“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 garland, but we an imperishable one.“ I Corinthians 9.24-25
Writing to his church in Greece, where the Olympics originated, Paul the Apostle was mindful of strenuous effort and tremendous sacrifice. Of course, we see that written all over the faces of the athletes in Sochi. The heart of our attraction to the winsome Olympic competitors is their single-mindedness and dedication to do whatever is required to excel.
Paul the Apostle doesn’t idly make this comparison, like some clichéd sports metaphor. He lives it as he says it. He gave up his health, family, peace of mind, and even his life. It reminds us that if we desire greatness—physical or spiritual—much sacrifice is required.
That gives us great context for the Sermon on the Mount this Sunday. We began with the visions of blessing called the Beatitudes. Then Jesus called us salt and light for making the world more savory, and illuminating the path to God. But after that it becomes intense.
From here on Jesus’ hits us between the eyes. We hear him repeat, “You have heard it said… but now I say to you,” on everything from peace, anger, divorce, prayer, charity, etc. Every time Jesus ratchets up what God expects of us by way of lofty righteousness.
Jesus later turned to parables, an indirect form of address. But for now he becomes direct with tough, demanding truth. His bearing is the Olympic coach showing the athlete the way: how badly do you want it? How much will you give me? Do you truly want the best?
Steve Shutt, a member of the 1970’s Montreal Canadians, one of the greatest hockey teams ever, said of Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman, “We hated him 364 days a year. And then on the last day we picked up our Stanley Cup rings. And all of a sudden, he wasn’t such a bad guy.” This doesn’t mean I have fire and brimstone for you on Sunday.
But it does mean—and this surprises people—that church is more about transformation than affirmation. And transformation is not easy. Just ask the caterpillars who become butterflies! Yes, Jesus does meet us wherever we are in life, and he finds us acceptable. But like the Olympic coach, he loves us too much to leave us there. His is one tough love.
Or, as Will Willimon puts it, “You have heard it said people respond best to positive and supportive messages. But I say to you Jesus willingly goes after our lazy practices, even making us mad.” Or, “You have heard it said the main thing you ought to ask in church is, ‘What are my deepest needs that I need met?’ But I say to you, Jesus does not give a rip about our needs, at least as we define them.” Do you know this Jesus, willing to push us?
It’s easy to love Jesus, the Good Shepherd. But what of this Jesus, saying, “You’ve heard it said….but now I say to you.” He wanted our greatness more than he wanted to cuddle.