Summary: ’I do not box as though beating the air’ - the little known fight career of St Paul! ...
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. (25) Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. (26) So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; (27) but 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!
OK. I’m conscious of the fact that not everybody here would have chosen this passage as his or her choice text for the sermon this morning, but I am sure that you can appreciate that, for me, this is one of the few times where boxing gets an explicit wrap in the Bible, and when it comes leaping out of the lectionary at us like this it is hard for me to overlook it.
In my defense I note further that this is only the second time I have ever preached on this text. Going back over my sermon notes from some years ago, I noted too that on the last occasion I dealt with this text I actually had a black eye, which served as an excellent opening illustration.
I no longer have a black eye. I’m no longer competing quite as vigorously as I once did. Indeed, I am conscious of the fact that I am a fair bit older and flabbier now than last time I dealt with this passage. Having said that, while I readily acknowledge that my physique is in steady decline, I would like to think that my spiritual six-pack, as it were, is tighter now than it was then!
For that’s the real thrust of the passage, isn’t it? It’s about spiritual training, and the development of the spiritual athlete. And in as much as Paul seems to be drawing upon his own experience as a ring-fighter, his application is to the spiritual arena, where he sees the real fight taking place.
I must say though that I do in all seriousness believe that St. Paul had genuine first-hand experience as a ring-fighter (and quite possibly as a runner too). And if he did it wouldn’t have been in the relatively sanitized style of modern pugilism either. There were no ’Queensbury Rules’ matches back then. The ’boxing’ St. Paul would have been familiar with was that practiced in the ancient Pankration - the greatest of the sporting contests of the ancient Greeks.
The Pankration, in St. Paul’s time, was the final climactic event in the early Olympic games. The Games used to conclude with this event - featuring two naked men tearing each other to pieces in centre ring. Legend has it that when Ulysses returned from the Trojan wars his own mother couldn’t recognise him. According to my friend Kon (Vice-president of the Australian Pankration Federation), when the Pankration champion returned from the Olympic games, his own dog couldn’t recognise him.
The traditional Pankration was not a sport for women and children. It was designed for hard men who were just a little bit crazy - and that fits St. Paul to a tee I think. Indeed, it’s one of my quiet hopes that when the Kingdom comes I’ll get the opportunity to do a few rounds with St. Paul. I suppose that might not be everybody’s idea of Heaven but ...