They’re back. For the first time since 2002, the Jamaican bobsled team will compete in the Winter Olympics. No, that’s not a typo. Jamaican. Bobsled. A Caribbean nation with no snow is sending a bobsled team to Sochi, where snow is being artificially produced for the games. Gotta love that.
The team’s origin story inspired the hit 1993 Disney film Cool Runnings. The first-ever Jamaican bobsled team was an obvious underdog at the 1988 games in Calgary. Lacking the proper experience and equipment, they were nevertheless willing to make any sacrifice in pursuit of their outsized Olympic hopes — hopes that vanished when they crashed the sled during competition. In the film’s fictionalized ending, the watching world held its breath as the gutsy competitors slowly staggered to their feet and carried the broken sled across the finish line. Even their detractors had to applaud their courage and give them the respect they craved.
No, it didn’t really end that way; it’s a Disney movie. But reading Paul’s letters and his words of future-focused hope, I wonder: do such images of triumphantly crossing the finish line tell us anything about our destiny? And is there anything in life that I want so badly that I’m willing to make sacrifices for it?
In the previous two posts, we looked at Paul’s use of athletic metaphors to convey the goal-directed discipline of the Christian life (1 Cor 9:24-27). If athletes subject themselves to rigorous training and make sacrificial lifestyle changes in pursuit of a fragile and fading laurel wreath, what should we as Christians be willing to do in pursuit of an eternal place in God’s kingdom?
Paul is not writing a treatise on spiritual discipline here. Spiritual discipline is not merely a list of dos and don’ts, in which good, wise, or mature Christians do these things and avoid these others. Indeed, one of the problems Paul is dealing with in his letter is precisely that the Corinthians want to draw lines and put people in boxes: Paul vs. Apollos; the wise vs. the unwise; the mature vs. the immature. We freely eat meat sacrificed to pagan idols because we’re theologically tough-minded. Eating such meat is perfectly okay, end of story.
To that way of thinking, Paul’s behavior is a conundrum. Why does he eat meat sometimes, and other times not? And why would anyone voluntarily give up some privilege that is clearly on the list of Okay Things for Christians To Do?
Why? Because Paul has an eschatological vision that his Corinthian detractors haven’t yet understood. Friends, the Christian life isn’t simply about figuring out which behaviors are permitted and which aren’t. It’s not about who’s smarter or wiser or more philosophically sophisticated or theologically informed. If you could just see what I see — the future I strive toward, the race that I run, the fight that I fight — you’d understand. You’d bend every effort toward that goal. You’d make the same sacrifices. Because it’s not just my race — it’s yours.
Spiritual discipline isn’t an end in itself. It’s training for the future. So what future do we envision? What future is compelling enough that we would willingly discipline ourselves in the present?
Update (2/24): the Jamaican team fared poorly, finishing almost in last place. You can read about their uncertain future here.