Hebrews chapters 11 & opening of 12
Francis Drake, that old adventurer who was perhaps more of a pirate than an admiral, nevertheless wrote a famous prayer which sums up what I want to say:
Lord God, when you call your servants to endeavour any great matter, grant us also to know that it is not the beginning, but the continuing of the same, until it be thoroughly finished, which yields the true glory; through him who, for the finishing of your work, laid down his life for us, our Redeemer, Jesus Christ.
In the ancient world, in both Greek and Roman cultures, sport meant athletics and athletics was very important with some high-profile games, chief of which were the Olympics. It was even then the greatest show on earth. Whether Paul as a young man was a competitive athlete we shall never know. But he uses the image of athletic training knowing that all his readers and hearers will understand what he means. For every few minutes in the limelight there are many, many long hours of routine training. To do well you need determination and practice. It’s not enough to begin, as Francis Drake says, you need to persevere and finish.
This is the first Olympic lesson for us. Practice.
As Paul says, Christian living doesn’t just happen; you have to work at it. Jesus makes this clear. How many times do you forgive – till you lose count says Jesus. What about loving your friends and family – love your enemies too. What about saving your money – just don’t expect it to provide happiness, he says; better to give it away. What about adultery – don’t even fantasise he says. What about observing the Sabbath – always look out for some good you can do whatever day it is. And so on. All this requires practice. There’s a phrase ‘practising Christian’ which should mean much more than someone who goes to church on a Sunday. Practice may not make perfect but it certainly necessary to sustain a life of faith and hope and love.
The image of Olympic champions pounding away out of the limelight, like Adam Peaty at the baths every morning before the rest of us are awake, is a powerful and effective one. If we practise our Christianity we do become better at it, thank God. But if we are Sunday-only Christians we shall always struggle and doubt and worry. So let’s all be practising Christians.
The second lesson of the Olympics is that all these champions are part of teams – even the most solitary ones. Not for nothing has the snappy title Team GB caught on. There is so much back-up, coaching and sheer encouragement, without which there would be no medal performances. Christianity is a team effort. Not only do we need one another in a local fellowship to keep us up to speed, we need to honour those who carried the baton before us. We can feel ourselves to be part of God’s great unfolding story, climaxing in Jesus, and rolling on till now. Most believers can usually point to two or three individuals who showed them, either in words or by example, what being a Christian meant.
So we come to the core of this message: we are looking to Jesus. As our reading puts it: Jesus is the one on whom our faith depends from start to finish. Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, alpha and omega; as the hymn says, ‘Christ is the path and Christ the prize’. This is a double truth, just as Jesus is both one of us in our human nature and the one who reveals God to us when we worship him. It is both the faith of Jesus and our faith in Jesus which sustains us in our lap of the track.
Through him we learn both our Olympic lessons: we are given the perseverance as disciples to practise our Christian life, and we are given each other like a team for encouragement and support.
Thanks be to God.
(Read through Drake’s prayer again and make it your own.)
Revd Peter Brain