-violent people. The response by the families of the victims and the church members was extraordinary…..they forgave. At the memorial service, numerous people of different races and religions attended and the victims’ families and the congregation proclaimed that the attack would not divide the community. They grieved their losses and they forgave. There were no riots, no demonstrations, no angry calls for justice. There was just extraordinary grace for the victims’ families and for a sick and evil young man and his shocked and grieving family, as well. He was charged with 9 counts of murder and 33 counts of hate crimes. He faced and the state prosecutor sought the death penalty. Forgiveness, even extended to one in such extraordinary circumstances as these, does not always result in one avoiding the consequences of the offending behavior. But it does keep the evil from escalating and involving others, which is what Dylan Roof had desired, a race war.

Such a high measure of grace as forgiveness for such egregious offenses is only available through a close trusting relationship with Christ and can be likened to a silver medal response to being hurt. Surely, Christ IS honored and God IS pleased by our rising to such a high standard of Christian goodness. Even so, there is yet another standard that is higher still, and requires even more faith and dependence on God. It can be considered the Gold medal of faith. And what could that be?

It is doing good to your enemy. The natural human response is usually not to ignore harm done to us, and not even to simply forgive unconditionally. And now we find that Christ calls us to yet an even higher measure of faith and works in Christian living……to do good to one’s enemy.

In 2 Samuel 9:1. David calls for Saul’s sons and slaves to be brought to him after Saul’s death. The usual response when one’s enemy had been defeated was to kill his family so that no one would rise up to continue the battle later. And that is what Saul’s family feared. Instead, David made Saul’s grandson, Mephibosheth, like his own family and gave land to Saul’s other family and servants. He blessed the family of the one by whose hand he had been persecuted. It was an extraordinary response……one that made it clear why David was a “man after God’s own heart.”

OK, we’ve looked at the bronze, silver, and gold standard of measuring responses to having been hurt by someone.  Now let’s look at a different kind of event…..a different scenario…… and how to weigh the value of different responses, all of which are also biblical and honorable. Consider that one has been greatly blessed and prospered.

What are the standards for Christian response to prosperity and blessing? Certainly, Christians are called to cheerful generosity in giving. When one has been financially or materially blessed, being generous with one’s blessings is a wonderful way to respond. And that will be sincerely honored and accounted as righteousness before God, I believe. When one considers the options one has for expressing extravagant generosity according to the standard of Christ himself, giving out of one’s plenty is a bronze medal kind of response. It is valuable. It is good. It is honorable.

There is, however, a higher standard of measure in terms of generosity to which Christ calls us, too….the silver medal response of service to others. With this, one becomes willing to engage in personal service with one’s own time, spiritual gifts, training and talents, as well as financial resources. The silver medal response means that one is willing to be the hands and feet of Christ to others in the world, in addition to giving money. It is a response that speaks of one choosing to not only support a Christian cause, but to also be an active participant, a disciple…..putting one’s faith into action through service to others. It doesn’t require traveling halfway around the world to do this either. It is living day by day out of a desire and extending an invitation to God to create in our hearts and minds a sensitivity daily to the opportunities that God has put right before us…. to help a neighbor, to serve one’s church family, to intercede in prayer for those who are hurting, to volunteer in the community, to visit the sick, to offer encouragement to the downhearted, to listen with a heart that hears the hurt of another. Surely, this is what Christ has called us to do and we glorify God when we serve others. It will undoubtedly result in stars in the crowns of those who do it for the glory of God and out of gratitude and love for God and others.

Can there be an even higher standard to which one can aspire in the faith realm? Well, actually, there is. The gold medal standard of our faith is sacrifice. Instead of giving out of our plenty, or giving of our time and talents, we become willing to give sacrificially, even in our scarcity, even when it costs us greatly, when we are out of our comfort zones and feeling inadequate… is an act of trust that honors God even more greatly than anything else we can do! In 2 Samuel 24:24 King David is seeking out a place to for the temple to be built. He finds a suitable place and makes an offer to purchase it to present to the nation as a gift to honor God. The owner, recognizing the king says he will give it free. But David says “I will not offer that which cost me nothing.” Are we tempted to give to God that which has cost us nothing? Or are we willing to sacrifice in order to give a greater measure of devotion to God, demonstrating our confidence in his provision for us and his ability to use what we have given, multiply it and make it even more impactful? Jesus commended the widow who gave the last of her money….though it was a small sum…..saying she had given more than any of the others because she gave out of her lack of wealth….not out of the excess she had. Such is God’s regard for our sacrificial giving….it is a sweet gift, not because of its literal value, but because of what it demonstrates about our faith and our confidence in his love, care, and provision for our future.

So, we see in these examples what one may relate to as the bronze, silver, and gold medals of faith that will be honored by God, both in our response to having been hurt deeply, or in having been blessed greatly and prospered in life. Our response to such circumstances, whether we stand with honor bearing the bronze, the silver, or the gold medal…. have absolutely no bearing our salvation….that was assured to us the moment we accepted Christ as our savior. Our salvation does not depend on any achievement by us….but only on our faithfulness in remaining true to our profession of faith in Christ. Our responses, however, will reveal the degree to which we have risen in the call to discipleship in our faith journey…. How well our efforts in building our individual house of faith upon the foundation of Christ with our service, giving, worship, and forgiveness, will determine what our reward will be in heaven.

I have a friend in his mid 60’s who came to faith in Christ about 15 years ago. He had lived a worldly life of excess in many ways. He has been a faithful servant of the Lord since coming to Christ. Even so, when he remembers this verse from 1 Corinthians about the fire of judgement determining the quality of construction of one’s spiritual life and works of service and mercy, he says he prays that God will be merciful with him in regard to how he has built upon the foundation of faith in Christ with his service, worship, and generosity and that, while he knows he is going to heaven, he will be grateful to dash through the gates, even it is with his shirttail on fire.

Bruce Wilkinson, author of “The Prayer of Jabez” with which some may be familiar, also wrote another book entitled “A Life that God Rewards.” In it Wilkinson says that Jesus’ teachings reveal 2 keys that determine everything about our eternity. The first key is our belief. This key unlocks the door to eternal life and determines where one will spend eternity. The second key is our behavior. It unlocks the door to reward and determines how one will spend eternity. Although one’s eternal destination is based on belief, our eternal compensation depends on our behavior while on earth……and the treasures that have been stored in heaven corresponding to our behavior.

The quality of our works, our actions, our behavior, the effectiveness of our witness, our conduct as Christians that arises out of our faith…..will not determine whether or not we go to heaven. But it will determine the reward that we receive when we get there. In Matthew 16:27 Jesus told his disciples, “For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works.” For believers, heaven will hold no threat, only great promise and joy. Jesus rewards our good works, our good works being the material with which we build our spiritual house on top of the foundation of belief in Christ, but it will be in the future heavenly realm, not here. The Scriptures are rich with evidence of the acts for which believers will be rewarded: Here is a quick list to consider:

  • For seeking him through spiritual disciplines like fasting and praying (Matt 6:5, He 11:6)
  • For submitting to those in authority as faithful stewards (Matt 24:45-47, Eph 6:8, Col 3:22-24)
  • For self-denial in service to Christ ( Matt 16:24-27)
  • For serving those in need in his name (Mark 9:41)
  • For suffering for his name and reputation (Luke 6:22-23)
  • For sacrifices one makes for him…(Luke 6:35), in fact he says one who sacrifices to follow him will be rewarded a hundredfold (Matt 19:29)
  • For sharing one’s time, talent, and treasure to further his kingdom. (Matt 6:3-4, 1 Tim 6:1

One doesn’t have to be a supersaint. We each begin right where we are, with what we’ve been given and we use it according to our ability and our obedience to God’s will and purpose for our life. Later in 1 Corinthians 4:5, Paul says, “Judge nothing before the time, until the lord comes…then each one’s praise will come from God. Only after the test by fire will we finally see how one’s life has added up for eternity. The fire will make the truth obvious to all. And when we see it, we will completely agree with the judgement of Jesus and the reward that follows.

As Wilkinson states in his book, the top reward, the gold standard, the greatest medal is reserved for those whose works are motivated by love…. Fully devoted love for God and love for others……. And that love is not in what we say…it is in what we do. In all our doing, let us do it all according to the gold standard of love, not for how people can repay us here on earth, not even for how we will be compensated in heaven, but because of our gratitude and joy in serving Christ.

In the closing promises of the New Testament in Revelation 22:12, Jesus says, “Behold, I am coming quickly and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work.” We will be welcomed into our eternal home, to a place prepared for us, with rewards commensurate with the effort we have made toward the building of the kingdom. And each will be privileged to hear the Lord say, as he gives each his person reward….”Well done, good and faithful servant.” May we build well upon the foundation we’ve been given in Christ with the quality materials we’ve been given in our lives that we may receive the rewards prepared for us in eternity!