Sunday, August 14, 2016

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Hebrews 11 and 12

29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.
30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days.
31 By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.
32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.
39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

I’m told Montreal hosted the ‘76 Olympics.

And just as you do the mental math, I’m old enough that I should remember. It’s just that during the weeks I should have been glued to that tiny black and white in the corner of the living room my parents decided to go on vacation—a driving vacation—to British Columbia.

The week we left was the week my mother decided to quit smoking. I don’t think I need to say more about that particular trauma. Good to quit, bad to spend three weeks in a truck with the quitter.

My father got it in his head to travel Highway 11 through northern Ontario, a route that has, it seems, fewer hills. And Carmen wonders about my irrational fear of wilderness, bears and other large creatures.

My brother loves trains—still does. As navigator, he directed us through every rail yard between North Bay and Vancouver. Think about that.

So when people mention the Montreal Olympics, I don’t think Greg Joy and the High Jump, or Nadia Comaneci’s perfect ten, or even a pregnant cartoon of Mayor Jean Drapeau—I think of rail yards, a nation of rail yards.

And Montreal, of course, was the last games with nearly full participation until the 1988 games in Seoul, another trauma we need not mention for a second, or 9.79 seconds. Over the next couple of games we recaptured our dignity, especially in rowing, and entered this century more confident but acutely aware that we are a winter games people—until a certain 16 year-old arrived in Rio.

Penny Oleksiak—dubbed “Lucky Penny” by the BBC—seemed to come out of nowhere to become our youngest olympic champion and the first to win four medals at the same summer games. Wonderfully, her gold was a tie with Simone Manuel, the first African-American woman to win a gold in swimming for the U.S.

I know you’re politely listening to me, but some of you are ready to get back to today’s coverage. Women’s basketball (Canada v. Spain) is at 4.45, with the Men’s 100m final is at 9.25.

“Let us run with perseverance,” the author of Hebrews wrote, “the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” Having reviewed our favourite summer olympic sports, and why faith is like a race, it might be time to look at running in antiquity.

The ancient Olympic games, begun in 776 BC, first featured only running. Runners ran at standard length, called a stadion (or stade), a distance of about 200 metres. Soon a two stade race was added, followed by a distance race around 5K. There was also something called the hoplite race, a race in full armour, adding about 60 lbs. to the effort. You may be surprized to learn there was no marathon, something that seems to have been dreamed up for the rebirth of the Olympics in 1896.

Olympic champions were famous in the Greek city-states with statues erected and wealth flowing to the victor’s home town, sometimes in gold, sometimes in something useful like olive oil. And just to add a fun fact you can share with your friends, ancient olympic runner Leonides of Rhodes (b. 188 BC) maintained a record of twelve individual olympic championships for over 2,000 years, only to be broken this past week by Michael Phelps.[1]

So the author of Hebrews knew about running. The ancient games were held every four years for over a thousand years, and the idea of running the race with perseverance would have resonated with his audience. Like modern viewers, the ancients marveled at the determination and stamina required to compete.

And they knew about trouble. Reading through the Acts of the Apostles, we know that the church in Jerusalem was persecuted, beginning with Saul (later Paul) himself. At this early stage most believers were Jewish followers of Christ, their very identity a source of conflict.

So drawing on this background, and using examples of heroic faith, the author of Hebrews reviews what others have endured. As stated, it’s rated M for Mature:

36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning;[b] they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

In other words, if Myriam, Joshua, Rahab, or Gideon, Barak, and Samson could endure, then you can too. And then the author goes a step further, tying ancient sacrifice to behaviour today:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.

In other other words, don’t falter in the faith or give yourself to sin when so many are behind you cheering you on. The cloud of witnesses approach works in two ways: first, don’t let them down, since they did so much to safeguard the faith, and secondly, accept the encouragement that while unseen, is very real. Run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

And then there is another commendation, one that at first seems a little unclear. The author of Hebrews has reviewed this great sweep of faithfulness, named names and cited examples, yet adds this: 39 “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.”

It would be easy to engage in a little supersessionist thought here, suggesting that only Jesus completes the arc of faithfulness. Yet Paul and others argue that these spiritual giants are righteous on their own, before Christ, with Paul calling Abraham “the father of all who believe.” These faithful ones are credited by righteousness alone, and therefore the meaning of the words “none of them received what had been promised” is something else.

And to understand this delayed promise, I think we need to go back to sport. A life of faith, well led, is less an individual sport and more a team sport. We ponder the cloud of witnesses that surround us, and the saints that astound us, and we know they worked together. We know that just as it “takes a village to raise a child” it takes a congregation to raise a Christian. Faith does not appear spontaneously, it is nurtured over years with other faithful people.

And I can go further too. In addition to being a team sport, faith is like a relay, where each generation passes the torch to each new generation and faith continues. Some say Christianity is always one generation away from disappearing, and while a tad overly-dramatic, there is a kernel of truth in these words. We are the guardians of something precious, and it falls to us to pass the torch on to others. This why so many volunteers give so many hours to the church school—because others gave time and the gift of a faith to them.

The author of Hebrews said “God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” The giants of faith are made perfect when we advance God’s realm, when we pass the torch, and when we “run with perseverance the race marked out for us,” always “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. Amen.



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