St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Trinity
October 20, 2019
“The testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: so that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
CHARIOTS OF FIRE, a 1981 film celebrating the British Olympic track team of 1924, introduces Eric Liddell, a Scottish runner of astonishing grit, religious zeal, and superhuman speed at a racetrack. In a Scottish vs French meet in the movie, the 440-yard heat saw Liddell knocked down by another runner a few strides into the race. He shook himself off, got up, and seeing every other runner now 20 yards beyond him, he put his head down and ran for all he was worth. Coming from behind the entire field, he overtook them, one by one, finally passing the man who’d knocked him down as he broke the tape, collapsing and gasping for air.
Liddell was the son of missionaries to China, and when he finished his remarkable career on the track, he returned to China, there to die in the service of his Lord, Jesus. Coming from behind, he raced ahead and won the prize that awaits us all if we run the race, and we win.
St. Paul was familiar with racing. The Greek Olympic games were run in the lands of his birth, always in Olympia, Greece. They ran for 1,100 years, from 776 BC through 393 AD, and the track tested the speed of many fleet of foot. Paul used these for an example, writing the Corinthians who also knew the games, “Don't you realize that everyone who runs in a race runs to win, but only one runner gets the prize? Run like them, so that you can win. Everyone who enters an athletic contest goes into strict training. They do it to win a temporary crown, but we do it to win one that will be permanent. So I run-but not without a clear goal ahead of me. So… I toughen my body… and make it my slave so that I will not be disqualified after I have spread the Good News to others.” 1 Cor 9:24-27
If eternal life was only won by an athletic achievement, it would be simpler to explain to people. Run from here to there, and if you cross the line, congratulations! If you added competition, knowing that your time must beat all others, most of us would fail the course. I am not a fast runner, often compared to a bear trudging down the line, and with this gamey foot, not hardly a runner at all now. Such a requirement for salvation would certainly be more like the Greek myths of prowess and strength, for Achilles or Hercules, Jason’s Argonauts or Odysseus lashed to the mast, achieving feats of physical strength against monsters, grinding shorelines and sirens singing.
Competition in life pits us all against each other in order to see who can cross the line first and fastest. We test each other, parry with words, dominate and attempt to frighten. Only one gets the prize in most events, a laurel crown, a medallion, a statue, a tin cup.
I was never much at competitive sports, qualifying only for my high school swim team. I finished last place in most of my races, coming behind and feeling just about drowned at the end. We had Olympic swimmers in L.A. One on our team swam the freestyle events at meets, not with the typical crawl stroke, but the butterfly. And he beat the field. It’s a good thing we’re not pitted against each other for the gates of heaven.
But what is this racing imagery for, if St. Paul puts it that way? Well, as in most sports, the one you’re really fighting against is yourself. The one you need to beat is you and your previous time. We need to improve. And why? Nothing ever remains the same. You go forward, or you slip back. You don’t stay where you are whatever you do. If you’re not climbing up, you’re sliding back. If you’re not speeding up, you’re slowing down. The one you’re in competition with is the old man, the old you. You’re getting yourself ready for heaven. And it’s not a come-as-you-are party.
Hebrews tells us that “No one can please God without faith. Whoever goes to God must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Hebrews 11:6 No, it’s not an athletic contest and we aren’t vying against one another, but there are requirements and we have to be seeking Him. Lazy Christianity wants us to simply accept a Savior, any idea of Him will do, and don’t dare to achieve anything else for fear you’re trying to earn your salvation, take the work away from Jesus. Well if that’s so, I don’t know what He meant by “pick up your cross and follow me.” Jellyfish simply float wherever the current takes them, corks bob downstream, helpless to fight the flow. But people have arms, legs, free will and choice. We aren’t helpless. Thus, we need to move.
Jesus had just answered which of all the Laws of Moses was the first and foremost, and a second law of love that joins it, upon which rely all laws and all commandments. Love God, love your neighbor completely. Do it, and no other requirement follows. But do it. The Pharisees who had asked Him stood darkly considering His words, trying to find out how to break them, make them yield to their system of burdensome rules and Sabbath limitations. Yet while still grappling with this ‘oversimplified rule of love,’ Jesus posed them His own question.
“What do you think of Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said, as they were taught, “David's son.” That was only partly true. The Messiah’s human descent was indeed from King David, but He was also the Son of God. So Jesus posed them another question. “How can David, guided by the Spirit, call him Lord? David says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, Take the highest position in heaven until I put your enemies under your control.’ If David calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” Matt 22:42-45 He was quoting Psalm 110 where this song of David opens, “The Lord said to my Lord, Sit in the highest position in heaven until I put your enemies under your control.” The LORD, means Yahweh, Jehovah God. David says God spoke to David’s Lord, who would sit at God’s right hand in heaven, placing all enemies beneath his feet. The Jews all acknowledged this second Lord as being Messiah, but David called Him Lord. And David was to be His forebear, a great-great-great grandfather. Messiah should thus honor David, not the other way around.
Messiah, in time, comes behind David. He comes after, and thus would normally bear homage to His sires, but the notable sire, David, bears Him honor, even calling Him Lord, just as He calls God LORD. And David, they all agree, is speaking by the Spirit of God. His words, to a Pharisee, are God’s Word. “How then can Messiah be David’s son, if David calls Him Lord?”
Who comes from behind? In ordinary life, we cheer the underdog, the disfavored, the team they all bet against in the big game, yet a team that finds heart and goes beyond their own limits and beats the champions. We cheer louder when they come from behind and still pass the favorite in the final stretch. In Chariots of Fire, the professional track coach, Sam Mussabini, lifts the exhausted Eric Liddell’s head to get him some air, and says, “It’s not the prettiest quarter I’ve ever seen, Mr. Liddell. But, certainly the bravest.”
Liddell had fallen. He was out of the race. For all intent and purpose, he was disqualified. 20 yards back now, behind the last man running, he had no hope of rejoining the field, let alone winning the race. It was impossible, and everybody there knew it. Everybody except Eric Liddell. Up he sprang and found it in himself to try. Just try, but give it all he had.
We say the word “try” when we really mean a half-hearted attempt, a show of effort, but always ready with an excuse. “I tried.” That’s often a word for losers. There is a time you have to give it everything you’ve got. The test to see what you’re made of. Sometimes it’s on a track, pumping knees and elbows, and digging down deep for the will and the power to explode down the lane. Sometimes it’s in ordinary life, where all oppose you and you have to stop listening to the gainsayers and simply put your head down, your ears back, your jaw set and move forward against all odds, against the tide.
A wall in the youth room of one local church I once saw had painted on it every kind of fish, all swimming toward your right. Except one. The Christian fish, just two arcs, the little fish in the middle, was swimming left.
We war not against flesh and blood. That’s a comfort. It would do God’s heart good for every human soul to achieve heaven’s doors and be saved forever. It’s not His will that any perish, but that all be saved. Why then is it not His accomplishment, that He lay His life down to achieve? Why don’t all people get there, proving His love for us by saving us all?
There it is. The question. That’s how this is a race, and not all win the prize. We’re not up against each other. In fact, our goal is to help each other cross the finish line. Rather than knock the fastest runner out of his lane, we pick him up and get him on his feet again. We fasten our eyes on the one bewildered and lost, and we smile, and we encourage. The opposition is not really from our fellows, our own kind. The dragon was cast down here and is doing his darnedest to trip us up. He loves for us to see ourselves behind, behind the curve, behind all others, behind an impossible standard, C minus, less than average, challenged, deficient, guilty, failing, falling apart. Our eyes inside our minds see that field where we lose every time. And surely, pitted against the impossible standard, we can’t do anything but fall short. We even have scriptures to tell us how our hearts are filled with evil, we sin and come short of His mercy.
Did you read the rest of the story? What does God care about your failures? It’s not your failures that define you. They have all been for your teaching, training in knowing where you are, and finding out who you need to lead you home. He is able when you are not. And He is able and more than willing to give you strength to come to Him.
It is both hard and easy. Easy to say, “I believe.” Hard to face myself and say, “I’ve really ruined my life.” Hard to decide that the mess needs cleaning up, and my effort is required. Hard to know how many people I’ve hurt in the course of my failing. Yes. But the evil vision clears and we see the Savior and His face is smiling, encouraging, loving us still. He truly wants us and truly has bled for us. Get up off the ground, get your legs under you, and begin again.
We all come from behind. St. Paul encourages his church at Corinth that the Gospel of Christ has been proven by their faith, and they are not lacking any essential gift of the Spirit, they are not behind, lagging back, losing the race at all.
Pressing forward, they and we all await His coming, and redeemed by His shed blood, will be clean and blameless in that great Day.