Over the last few weeks in our preaching we’ve reflected on how we grow spiritually through various New Testament (NT) passages that refer to athletic metaphors. Sports are important to many modern people. But apparently they were also important to many ancient people too. Hence Paul’s athletic references. So, as we think about sports, we know that athletes must train hard to be excellent at their sport. In other words, they need to perform certain exercises and drills to help them grow stronger, faster and more able to do what is required to perform. We understand and accept this sort of training for sports, and also in other areas like music or perhaps even for our work. But sometimes we forget that training is also required for the Christian life. In order to grow spiritually, we must perform certain spiritual exercises, like worship, Bible study, solitude and silence, fasting and service. These are traditionally called the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life. So, what exactly are these spiritual disciplines and why are they important? As Dallas Willard writes in his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines: “The disciplines for the spiritual life, rightly understood, are time-tested activities consciously undertaken by us as new men or women to allow our spirit ever-increasing sway over our embodied selves. They help by assisting the ways of God’s Kingdom to take the place of the habits of sin embedded in our bodies.” (p. 86) In other words, they are activities that help us gain control over our bodies and minds, so that our souls will grow spiritually as we receive more and more of God’s grace. The result is increased godliness. Sometimes we think that the Christian life is just about being saved by God’s grace and then waiting for heaven. But being saved is only the first part. What am I saved for? To become more and more like Jesus, and to help others become like Jesus. And that requires the application of basic spiritual exercises. Please let me know if you’d like to talk further about the nature and purpose of spiritual exercises. Meanwhile, enjoy the training!
The last time I blogged about worship we discussed the Renewal (Confession and Assurance). As worshipers come into the presence of a holy God they are moved to humble themselves before the Lord, confess their sins, and are renewed by God’s grace proclaimed through the Word of God. Another way we are renewed by God’s grace at this point of the worship service is through the sacrament of baptism. Of course, baptism doesn’t occur every Sunday, but when it does, it is a vivid illustration of the gospel and a practical means of grace. I know not everyone shares this view of baptism. Some churches consider baptism an expression of faith, not a means of grace. But since we are a church in the Reformed tradition, we believe God extends his grace through the sacrament. Baptism is packed full of meaning. “It is at once a sign of the washing away of sin, a sign of our union with Jesus’ death and resurrection, a sign of the promise of new birth in Christ, a sign of incorporation in the church, a sign of the promise of the Holy Spirit, and a sign of the covenant and kingdom of God.” (The Worship Sourcebook, 255) But, as James K. A. Smith explains, “Baptism is not just a picture; it also does something. As a sacrament, it makes what it promises: a new person and anew people.” (Desiring the Kingdom, 183) Have you been baptized? If so, you are encouraged to remember your baptism often. Remembering that your sins have been washed away by the shed blood of Christ and you belong to God. If you haven’t been baptized, I invite you to seriously consider it, as this is God’s way of renewing his people and marking them as his own.
Like some of you, I enjoy watching certain Olympic events. For example, last week we enjoyed watching the swimming, rugby and volleyball. I’m delighted to see gifted athletes use their gifts and abilities. We also enjoyed watching the Opening Ceremonies (OC). But as I did so, I couldn’t help but think I was watching a religious ceremony unfold. The parallels between a Christian worship service and OC were striking. Some churches have some sort of processional (i.e., Anglican). There was a long processional of athletes in the OC. After that an official spoke and welcomed the people and talked about the Olympics movement. It struck me that he acted like a sort of worship leader. Then, after the people in the stadium were good and excited, another Olympic official got up and gave a talk that sounded quite a bit like a sermon. Then various athletes and coaches were invited to make an oath that they would abide by the rules of their sport. This sounded somewhat like a Prayer of Response after the Message. And then the music began, which was probably intended to be entertainment, but it sounded a bit like worship singing. I don’t want to take this too far, but I think you can see the connections. So, what do we make of these sort of religious rituals and words in the OC? Pastor Timothy Keller helpfully explains that as Christians we are called to affirm what we can in our culture, and then expose the idols that exist. Most of us can affirm many positive aspects of the Olympics: exercise, character development, discipline, community-building, etc. But the OCC reminds me that there is a risk of taking a healthy cultural activity like sport and letting it become a potential idol. The Olympic movement preaches their own sort of gospel, which says winning a gold medal in a certain athletic event is the ultimate human achievement. The glorification of the body. There is some good to this movement and message. But it is not the gospel of grace proclaimed in Scripture. As Paul says in 1 Timothy 4: “Physical training has some value, but godliness has value for all things.” The Olympics are enjoyable and inspiring, and I intend to keep watching certain events, but let’s remember to keep first things first: the gospel and the pursuit of godliness.