“I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this evening comes from the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the ninth and tenth chapters of Paul’s first letter to the Church of God in Corinth. Dear friends in Christ: do you want to compete at the highest level? Do you want to win championships? Is it your dream to catch passes in the Super Bowl or hit big-league pitching? Or are your goals more modest, like fighting back the effects of age or achieving greater health? You cannot get there on talent alone; you cannot achieve such lofty goals by sitting on the couch and thinking about it. Every athlete who has reached the pinnacle of their profession will tell you that it takes work; they know that the first opponent you struggle against isn’t on the other side of the line of scrimmage, it is within yourself. It is your own body that will hold you back, because its goals are completely opposed to yours. It seeks the easy way out; if left to its own devices, your body doesn’t desire what is good, it won’t eat healthy or run a mile or lift weights. You must force your body to do those things, and your body doesn’t go quietly. The athlete must go to war against himself, beating and pummeling his body to put it into submission. Your toughest task is to struggle against yourself, fighting your flesh every step of the way in order to achieve your goals.
Every athlete knows this, as does everyone who has ever tried to lose weight or run a marathon; your body struggles against you, it will resist every attempt to make it better. But few stop to ask ‘why?’ The answer is easy: your body is sinful. And the same sinful flesh that resists your every attempt to train it for health or competition is even more stubborn when it comes to spiritual matters. At the Baptismal font you were made a Christian, claimed by Christ Himself; you are truly a saint. But your old sinful Adam still hangs around your neck, and he will not leave until the day when your baptism is fulfilled with your death. So, from the moment that the water touched your head, your flesh has been at war with the Holy Spirit, fighting every attempt to put it under submission.
Saint Paul writes, “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” As a saint, he delights in God’s Law; but his sinful nature goes to war against him, putting him into slavery. And your sinful nature wants nothing else than to drag you to hell; the old evil Adam wants to see you fall into open sin and give up the faith delivered to you at the font. The danger is real; even Paul, the great apostle, speaks of finding himself excluded if his flesh is given free reign: “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” And then, as a clincher, he mentions Israel in the wilderness. Even though they had been baptized into Moses in the Red Sea, even though they had received miraculous manna and water from the Rock, even though they partook of Christ Himself, their fate is well-known: “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” Paul isn’t kidding around, and neither is your sinful flesh; its intent is to drive you from the faith and straight into hell.
So do battle with your flesh; put it into submission under Christ. Pummel your flesh; beat it down with all of its evil desires; do not let it gain the upper hand. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” The stakes are high; higher than game seven of the World Series; this is life or death, heaven or hell. Keep watch over yourself, recognize when your sinful Adam is exerting himself and beat him back down again. Put your flesh into slavery; no, better than that: put him to death, crucify him each and every day. Saint Paul tells the Romans: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
How? How do we put the old man to death? How do we pummel our flesh and put it into slavery under Christ? For an athlete, the answer is easy: ‘work harder.’ It’s up to you to control that flesh through your own efforts if you want to lose a few pounds or hoist the Stanley Cup. But things are completely different in spiritual matters. Martin Luther teaches us in the Small Catechism: “[Baptizing with water] indicates that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before Him in righteousness and purity forever.”
You were baptized, covered by the water and the Word? Drown that old Adam each and every day by contrition and repentance. This is the discipline that puts the flesh to death. See your sin, pointed out to you by God’s clear Word of Law; see that sin, and repent of it, turn away from it by receiving the gift of the absolution. Drown your flesh in repentance and faith; cling to your Savior’s suffering and death by running to hear the blood-bought absolution. The flesh isn’t overcome by trying harder not to sin, but by repenting of that sin and trusting in Jesus, receiving His precious words of absolution. So it is Christ who disciplines your flesh and puts it to death; He is the One who proclaims the Law to condemn your sin, He is the One who speaks the Gospel to forgive it.
It is His forgiveness that overcomes the flesh; the forgiveness purchased and won not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. Luther teaches us: “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training, but that person is truly worthy and well-prepared who has faith in these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’” The only true spiritual discipline is faith, the faith created and sustained by the Holy Spirit in the means of grace. The flesh is disciplined by Christ and His work in both Law and Gospel, not by us or our own efforts. But that doesn’t mean that other discipline is without value. Luther praises fasting and bodily preparation, in their proper place. They are tools that can be used against your sinful nature in service of God’s Law, pummeling the flesh and its desires.
You have received the Body and Blood of Christ? Feed the new man on that heavenly food and starve the old Adam, refuse to let him feast on what he desires. Exercise self-control over your passions; rule over them, do not let them rule you. Be deliberate; Paul says, “I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air.” See what enslaves you, what seeks to replace God in your life, and deny those things to your sinful flesh. But do not rely on this discipline, do not think that through it you are earning anything before God, that it is you who are winning the victor’s wreath. The discipline that matters is not external fasting, but the discipline that Christ inflicts: death through the Law and life through the Gospel. So drink deeply from the Rock, which is Christ, feed on His Body and Blood in repentance and faith; that is the only discipline that can put the flesh into submission, because it is Christ’s work in you.
For the wreath comes solely through grace alone. The denarius comes to the workers because they have been called, not because they have worked (although they still do work). It is Christ who has done the work to earn that denarius, and He gives it away as He pleases. He labored under the burden of the cross; He carried the weight of your sin unto death; He earned salvation, and He gives salvation, by putting to death old Adams and raising up new men, first at the font, and then every day after, until that glorious Day when the old Adam in all of His saints is destroyed, immersed and drowned forever, and all that is left is the new man, to live before Him in righteousness and purity forever. In this life, your flesh will resist and oppose you, but these are only the throes of death; your flesh has been defeated, and the day of its doom is quickly approaching. Your sinful flesh will die, but you will live, with a sinless body and a pure soul, forever. You make war against your flesh with the victory already won, by Jesus and Him alone. In His Name, Amen.