St Francis, Terriers - Trinity 12 (14.08.2016)

Tony Dickinson

The Vicarage, like most of the rest of the country, has gone sport-mad. If it’s not the Test Match (and the less said about that the better), it’s the Olympics. Who stayed up into the small hours to watch Mo Farah and Jess Ennis-Hill?

And who thought “Well, there’s a coincidence!” when they heard today’s first reading?

“Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” You couldn’t have much more appropriate words than those for the Sunday in the middle of the Olympic Games, could you?

Now, that isn’t the only place in the New Testament where the Christian life is compared to the life of an athlete in training. When St Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth, he made a very similar point – and a very topical one. Corinth was the city which hosted the Isthmian games. In the ancient world they were pretty well on a level with the Olympics. Christians, Paul writes, don’t compete for a garland which withers, like the wreath of celery-leaves which was awarded to winners in Corinth. Christians are in training to win the imperishable garland of eternal life.

Being a Christian is a serious business. It isn’t something we do in our spare time. It takes over our lives in something very like the way that preparing for a major competition takes over an athlete’s life. I was half-listening to the “Today Programme” yesterday morning while I was eating breakfast (as you do), but my ears pricked up when Mishal Hussein was interviewing Peter Keen. He’s the coach who is generally regarded as the person who put British cycling on the map, bringing out the best in riders like Chris Boardman and Bradley Wiggins, and turning cycling into the Olympic medal factory that many of us have been enjoying these past couple of days. Peter Keen said some very interesting things about what it takes to be a successful athlete, what it takes to be the very best you can be – and possibly the best in the world. At the heart of it, he said, was “the willingness to commit 100% to the lifestyle, the training, the discipline necessary, and… to recognise you do that as a team.”

That’s the same message that St Paul sent to the Christians in Corinth. It’s the same message that we heard in our first reading this morning. It’s not about being superhuman. It’s not about never making a mistake. If you saw the British cyclists’ performance in the men’s team pursuit on Friday, you will remember that there was a distinct wobble at the beginning – and Mo Farah was accidentally tripped by his own team-mate in the 10,000 metres final last night. It is about knowing that we are, as Peter Keen said yesterday morning, “on a journey together”, and that if we persevere and support one another in developing that necessary discipline and commitment, we will get there in the end. Sin does cling closely. It does weigh us down and get in the way of our being the best we can be; but God can turn even disasters into opportunities. Even if we stumble and fall we can still win gold, as Mo Farah discovered yesterday.

The important thing is that we keep our eyes on Jesus and follow him, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith”, as the writer to the Hebrews calls him. Those words, “pioneer and perfecter” mean that, like the lead cyclist in the team pursuit race, Jesus pulls us along in his slipstream, and as he pulls us along we are supported by the cheers of that great “cloud of witnesses”, all those less-than-perfect heroes of faith who have taken part in the race in past generations, who have led the team, sometimes spectacularly, and then dropped back to allow someone else to take over.

We need their encouragement. Following Jesus is not always plain sailing, as he himself points out in this morning’s Gospel. We need one another’s encouragement, too, as each of us struggles to keep up our commitment to a lifestyle that is centred on love for God and neighbour, to a regular routine of training as we read and reflect on the scriptures and strive for the peace and justice of God’s kingdom, and to the discipline of daily prayer and weekly Communion. We may not be able to give it that hundred per cent from the beginning, but as we grow in faith, as our trust in God overcomes our sense of alienation from him, we find that what once seemed like a burden has become a joy and a source of strength as we follow the steps of Jesus. To him, …