Summary: 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. 25Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.
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. 25Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. 26So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; 27but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.
“I do not box as though beating the air,” says St. Paul, and all the boxers in the congregation say … Amen!
There was a great choice of readings to work with today – from Elisha’s healing of Naaman the Syrian to Jesus’ healing of the leprous man in today’s Gospel reading – but I don’t think anybody will blame me today for choosing this passage from St Paul’s first epistle to the Christians at Corinth – “I do not box as though beating the air” – when today we have baptized a lad of such prestigious pugilistic pedigree and who promises to be such a fantastic future fighter!
“I do not box as though beating the air”! You might have thought that I had dug through the Scriptures and specifically plucked this passage out today, but it is not so! This is the reading scheduled in our lectionary, believe it or not!
Evidently it was meant to be – predestined from before the foundation of the world perhaps – that on this auspicious day, when there are so many boxers in the house, that St Paul’s one and only reference to boxing would be read!
Of course, Paul wasn’t referring to the Queensbury-rules-style of boxing with which so many of us are familiar. In St Paul’s day boxing was far more brutal!
There are no shortage of people today, of course, who consider modern boxing to be barbaric. It might help put such things in perspective by comparing the type of sport-fighting to which St Paul was accustomed – namely, the ancient Greek Pankration, which was the original fighting art of the Olympic Games.
Even though it was considered a noble sport, the Pankration was a brutal form of no-rules fighting where too naked men tore away at each other until the one left standing was ultimately able to claim the wreath with which he would be crowned Olympic champion!
Legend has it that when Ulysses returned from the Trojan wars his own mother didn’t recognise him. I’m told though that when the Pankration champion returned from the first Olympics that his own dog couldn’t recognise him! First-century boxing was a brutal activity, which is why it might strike a to be a strange sort of metaphor to use with regards to the Christian life!
In our culture, being a follower of Christ is often considered to be a bit ‘girly’. Indeed, not only in our 21st century Australian culture but worldwide, Christianity seems to have taken on a certain feminine character.
I remember our dear friend Father Elias (the colourful Catholic monk who served us so well here as a part of our community a few years back) saying to me that in France now, where his community is based, you are considered a Christian if your wife goes to church!
Now … I am not regretting that it is chiefly women who are now leading the church into the future (and this despite the best efforts of certain elements of the church’s leadership to hold them back) but I am sensing a certain cognitive dissonance between the imagery of the Christian life that is current in our own culture and that which is here being propagated by St Paul.
“I do not box as though beating the air,” says Paul, and his point is that real faith is a hands-on experience, and there is an implicit contrast here between two ways of trying to follow Christ – one that is a hands on, body-on-the-line type of stoush, and another which is something more akin to boxercise, where you appear to be fighting but when, in fact, you’re only punching the air!
Now I’ve got nothing against boxercise, but as a boxing trainer and fight club manager I can tell you that I often have to make the point to our clients that “this is not a boxercise gym”.
Most people do recognise that of course when they turn up to ‘Father Dave’s Fight Club’. They realise that they are joining a fight club and not a boxercise class, but occasionally people do need to be reminded, because there is a big difference between the two types of gym, and people attend the two for very different reasons, just as people attend church for very different reasons.