Well, with the Super Bowl tonight and the Winter Olympics starting on Friday, it seems appropriate that our word for the week is Champion. Tonight, either the New England Patriots or the Philadelphia Eagles will emerge as football champions. Next week hundreds of elite athletes will begin competing to become champions in their chosen sport.
One definition of Champion is “One who defeats or surpasses all rivals.” The Olympic and football athletes are chasing that goal, to surpass all others and be crowned Champion. Scripture often uses athletic imagery and metaphors to illustrate a truth about our relationship to God. In fact the writers of scripture probably had at least a passing knowledge of the ancient Greek Olympic games upon which the modern version is based.
Our text today, is presented as Paul’s farewell address to his friend and protégé, Timothy. Here we get to know a Paul who is no longer traveling about the Mediterranean, no longer venturing out on the seas. His adventuring days are done. Now he whiles away his days sitting in the infamous Mamertine prison in Rome reflecting on his life’s journey. His small cramped cell was a dark, dank, dungeon; reachable only by a rope or latter from a hole in the floor above. There were no windows, no natural sunlight, no running water and no fresh air ventilation. It was a foul, pungent, confined space. It is in that place reflects on his life. At the heart of these powerful Pauline words is the intense human struggle each of us undertake to discern our life’s meaning.
In that horrid place and facing execution, Paul uses familiar athletic images of fighting the good fight and completing the race of life in faith. Yet it would be simplistic of us to apply our word champion to Paul at this moment in the same sense we may do later today to the winners of the football game. To define Paul’s good fight and completed race as sporting events “to win” runs the risk of simplifying the faithful life to a collecting of “souls” saved or the level of torture and martyrdom one endures.
So it is that I suggest we consider the second definition of a champion as “a person who fights for a cause or on behalf of someone else.” In effect it is to sacrifice, our time, talent and treasure for something other, greater, than ourselves.
During Paul’s confinement, his thoughts were of seeing his risen Lord. The same Lord whom he gazed upon decades before while traveling on the road to Damascus. He also took time to reflect on his past labors and those who had labored alongside him.
After nearly thirty years of preaching the gospel, some might dare ask, “What did he have to show for himself?” At best there was but a sprinkling of small house churches scattered throughout parts of the Middle East, Europe, and Asia Minor. Yet, in spite of this seemingly abysmal record, he was a man at peace with himself. In quieted repose he could honestly say with confidence what Oswald Chambers later refrained: “My Utmost for His Highest”!
Paul had championed Christ. In our current cultural and political climate where it may seem that everything is a fight—with “my side” always fighting the good fight -- we can be tempted to grasp this imagery as illustrative for our own journey. If we just keep up the good fight to defeat our foes, we’ll win, we’ll be champion. We’ll be in the right.
That would be a mistake. The crux of defining Paul as a champion for Christ in this text is not the fight and race imagery, rather it is the image he uses prior to that: “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation…” Don’t get me wrong, I’ve told you about the conditions Paul is in, and the future he faces, but there is to be no pity here. There is no despondency here. Rather Paul views this moment as the culmination of a sacrificial life. Paul viewed his life as an offering to God. That is the kind of champion we lift up.
Prior to lighting fire to the sacrificial lamb on the temple altar, the priests would pour a quart of valuable wine on the animal. It symbolized the ultimate sacrifice, valuable wine poured upon an unblemished animal. This was how Paul viewed his own impending death. His whole life had been a living sacrifice in service to God. Now that his time had come, his death would serve as a drink offering poured over what already had proven to be a living sacrifice.
That is our path to being a champion, to live as a sacrifice to Christ. Yet we are not facing a prison cell in Mamertine prison. The race to our championship differs from Paul. In fact our race could differ from all others.
Jesus sets before us the race to be run. Our task is to have eyes to see, ears to hear the course before us; then run that good race by attending to the mission before us.
William Sloane Coffin noted: “Jesus is both a mirror to our humanity and a window to divinity, a window revealing as much of God as is given mortal eyes to see. When Christians see Christ empowering the weak, scorning the powerful, healing the wounded, and judging their tormentors, we are seeing transparently the power of God at work.”
That is to say, as Christ was champion for the poor and the sick, the widow and orphan, sinner and tax-collector, the homeless and the demon-possessed, that is where our race to being a champion will take us.
It is not difficult to find the race course that will lead us to run this kind of championship race. The need is all around us, it is in the pew next to you, in the neighborhood around us, in the booth behind you at chick-fila, and camped behind Target. The challenge, however, for you to become a true champion, is can you take up their cause? Can you live a sacrificial life by being a champion for one who has no one to speak for them?
To do so we must exorcise the very human demons of greed and self-interest. When we live by a mantra of “I want what I want when I want it,” or “I like what I like, period.” We not only have gone of course, we have lost the race. To live as a champion for another will mean that at times our self-interest will take a back seat. Remember where Paul started his race to being a champion, not only was he not on the course, he wasn’t even in the arena. Then he encountered Jesus and his true race really began.
God is calling you to be a champion for Christ. It is up to you to recognize the need for Christ’s love in those you encounter every day. So go, run that good race, complete it as the champions Christ needs in this world.