I Corinthians 9:24-27
If you think our Church Meeting is ever just a little bit boring, we could always go back to how it used to be. In the seventeenth and eighteenth, and into the nineteenth, centuries, the main role of a Church Meeting was to exercise discipline over the members, with people regularly being be told off, and even expelled from membership for a variety of misbehaviour. Perhaps we might be on safer ground sticking to today’s business.
Today’s topic, as we explore “the way to freedom” through Lent, is discipline. I’m sure we’ve all heard people who say that discipline never did them any harm. But, what pictures or experiences come to mind when you hear the word ‘discipline’? Memories of home? School? Serving in the armed forces? Working on a hospital ward? Singing in a choir? Or what? Pleasant or unpleasant?
What I want to suggest to you is that this is not so much a matter of conforming to rules set by some authority, or being controlled or driven by outside forces, but of making trying to do what God wants. It is already a kind of freedom, because it means not being pulled this way or that by the whim or impulse of the moment, but always aiming for God’s goal.
Many of us find ourselves admiring the ‘grace’ and ‘freedom’ which gifted people display whether in the visual arts, drama, music ,or sport. Yet we know that the apparently effortless tennis shot down the line, or the breath-taking poise and flight of the dancer, or the heart-stopping turn of phrase of the poet, come not just from genius but also from the hard graft of long, dedicated practice. From discipline comes the freedom of inspired performance and creativity. I think is exactly what Paul was trying to say in our reading from his first letter to the church in Corinth.
In our other Bible reading, we hear the well-known Lenten story of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness. Jesus refuses to satisfy his hunger by privileged use of supernatural power; refuses to give visible proof,
to himself and to the public, of his status as Son of God by putting on a demonstration of magical preservation from danger; refuses to be handed immediate control of all the world at the price of his loyalty to his heavenly Father. But there’s something a bit more to it than this. It’s also a contest about freedom. Jesus is being offered freedom from all kinds of things, yet we find him exercising a form of self-discipline which ultimately leads to a greater freedom.
This notion of self-discipline, of choosing what is the best course in face of all kinds of good possibilities, presents an ever-increasing challenge to us today with science and technology having made such dramatic advances. There is so much that might be done through organ replacements, development of new drugs, stem cell development, embryo research, genetic modification, the use of artificial enhancement of the body, and so many more possibilities. Some people fear that biological and medical advance is leading us to ‘play God’. Others believe that such knowledge and expertise is not godless, but God-given, that God wants us to be grown up and mature enough to use our best abilities to promote human well-being.
Is self-discipline, I wonder, a mark of maturity, being able to choose what has to be done out of all the possible things we could do? A scientist and Christian said this,
“What do we do with our technological potential to change everything around us, and even ourselves? What discipline is needed to channel it rightly, motivated not only by the excitement of new possibilities, but also in the light of the panoply of human need, sufferings, injustices, and damage to the environment on which all lives depend. For those seeking to bring about God’s kingdom in and with their lives, how do we choose to use the potential of technology, to help bring about God’s kingdom, not hinder it? One response is personal discipline in my choices. Do I need or merely want the latest gadget advertised on TV? Can’t I walk or cycle…rather than drive? How do I use the limitless information available on the Internet in my vocation before God? Can my choices with technologies bring about redemption, relationship, justice or healing, in a wonderful, but spoilt and fragmented world?”
So, discipline as part of the journey to freedom? It’s certainly not the imagine of discipline as punishment, and God administering it. What an awful God that would be! But the alternative to that horror, and to a free-for-all, is the spiritual hard work like the artist or sportsperson, as Paul told us, or striving to stay true to God, as Jesus did. It’s hard work, it can’t always be done, be sometimes we can manage something, and I think that’s how we can find ourselves closer to God, and how self-discipline can be a tool to help us find our way to freedom in Christ.
I end with a poem by Isabel de Gruchy, taking up some of the images of Paul’s words:
The Big Fight
In this corner of the ring,
sitting waiting, ready and still,
Discipline; lean and tough,
stripped to the bare essentials,
plain and unappealing;
of mature years, though some
would claim long past it,
few fans, little publicity;
an unknown entity.
And in this corner of the ring, focus of all eyes,
Indulgence, prancing dancing, posing
to show to maximum effect,
amid the cameras’ flashing lights,
stunning looks, copious gold chains,
flamboyant robe: young and self-confidant,
the idol of many.
The time: today tomorrow, always
The referee: the arbiters of today’s values,
whenever it is today
The trophy: freedom
The venue: the world out there and the world within
The duration of the fight: till death – yours and mine
The Winner: all those acting, suffering, disciplined and dying,
for Jesus Christ’s sake.