29th July 2012

Running to win!” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).


We seem to be having an amazing summer of sport this year. (I grant that you might well quibble at my use of the word “summer”, but you know what I mean!) We have already had the Euro 2012 football tournament – indeed, it seems a distant memory. We had the tennis Championship at Wimbledon, which a British person so nearly won (one did in the doubles!), and last week we suddenly became interested in the Tour de France, because a British person actually did win that! Simmering in the background (again, that may not be quite the right word for most of this summer) we have had the usual motor racing and cricket. And now, of course, the Olympics are finally upon us. The more cynical amongst us will hope that they will prove worthy of the build-up, the frustration, the expense and the wait, although Friday’s opening ceremony was splendid (if rather lengthy). I did feel sorry for the corgis, though, not allowed on the Queen’s plane!


I am sure that many preachers will be speaking this Sunday of the New Testament’s allusions to sports, which come not only in Paul’s letters to the churches at Philippi and Corinth, but also in the anonymous letter to the Hebrews. All of these speak of running in a race and looking towards a goal, and this metaphor could only have been used if the readers of these letters were familiar with athletics. This was, of course, the case, as the ancient Olympic Games had been held every four years for over eight centuries at the time the New Testament was written (they were only suppressed in the year AD 393 by the Emperor Theodosius I, as part of his attack on pagan rituals and his project to establish Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire). Furthermore the Corinthians, in particular, would have been well-acquainted with the slightly less prestigious Isthmian Games which were held every two years and drew participants from all over the Graeco-Roman world. Interestingly, both these Games were not just athletic events but included drama, public recitation and music: our modern “cultural Olympiad” is nothing new!


I must also tell you that the New Testament was not at all original in using the language of athletics to describe a wise life, as this had already been employed by many Greek teachers and philosophers. They admired the sportsmen’s dedication but criticised both the national obsession for sport and the competitions themselves (one might ask, “What’s new?”). The Cynics and Stoics, for instance, spoke in glowing terms of the self-control of the moral athlete but then compared this unfavourably with “those rotten boxers” at the Isthmian games. Contemporary Jewish philosophers such as Philo took a similar line, seeing historical figures like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as spiritual athletes who had not been interested in physical training but who had “fostered robustness of soul in their desire for victory over their antagonists, the passions”. The New Testament writers weren’t saying anything particularly new although they did introduce a new element by linking athletics to Christ.


Now I am could highlight many aspects of this Biblical metaphor this morning. I could talk of spiritual self-discipline and the determination to “run the race” of the lives that God has given us: that has certainly been the substance of many a talk in a church Bible Class or school assembly. I could mention the idea of single-mindedly looking towards the goal or finishing-line of our faith, being more concerned with our eternal reward than with today’s problems. I could speak of the “perishable wreath” (made from wild celery or pine leaves) which was presented to victors at the Isthmian Games, and contrast it with the “imperishable” wreath or crown of ultimate salvation. And I could point out the fact that, whereas sporting competitions are intensely competitive, with only one person emerging as victor, the Christian life is one where what is important is keeping going until you reach the tape, irrespective of what any other disciple may be achieving.


Yes, I could say all those things – which I believe are useful and true – but, as I did so, I would know that you had heard them all before. So what I want to do this morning is a little bit different: I would like us to think briefly about how Christians might regard sports in general. And, despite the fact that sports seem to have been regarded so positively in the New Testament, the Church’s attitude to them over the centuries has actually been somewhat equivocal, to say the least.


It seems that one of the basic problems that early Christians had with sports was the fact that, although they had a secular character and aimed to show off the abilities of young people, they were inextricably entwined with pagan religions. For instance, the Olympic Games were dedicated to the Greek God Zeus – 100 oxen would be sacrificed to him at the mid-point of the Games, and the Games site at Olympia was simply one part of a complex which also temples, votive buildings and elaborate shrines. (Fortunately it did not, as far I can find out, feature the biggest McDonald’s burger restaurant in Greece!) These pagan associations meant that Christians looked askance at athletics; and this view was maintained by several writers of the second and third centuries. These included Tertullian of Carthage who, while very much advocating physical fitness and hygiene, nevertheless critiqued sporting events on the grounds of their paganism, their cruelty, their ultimate pointlessness, and the fact that the bigger man always won! But this view was not shared by everyone: Clement of Alexandria coined a phrase to describe a Christian understanding: of sport: “physical activity, yes; cult of the body, no”.


We have spent a lot of time in the ancient world, so let’s skip forward about 15 centuries! Modern understandings of sport can be dated very precisely to the year 1762, which was the year when the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote his novel “Emile”. Now Rousseau was an interesting chap: he started off as a Protestant, converted to Catholicism and then went back to Protestantism; more important, his writings and theories have had a profound influence on how we view children and education. And, in “Emile”, Rousseau stressed the importance of physical activities, not only for building a strong body but to aid the formation of moral character. This he does by giving the boy in the title opportunities to engage in swimming, running and athletics, and by rigidly controlling his diet and living conditions. And, if this sounds like life in Victorian public schools, that is not surprising, as they derived their ideas from Rousseau.


Other people took these ideas further, especially in a Christian context. I don’t know if you have ever heard of the term “muscular Christianity” – the term has gone out of fashion in recent years, although it was very popular for around 50 years around 1900 in the Protestant churches of Britain and America. It can be defined as a Christian commitment to health and manliness: that may ring bells not only with those of you who have been linked to the Boys’ Brigade movement but also with the YMCA which, as you may not know, invented both basketball and volleyball. What is interesting is that this “muscular Christianity” was very much an idea of its time. The qualities it fostered just happened to be ones that Britain needed in those who were engaged in building its Empire, or which America required to develop the Wild West. And, in societies where religion was often seen as a “woman’s thing”, it was a shot across the bows of a supposedly weak or “feminized” Protestantism.


By the 1920s this view of sport was on the decline. That was partly due to the fact that it was seen as militaristic and, after the horrors of the First World War, most people were more interested in fostering peace. But it has not entirely disappeared, especially in America, where many Christian colleges still promote sports programmes as a way of instilling self-discipline. It can have its funny side, too. Many years ago I was living in Lisbon, Portugal and having fellowship with some Portuguese students. One day we all watched a video which contained interviews with Christian sportsmen. One of them was a football player (American football, that is); he was asked how he dealt with all the aggressive pushing and shoving in the game. “Well”, he said, “I thump them as hard as I possibly can – but I do it in a spirit of Christian love”! I’m afraid we just fell about laughing.


What about the present day? I must be honest and say that I really shouldn’t be talking about sports or physical activity as I have never taken to them. At school, I was terrified of climbing onto the parallel bars or hanging from the ropes in the gym; in football, the team captains nearly came to blows over not choosing me, because I was so inept; and, being short-sighted, I could never see the cricket ball and took care to keep out of its way! Nevertheless I do believe that God created us as entire or “holistic” people with bodies as well as spirits. I do not take the line which you sometimes hear, that our bodies are inherently evil and have to be subdued so that they do not drag us into sin; nor do I believe that our eternal spirits are more important than our corporal bodies. Our physical, mental and spiritual states all relate to each other; we do not abuse our bodies as we regard them as the dwelling-place (or “temple”) of God’s Holy Spirit.


And so we come back to the Olympics. As Christians, will we simply sit back and enjoy them, or do we want to offer some kind of a critique? At the risk of being called a “spoilsport”, I must tell you that I hold very mixed views on them. Of course I am amazed by the dedication and determination of the athletes who have spent years bringing themselves to the point of perfection – that comment applies even more to the Paralympians who have all had to overcome such huge challenges in order to take part in sports activities at all. No doubt we will all thrill to the competitions (although we might get a bit bored with the endless punditry and analysis between events); and, who knows, we might even be celebrating a few British gold medals!


But I do have some more negative comments to make. For instance, although the Olympics does bring together athletes from all over the world, we know that they can never compete on equal terms. The specialist resources, technology and advice available to a competitor from a poor African country just cannot match those which (say) an American can draw upon. There is also the huge cost of the Games: £9.3bn at the latest estimate. Of course that has provided a huge amount of employment and, we are told, it will regenerate large parts of London’s East End. But one does have to wonder if those worthy aims could have been achieved more cheaply, and if the venues will be left as mouldering white elephant, which has happened before.

We may also have concerns about the environment and the jetting-in of so many thousands of people; we also be upset by the way in which commercialism has taken over a festival with such high ideals.


But my main concern about the Olympics is, in fact, not very different from those expressed by the early Christians we mentioned earlier. For I want to ask if, in fact, the Olympics in particular, and sport in general, have almost turned themselves into the world’s religion? If you feel that I am being ridiculous, consider the fervour that has followed the Olympic flame around the country (and which peaked as the cauldron was ignited on Friday night); consider the rituals of the Games, not just at the opening ceremony but every time that medals are awarded; consider the rhetoric about the way in which the Games are a force for good and bring the nations together; and consider even the Olympic hymn: we only heard its tune on Friday, rather than its words, which call on the “immortal spirit of antiquity” and “pure father of beauty, greatness and truth” to descend upon us and reveal himself to us. If those aren’t religious sentiments, what are?

Of course I am not suggesting that people will fall down in worship before some Olympic god: that’s ridiculous. But I am asking if not just this one event, but sports in general, should take such a large part in human society. Simon Kelner, a sports-loving journalist in the “Indy” and not, as far as I know, a professing Christian, asked the same question this week: “Is sport occupying a little too much of our attention these days? Are we in danger of getting it all a little out of perspective? ... True, sport is something that people care about, have strong opinions about, and enjoy talking about. ... However, I think that the pendulum may have swung too far, and we are in danger of investing sport with too much significance”. Christians would say that no activity, however admirable, should ever become more important than Jesus Christ. It is he we worship, not the stopwatch.

I could say more; but I am done. I would like to close with some words of the late Pope John Paul II, himself an avid hiker, skier, and swimmer. In a speech made to athletes back in 1987, he said: “Sport is an activity that involves more than the movement of the body; it demands the use of intelligence and the developing of the will. It reveals, in other words, the wonderful structure of the human person created by God, as a spiritual being, a unity of body and spirit. Athletic activity can help every man and woman to recall the moment when God the Creator gave origin to the human person, the masterpiece of his creative work”. If sport can lead us to God, that is truly wonderful. But it must never replace him in our affections.