Sunday, 20 February 2011

Punting and the eternal now

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 9:24 - end; Matthew 20: 1-16.

In today’s sermon I want to focus on Paul’s idea that the Christian life is like a race. This is a metaphor that is fraught with problems to my mind. Though Paul being Paul I must admit it has its merits. And of course Paul’s letter to the Church at Corinth is in the bible whereas my sermon in the Church of St Matthew’s is not.

The race metaphor has it merits and its problems for me personally but I will argue that it also has its merits and problems irrespective of my reaction to it.

I react badly to Paul’s race metaphor because I dislike competitive sport. We talk a lot about sport at lunchtime where we work. In answer to the question, ‘What sport do you enjoy then, Mike?’ I usually say punting [boating with a pole rather than say an oar]. Punting for me is the sport par excellence. It involves physical activity and that is good for you. I spend a lot of my working life trying to work out how we can get peopled to do more physical activity (as some you may know). Punting also involves a fair amount of skill and therefore when you get it right you feel good – akin I imagine to what footballers feel when they score a goal or tennis players feel when they deliver an ace.

But - and more importantly – like a few other sports – jogging, gardening, cooking –punting is not competitive. (Although I must confess I do enjoy steaming past American tourists going round in circles under Magdalen Bridge or from bank to bank a little way further up the Cherwell.) Furthermore with punting there is no goal – or if there is it is to return to where you have started from – and there is no prize for achieving any goal.

Although not competitive punting is also a sport best enjoyed with other people. There really is not much fun in punting a punt by yourself. It’s quite nice if the others in the punt can punt as well but it actually doesn’t matter if they can’t or if they do so badly. It’s a co-operative rather than competitive sport in other words, and as such is hardly likely to become recognised as an Olympic sport.

Running races, in contrast, are the epitome of competitive individual sport. The winning of them depends entirely on the strength and skill of the individual. ‘Team GB’ is surely a complete fiction. Athletes are not part of a team: they are individuals competing against one another. In contrast the winning of team sports – like football or even doubles at tennis – depends not just on the skill of the individuals in the team but the way those individuals work together.

But note rather paradoxically that running races need other people by definition. You cannot have a race, let alone win one, without at least one other person. Unless you imagine you are running against yourself: yourself as another person as it were.

Another thing I really dislike about competitive sport is the discipline. In today’s passage Paul talks about the discipline that is necessary if you are going to win the race that is the Christian life. Now I am not a very disciplined person at the best of times. I have confessed to some of you before that I am not even disciplined enough to clean my teeth everyday let alone read the Bible every day. As of course all good Christians – let alone priests - are supposed to (both clean their teeth and read Bible that is). I am just about disciplined enough to get to work, most days, before 10.30 and come to Church on most Sundays. But I sorely lack discipline in my life.

So Paul’s race metaphor irritates me. But as I said at the start, Paul’s letter to the Church at Corinth is in the Bible so it needs to be taken seriously and I have to admit the race metaphor does have some merits. It reminds us that whatever we might like to think, life – by its nature – is somewhat competitive. Even if we don’t want to see ourselves as competing against other people there are trials and tribulations that need to be overcome with God’s help. ‘Lead us not into temptation’ in the Lord’s prayer, reminds us, if we ever need reminding, that life is not a bed of roses, or a bowl of cherries or some other metaphor.

There is – also whether we like it or not – an end point – death. We might not wish to see this as a goal but we do need to prepare for it otherwise it might steel upon us unawares like a thief in the night. This preparation for death involves discipline.

Increasingly I have come to realise that time runs out. When we are young we think we have all the time in the world. As we get older we realise that there are important things to be done for the future. They may not be particularly pleasant to do. No one surely likes brushing their teeth and reading the Bible is not particularly enjoyable most of the time but these things are necessary for our oral and spiritual health respectively. Paul is surely right to remind us that ‘Every athlete exercises self control in all things’ and to suggest that we should be like athletes in this regard in all aspects of our lives.

It might be more pleasant to see life as more like a punting trip than a running race. Surely Paul could have at least mentioned relay races! But we have in the end to cross that finishing line by ourselves.

All this being said I still think Paul’s race metaphor leaves much to be desired because it is only half the story. A friend of mine used to accuse me of never living in the present – always only ever doing things for the future. And it was (is?) true. As just one illustration of this: I used to read classic novels at best to improve my mind at worst to be able to say that I had read them. I would never stop reading a book even if I weren’t enjoying it or leaning anything from it because the important thing was to get to the end.

It is possible to see life as a continual preparation for something later. But what is this ‘later’: our death, our funeral, the after-life? If we see the Kingdom of God as something solely in the future then we may see getting there as more important than how we get there. Or even that how you get there doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Paul gets close to this I think when he says that ‘I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified’ presumably from the race. Or in other words training may be painful but that doesn’t really matter it’s the winning that is important.

Jesus in his teaching talks paradoxically about the Kingdom of God being both here and not yet. He thus subverts people’s notion of time. If we think of time in the conventional sense then today’s parable of the labourers in the vineyard makes Jesus unfair. If the labourers who turn up at the eleventh hour get as much for their labour as the labourers who start work in the morning then the householder is surely being unjust to those who work for 12 hours not just “generous” to those who work for one . Though “generous” may not be the right word as one denarius a day was only just a living wage.

Time in the Kingdom of God, however, is not time as we understand it. The parable teaches us – amongst other things – that the reward for our work in this life- the prize for winning the race - is a gift not something that depends on how much time we have spent in working in the vineyard or time spent training for the final race of our life. And this prize, this gift, can in fact be claimed now.

Or in other words heaven is now as much as it is in the future. It is difficult to keep hold of this idea and yet – as I said just now – Jesus talks as much about the Kingdom of God as here and now as he does about it coming in the future. Some of Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom do, as this does, take place over the course of a period of time – a day or from planting to harvest, etc - with the denouement at the end. But many speak of the Kingdom as happening now – the parables about banquets, yeast, salt, etc.

And Jesus tells his disciples that they are to look for signs of the Kingdom now, prisoners being released, people healed, wine produced in abundance. If we look around at our damaged world it is difficult to see heaven as now and yet all true followers of Jesus do I think grasp – if only faintly – what Jesus was saying.

Yes life is a race or at least a journey with a start and an end. There is a prize to be won – the ‘incorruptible crown’ as Paul puts it. But the coming of Jesus means that we are in touch with the eternal and the eternal is no respecter of time. ‘Let us not only live FOR the ultimate, but let us also live IN the ultimate. Then life's purpose is not a goal set before us in the future. It is a present, living reality in which we participate now, even as God does.’

This quote is from De Vern Fromke, See:

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