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I suspect the Apostle Paul was as much a sports junkie as I am. He was always using sports metaphors to make his point. For example, our lesson this morning: "...I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." Paul is "going for the gold" in these long-running Olympics that we call the Christian life.
Have you ever wished you could be a spiritual giant like Paul...or any of the other great saints of the church? Sure. We would like to be great Christians - faithful disciples, powerful witnesses, tremendous leaders - spiritual gold medalists. But then we start to think about it, see the obstacles, our own limitations, and with a sigh of resignation, we settle into what we come to see as unavoidable mediocrity.
Well, I want to challenge that this morning. I really believe that too much excellence has been given up too easily by too many potentially great Christians. If the Bible is right in saying that all of us have different spiritual gifts that, if used, will benefit the whole church (and, indeed, the whole world), then there is no reason to be content with the silver or the bronze or anything less than excellence and the prize of the heavenward call of God in Christ Jesus...the Christian gold medal!
Since today is the day we commission our teachers for the coming year, our focus is automatically Christian Education. Presbyterians have always held education in high regard. But in recent years, the emphasis has not been as strong as in times past. Today I would like to recharge those educational batteries...and in the process challenge you to the kind of excellence of which you are capable. We can get some direction from the Apostle Paul in the lesson we just read.
To begin with, Paul started with a genuine DESIRE for a relationship with God, something I will assume we all have or else we would not be here this morning. The difference between Paul and the average Christian, though, is that from the very beginning, Saul of Tarsus committed himself wholeheartedly to that relationship...the pursuit of holiness. "If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more," he modestly says. "A Hebrew born of Hebrews..." He CARED about his faith, he KNEW what was involved with being a good Jew through years and years of study and wanted to be the best Jew that any Jew could possibly be. Religion MATTERED to him. Good for him!
One wonders how much religion matters to US these days. The numbers paint a rather poor picture. Sixty-nine percent of American adults have their names on the rolls of a church or synagogue. But from week to week, less than half bother to even show up for worship. And less than half of those bother with Sunday School, the one place where real learning...real growth... can take place on a consistent basis.
Perhaps we have things too easy. Someone has said that the church began to decline in 312 AD when the Roman Emperor Constantine was converted. The persecution of the church stopped, being a Christian no longer presented any hardships, and things have been going downhill ever since. There is some truth to that, of course. We desire things we cannot have. Where the American church is concerned, because we live in a free nation with no hindrance to participation, we are tempted to take religion for granted. Too bad.
To borrow a phrase from the Army, would you like to "be all that you can be" as a Christian? It really is not that hard... but you have got to want it first. DESIRE!
Once the desire is there, what next? Listen to Paul. "...in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless." Paul began with desire but fleshed it out with DISCIPLINE. He worked hard to LEARN what was expected of him, and then he acted on it.
Discipline is not a high priority for most church people these days. We are more than content to live and let live; to make no real demands on ourselves or others; in short, to take easy ways out. There is no strict moral code; no certain tasks MUST be performed; even attendance at Sunday School or worship is frankly optional. No discipline.
Let me share one of those good news/bad news stories with you. Actually, it is no story at all - it is a finding from those regular Gallup polls that measure America's religious attitudes and beliefs to which you have heard me refer before. The good news is that about 85% of adults in this nation believe that the Ten Commandments are still valid as a code of conduct for today. Wonderful! Amen! The bad news is that less than half of those who said that could even name FIVE of the Ten.
Harry Cohn was the longtime head of Columbia Pictures. His brother Jack once suggested that they produce a Biblical epic. "What do you know about the Bible?" asked Harry. "I'll lay you fifty dollars you don't even know the Lord's Prayer."
After a moment's thought Jack began, "Now I lay me down to sleep..."
Harry pulled $50 out of his pocket. "Well I'll be..." he said as he handed the money to his brother, "I didn't think you knew it."(2)
Of course, religion is not the only area of society faced with this sort of lack of discipline when it comes to basic knowledge. For example, this poll commissioned by the National Geographic Society to see how much people knew about geography.(3) Three-thousand 18- to 24-year-olds in Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Sweden and the United States were interviewed. None did very well, but Sweden was best, Mexico worst, and the US next to last. How bad? Well, despite it's being in the news almost daily since September 11, only 17 percent of young adults in the United States could find Afghanistan on a map. Believe it or not, about 11 percent could not even locate the United States on a map. More young US citizens in the study knew that the island featured in the TV show "Survivor" was in the South Pacific than could find Israel. Not surprising, really. After all, the majority of American schools no longer include geography as one of the disciplines in the curriculum.
To be sure, those are shameful results. But a more serious problem becomes obvious when we realize that not knowing basics prevents further progress. The foundation has to be laid before the walls can go up. In a best-selling book some years ago called Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, one educator complained of an appalling lack of basic knowledge in American schools. His thesis was that schools cannot be content with trying to teach students how to think, but must give them something to think about! Since that has not been done well enough in recent years, in his words, "Many young people strikingly lack the information that writers of American books and newspapers have traditionally taken for granted..."(4) That means we cannot effectively communicate.
For example, students cannot begin to intelligently discuss American democracy until they know some facts about the Revolutionary War, the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution. That is common sense. The same applies to the church. Christians cannot begin to intelligently discuss their faith until they know some FACTS about it. A few minutes ago, I referred both to Paul and Saul of Tarsus. I presume you know that those are the same person. How would you know that? It did not come floating out of thin air. You LEARNED it...somewhere...presumably in Sunday School. And any further growth in Christian understanding will come in the same way - through the discipline of learning.
The great thing about learning though, is that the more you know, the more you want to know, and the more you CAN know...in the church, in school, or anywhere else. Washington Post columnist William Rasberry, in writing about the significantly lower scores achieved by black students in standardized achievement tests, wrote, "Whose fault is it that blacks tend to get lower scores? I don't know all the answers to that one. Surely a part of it is the simple fact that those children who come to school already knowing a good deal of what society deems important to know tend to find it easier to learn more of it. The more you know, the more you can learn."(5) It is the same in the church.
Paul knew the importance of that kind of discipline. But he was not satisfied with leaving it at that. As we said before, he took his pursuit of holiness seriously, just as the Olympic athletes take their quest for the gold. Discipline, by itself, does not do the job - there are lots of disciplined people who will never win a medal. One more ingredient has to be added to the mix: DEDICATION. That is why the Apostle would write, "Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal..."
I like that line about "forgetting what is behind." Perhaps I am just naive, but I hope not. I really believe that church people DO CARE about being good Christians. They would never have bothered to join in the first place if that did not matter. But from years and years of conversations with members, I get the impression that the reason so many of our folks do not bother with pursuing Christian excellence is the memory of unsatisfactory experiences in that quest in the past...boring classes, unprepared teachers, unfriendly classmates. Things were not as good as they could and should have been, so ever since, good people have not bothered. That is sad.
With the Athens Olympics of 2004 about to wrap up, it might be good to hark back to the words of the heroine of the `84 games 20 years ago, gymnastics gold medalist Mary Lou Retton. She said to succeed one has to set her goal and be willing to pay the price to achieve it. That is the discipline we have been talking about. But she continued, "Achieving that goal is a good feeling, but to get there you have also to get through the failures. You've got to be able to pick yourself up and continue." THAT is the dedication!
"...Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal..." That which lies ahead is our motivation for all this...the desire, the discipline, the dedication. The day will come when we will meet our Savior face to face, and the words you want to hear are the same ones I want to hear: "Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of Thy Lord."
As I said earlier, I am convinced that at least 99 and 44/100ths percent of those who make a profession of faith in Jesus Christ want it to make a difference in their lives. That is the DESIRE! For that desire to take flesh requires a sense of discipline - anything worth doing is worth working at. And real excellence, not being content with the silver or the bronze or anything else, will involve dedication - PRESSING ON toward the goal even when things are not perfect.
Do YOU want to "go for the gold?" Would you like to know ALL of the Ten Commandments? Would you like to be able to discuss faith on a more than superficial level? Would you like to "be all that you can be" as a Christian? It really is not that hard...there is no good reason to settle for mediocrity... but it does take desire, discipline, and dedication.
As I said at the beginning of this, since today is the day we commission our teachers, our focus is Christian Education. I will close with this. In Norfolk, Virginia a few of years ago, there was an advertisement in a magazine for a local television station. The ad was seeking to enlist more viewers for the station's one-hour-long evening news program. Here was the appeal: "Give us one hour and we'll give you the world."(6) The educational ministry of the church can borrow that and say, "Give us one hour, and we'll give you heaven."
1. Andy Rooney, "Watching the Olympics,' Warren Times-Observer, 8/28/04, A-4
2. Clifton Fadiman, Gen. Ed., Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, (Boston, Little, Brown & Co., 1985), p. 133
4. E. D. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy, (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1987), p. 7
5. ibid., p. 111
6. Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations, (Rockville, Md., Assurance Publishers, 1979), p. 1080