Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The ancient Greeks dated events by a four -year span known as an Olympiad, based on the four-year cycle of the all-Greek athletic games.  These games including the Nemean, Pythean and Isthmian, as well as the historic and better known Olympic Games. The games were important in Greek culture, particularly because the Greeks exalted the human body and athletic prowess. The majority of the Jews living in the region, however, did not approve of the games, partly because they were held in honor of pagan gods, but also because the athletes participated in the sports naked. Jewish modesty did not promote open sensuality and physicality.

The Isthmian Games which were held in honor of the god Poseidon, the god of the sea, were held near Corinth every two years on the Isthmus of Corinth. At the center of the site of the games was a temple to Poseidon, together with a stadium for the foot-races, a theatre and a hippodrome for chariot races. Inside the temple was a small building called the Palaimon where athletes took an oath, swearing to obey the rules of the games. Athletes competed in foot races, wrestling, boxing, throwing the discus and javelin, the long jump and chariot racing. For each competition, there was only one winner, who received a crown of celery leaves. There was no award for second place.  No gold nor silver nor bronze.

We know from history that the Isthmian games were held in the spring of AD 51, around the time Paul was preaching in Corinth. There was no permanent accommodations or Olympic Village provided, so athletes and spectators stayed in tents set up in surrounding fields. This would be a good business opportunity for Paul, together with Aquila, who arrived in Corinth at the same time as Paul, to work together as tent-makers They could make or repair tents for the spectators and preach the Gospel at the same time. Many thousands of people from around Greece and the Roman Empire attended the games.

Indirectly, the Apostle Paul referred to the games in his Letter to the Corinthians. “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. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.”

The passage contains many Greek words associated with the games, particularly focusing on running and boxing. For instance, the word for ‘race’ is ‘stadia’, which is the word for a race-track stadium. The word for ‘exercise’ is ‘agonizomos’ from which we get the English word ‘agony’.  There were no lines painted onto the running tracks, so runners had to keep focused on where they were running. The word for boxing is ‘pukteuo’, from which we get the English word ‘pugnacious.’  Roman boxing was brutal and vicious. The boxer’s knuckles were wrapped with leather straps, or even with pieces of lead or iron spikes, which would do serious injury to his opponent. Boxing the air, or shadow boxing, was sufficient for practice, but not for a real fight. The fight could continue for up to four hours or until the opponent was knocked out or left dead, or one boxer “signaled defeat by a raised index finger.”

Paul’s message to the Church in Corinth referenced the Greek traditions of the games, and he was particularly focusing on the Greek side of the congregation. This was Paul’s way. To the Greeks, he chose to be Greek, to the Jews he was Jewish, to the slaves he spoke as a slave, and to the freed men as freed men. He tried to speak to all people from a language point they could understand.  And as the Body of Christ, he stated, regardless of our birth, we are all in a race, so we have to run to win with determination and perseverance to reach the finishing line. We have to keep focused and on course to finish without wandering off or being distracted.  Just as there is only one prize for the winner of the race, the athlete must always keep their eyes on the prize.  The apostles then underscored, that if athletes are willing to agonize and forsake worldly pleasure exercising and striving for a perishable wreath, how much more should Christians be willing to agonize for an imperishable crown of glory that leads to eternal life.

Boxing was serious and brutal competition, and at times, so could the Christian life. Indeed, at times it could be a spiritual battle demanding more than mere shadow boxing. Paul himself punished his own body, so that he would not be disqualified.  This could at least mean getting a black eye. The Christian life needed self-denial and commitment to the fight, as to not lose out on the final reward.

Salvation, for Paul, was by grace through faith for all, for Greeks and Jews, slaves and free, male and female, young and old.  And every believer had a gift that could be brought into play for proclaiming the gospel.  That was always his word of hope. But for the Church of Corinth, he also confessed that as the Body of Christ, they we called and rightfully expected to use their gifts for the sake of the God’s kingdom. Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.