There is a really great TV show on Apple TV called “Ted Lasso”.
It’s full of entertaining characters with a generally positive message.
I will warn you though, it’s for mature audiences.
It’s not Game of Thrones, but it’s far from The Andy Griffith Show.
The show is about a Division II college football coach from Kansas who is hired by an English Premier League soccer team to be its coach.
Lasso knows very little about soccer.
He admits it.
The team isn’t very good to begin with.
The players are puzzled by him.
The team’s fans are mortified that Lasso has been hired and heap insults on him from the stands and in the streets.
But Lasso isn’t concerned about the fans or winning and losing.
He is concerned about the players on the team.
He says this.
“For me, success is not about the wins and losses. It’s about helping these young fellas be the best versions of themselves on and off the field.”
And that’s what he does.
He is mostly successful.
I’m not sure that’s the best attitude for the coach of a professional sports team, but it is what I want to hear from the coach of a youth sports team.
If fact, I did hear that once.
My daughter was on a youth soccer travel team.
The coach had a meeting with all the players and the parents before the first practice.
He started off by saying to the girls that he was glad to be their coach and would do everything he could to make them as good as they could be, to give everyone a chance to play and to help them have fun.
But he also wanted to shine a bit of reality on them and, in particular, the parents.
He told us he had been coaching youth soccer in the South Hills for many years.
He had watched a lot of really talented players grow up, play for their high school teams and then go off to college.
In all those years, with all those really talented players, only one got a scholarship to a Division I school.
None had ever played professionally.
No one on the team was going to pay for college with a soccer scholarship.
No one on the team was going to make a living playing soccer.
So why should they play?
Because it was fun.
Because it would keep them active and fit.
Because it would teach them how to work with others as a team.
Because it would make them part of a community – something bigger than themselves – that had a purpose.
Because it would help them to feel what it was like to succeed and what it was like to fail.
Because it would teach them that when they fail or get knocked on their buts, it was not the end of the world.
They could get up and give it another shot.
These were important life lessons that will help them in life generally.
He sounded like Ted Lasso:
[It was] about helping these young kids be the best versions of themselves on and off the field.
That is the main purpose of sports for the vast majority of people, not just kids.
Almost no one turns pro.
But there are things sprots can teach us.
Sports can teach us how to be the best versions of ourselves on and off the field.
And it can teach us a bit about discipleship.
Believe it or not, that is the message we get from Jesus and Paul this morning.
Matthew 28: 16-20
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
1 Corinthians 9: 24-27
24 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. 25Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. 26So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; 27but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.
Jesus teaches us that we have a purpose as team church.
Teach them how to be disciples.
Paul says that is a lot like an athletic competition.
A bit of background on our 1 Corinthians passage.
Paul is finishing up a longer discussion about Christians eating meat that has been offered to idols.
This was a big controversy in Corinth.
Well educated Christians knew that to do so was no big deal.
Those God’s didn’t exist.
Offering food to them meant nothing.
But some less educated Christians thought that eating idol meat was the same as paganism and insulted the one true God.
And that was a big deal to them.
The better educated Christians thought they were better Christians.
They were winning.
Yet, Paul tells them they should not eat idol meat in front of those who think it’s wrong.
Those folks might cave to the peer pressure and eat it, too.
They would feel guilty.
Like they did something awful.
Like they failed God.
Those who caused them to do it would be responsible for that.
Paul says that was sinful.
To prevent that, Paul says that the better educated Christians should exercise self-control.
Set a good example.
If it bothers them that we eat idol meat, we should not eat it in front of them.
Don’t tempt them to violate their beliefs.
No disciple is better than another.
There is no winning.
Which takes us into Paul’s sports metaphor.
Here’s a little background on Paul and sports.
Paul was writing to the Corinthian church.
Corinth was home to a biennial celebration of sports called the Isthmus Games.
Paul would have been in Corinth at least once when the games were going on so he would have known about them.
He likely went and watched.
The events at the games were six individual sports.
Racing, wrestling, jumping, boxing, javelin and discus.
Paul apparently was a fan of racing and boxing.
He observed that sports and discipleship had some things in common.
Now, it might appear at the outset that Paul believes discipleship is a race in which there is only one prize winner.
The better educated over the less educated?
That Christianity is some kind of contest?
That is not what Paul is saying.
Remember, Paul firmly believed that we are not reconciled to God by what we do.
We are settled with God as a gift from God.
There is no winning.
When Paul talks about winning the race, he is contrasting that with God’s gift.
Only one person wins the race, but many still race.
And all those who race get a prize.
Now before anyone says, “That sounds like one of those ‘participation trophies’!” let me assure you it is not.
If we put forth no effort, if we just show up, we might get “disqualified”.
In the Isthmus games, if you just showed up untrained, they would notice, and pull you out of the race.
Just saying you are a disciple is not going to cut it.
All talk and no action isn’t racing.
Just showing up won’t do it.
The “prize” is what you already got – God’s call – and that gets you into the race.
And once you are in the race, you do what you have to do to be the best disciple you can be.
The movie Chariots of Fire explores the difference between striving to win and racing the good race.
British sprinter Harold Abrahams needs to be the fastest to feel successful.
He tells a friend, “If I can’t win, I won’t run.”
Her response is, “If you don’t run, you can’t win.”
Abrahams is like Vince Lombardi and his famous quote, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
So, if you can’t win, there is no point in participating.
And because there is only one winner failure is inevitable.
So, why bother?
Paul looks at the race like Eric Liddell.
Eric Liddell was Church of Scotland missionary and world class sprinter.
When Liddell’s fiancé tells him she is concerned that he puts too much emphasis on sports, rather than preparing for missionary work.
Don’t eat that idol meat!
Liddell says this:
“I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”
Liddell’s purpose was to be a missionary and also to use his God given ability to please God.
Not to win, though he would.
But to use his speed to race.
We have been given a gift.
We, too, need to use it in the race.
So, Paul is saying that we are settled with God, yet we do have some responsibility.
We need to live as disciples like we mean it.
Being a disciple is running a race.
Run as hard as you can.
Train, practice and put forth maximum effort.
But know you already have the prize that will last forever.
As with a lot of Christian theology, you can see there is a lot of tension here.
A bit of mystery.
God’s forgiveness is free but is not without strings.
Not without responsibility.
We need to be respond.
Which is an action.
Something we do.
If you aren’t or don’t, maybe you get disqualified from the race.
That is why disciples need to be disciplined and purposeful.
That’s all God wants, according to Paul.
Our best effort.
Run the race the way a race is to be run.
And when that is done, the sport is honored.
Be the best disciple you can be.
And when we do that, God is honored.
To do this, need to learn the needed skills.
What skills do we need to learn?
How do we learn these things?
Education, training and practice.
These are good lessons.
These are all good skills.
Each activity we participate in has different specifics, but the general idea is the same.
When we do these things, we become the best versions of ourselves.
Not just in sports.
The most obvious place we see this happen is on the sports fields or courts.
Education, training and practicing.
Using that education, training and practice in the next game.
I know what this is like.
I take a golf lesson.
I go to the range and hit practice shots.
I do some exercise to train my body.
Then I hit the inks and put all that to use.
And I am a bit better.
And feeling good about the effort.
Maybe feeling God’s presence.
A less obvious place to see this happen is in church.
We need to spend some time developing discipleship skills.
We need to learn, train and practice here, too.
In church, we get some education with Bible study, book study, theology groups, sermons.
We train ourselves with daily prayer and devotions.
We practice our faith in mission and fellowship.
Then we run the race – out there!
We learn what it’s like to succeed.
We learn what it’s like to fail.
We learn that when the world comes crashing down on us, we have God’s call to stay in the race.
And we learn that there are teammates there to lift us up and get us back in the game.
Discipleship is not about wins and losses.
It’s about doing our best to live our lives the way God wants us to live them.
And to become the best versions of ourselves.
Disciples of Jesus.