14 August 2016
Hebrews 11:29-12:2 Luke 12:49-56
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
At the end of the last school term Vivienne and I did what many parents do at that time of year and we went to Henry’s sports day.
The events of one race in particular stick in my mind from that day, although sadly it was not one of Henry’s.
As you know children grow at very different rates and within the same school year it is possible to get great strapping lads and boys who haven’t really started growing yet, and that was certainly the case in this race. At the front of the pack, who lead from the start, was a great tall lad whose lanky legs were eating up the distance easily. Trailing miles behind him was a little boy who was probably about half his size.
Now it was clear to everyone, especially the small boy himself, that he was never going to get anywhere near the front of this race and, not unnaturally, he became a little despondent running on his own at the back. But then a lovely thing happened – all the parents started cheering for this little lad. Those that knew his name were calling out encouragement to him and soon everyone was. A smile appeared on his face, his back straightened and he picked up his legs again.
Now, I am not going to lie to you. This isn’t Hollywood and he didn’t suddenly whizz past all the other boys and win the race. The great strapping lad at the front still won and the little boy still came in last, but the point is that he came in last with his head held high and smiling ear to ear because the crowd were cheering him on.
And, of course, although the season of school sports days has now finished we are in the midst of the Rio Olympics. The compilers of the lectionary must have known that was the case because the author of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us today that we too have a race to run:
‘let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.’
The race marked out for us is, of course, a metaphor for our Christian journey through this life. I suspect that too often today we think of the Christian life as being more of a nice sit down with a cup of tea but we are being reminded in both our readings today that being a Christian, a follower of Jesus, in this world was never meant to be the easy option. In this life we are not called to be spectators, commenting on the achievements of others from our armchairs, rather we are called to be the athletes, out there on the track running the Christian life with perseverance.
And we need perseverance because it is not going to be easy. We will be hindered from time to time and we will be entangled and tripped up by sin so we need the perseverance to keep getting up and to keep running.
Now, I don’t know about you but this all sounds rather exhausting. I was never a natural athlete in my youth and I haven’t got any faster since. At my school sports day, if I hadn’t managed to get a sick note, I was much more likely to be the boy at the back than the boy at the front. Truth be told I actually prefer a nice sit down and a cup of tea to running around. So all this talk of running the race with perseverance could be rather off putting.
But there is good news. And what is a sermon without some good news? God knows you and me and all our weaknesses even better than we know ourselves. That doesn’t mean we are off the hook. We don’t get a sick note. We still have to run the race of our Christian journey through this life but if we open our spiritual eyes and ears we shall see and know that we have all the help and encouragement we need to get us across the line with our heads held high.
Let’s imagine for a moment that we are in not a school sports field but rather a huge sports stadium. If you have been watching the Olympics it might be a modern stadium in Rio or you might imagine a great stone structure from Roman times. Either way, you are on the track running a race and the stadium is full of thousands of spectators. Although you are trailing behind the other runners, really looking forward to a nice sit down and a cup of tea, you realise that those thousands of spectators, like the parents at sports day, are cheering and clapping for you – urging you on towards the finish line.
And then you manage to get a closer look at those spectators who are filling every one of the thousands of seats. You see Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the Israelites who crossed the Red Sea, you see Rahab, Gideon, David, Samuel, the prophets. You see Peter, James, John and all the Apostles, the Saints, you see everyone who has run this race before you calling your name and cheering you on. A great crowd, or should I say cloud, of witnesses whose lives were witness to their faith and perseverance and who are now there both to witness and to encourage your perseverance.
And then you realise that this is not a solo event but rather that you are part of a great relay race which has been going on for thousands of years. The story of faith does not begin and end with us, rather we receive the baton of faith from all those who have gone before us and we seek to hand it on to those who follow, when we do get to join the spectators and encourage others in their race, not least through the witness of our own lives.
To encourage us in running the race of the Christian life we firstly have the great cloud of witnesses cheering us on. Jesus said to the repentant thief on the cross: ‘today you shall be with me in paradise’ so if that should be true of the thief why should it not also be true of all the other people of God who have gone before us in faith? God is not God of the dead but of the living and we are a part of that same family of faith and they ever urge us on towards the goal or, if that is mixing metaphors too much, across the finish line of the race that is marked out for us.
So, no matter how discouraged or hindered you feel in seeking to live the Christian life in this world remember that you are not the first to have passed this way and that you are not alone. Not only are you part of the living body of Christ which is all those who worship in the here and now but you are also part of a much bigger story which reaches back into the mists of time with our Hebrew forebears and forward into a future which only God knows.
But that is not all the help we have. Stadia both old and new have always had places of honour. In the Rio those places might be occupied by the Brazilian politicians or members of the IOC. In Roman times it might have been where the Emperor or someone like King Herod or Pilate might sit. A place of honour right over the start and finish line.
Imagine Jesus sitting in the place of honour in that stadium right over the finish line. Whatever hindrances and weariness and problems you have in running the race you can fix your eyes on Jesus and know that he has been there before you, that he has endured everything you have endured and much more, in fact he has endured it not just for his own sake but also for you and indeed on behalf of every other runner in the race and every other person in that stadium.
Being a Christian in this world is not easy. But that is not a modern phenomenon, we only have to look at Jesus to know that the world does not like to hear that God’s values and God’s priorities are not the same as the world’s priorities. And the same applies too to the pre-Christian prophets and martyrs and all those who lived their lives in faith in the midst of a world which seems to prefer power and wealth to justice and love.
Which brings us to the gospel reading, which always sounds a little disturbing when heard in isolation:
‘Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.’
Who can help but be disturbed by these words, uttered by the prince of peace and how they seem to grate with the words of the Angels at the nativity:
‘Peace on earth and goodwill towards men.’
But the words of Jesus today remind us that when we start living the Christian life, or perhaps when we starting running the race set out before us, there will be conflicts and hindrances and, sadly, there may even be divisions in families. There were instances in the gospel when Jesus’ own mother and brothers could not get near him and Jesus showed them no preferential treatment and we also know from Simeon in the temple that Jesus was destined to cause the falling and rising of many and from the song of Mary that Jesus would scatter those who are proud in their hearts, bring down rulers from their thrones and send the rich away empty.
The Christian life, seeking to follow the example and teaching of Jesus and sharing in the life of the body of Christ, is not and was never intended to be a walk in the park or a nice sit down and a cup of tea. Rather it is a life times work requiring dedication and perseverance to overcome all that seeks to hold us back and setting out on that race will bring us into conflict with a world which tells us not to bother, perhaps even from within our own family.
Today we are given the assurance that when we run that race we are not alone but that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who cheer us on and that we can fix our eyes not just on a finish line but on Jesus Christ himself, the author and perfecter of our faith.