While it may not shock you to hear me say I am not a competitive athlete,
it may surprise you to hear that I love movies about sports—the struggle, the setbacks, the success—inspiring!
One of my favorites is ‘Chariots of Fire’—an oldie, I know… but it’s blend of running and religious witness is powerful, and the opening scene of the 1924 Olympic team running on a beach, each with an expression of determination and exhilaration is the picture that comes to my mind when I hear this passage from the Letter to the Hebrews. The language and rhetoric of the letter seems foreign to our ears. The letter was written sometime between 60 and 90, to a community of Christians from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. It is really more a sermon than a letter. The author exhorts the Christians to persist in their faith, in spite of their exhaustion. Their lives as Christians were a daily battle, a strenuous athletic contest. Living as Christians separated them from their families and their culture.
In our world, it is possible to live a personal, private religious life. We may be Episcopalians, the people across the street may be Unitarians, and the family down the block may be Muslim—and usually nobody knows or cares about these religious identities. In social gatherings the topic of religion doesn’t come up at all—or if it does only as a polite discussion. This kind of religious anonymity would not have been possible in the ancient world. To become a Christian was a very public act, often setting converts against their own neighbors and family. And the people addressed in the Letter to the Hebrews were getting tired of trying to follow Jesus, and it was beginning to show: they were attending worship less regularly, and they were neglecting deeds of Christian mercy. It isn’t easy to be a Christian—it wasn’t then, and it isn’t now.
Right now in Egypt, Coptic Christians are under violent attack. Churches are being burned. The Islamic supporters of Egypt’s ousted president who have been battling the military have turned their rage on members of the country’s Coptic Christian minority, attacking churches, monasteries, schools, Christian-owned shops as well as individuals. It is hard to hear the words Jesus spoke—of division in families, of fire being kindled on the earth—when they are taking shape like this in Egypt.
- It isn’t easy to be a peacemaker in a society torn by warfare, ready to resort to torture or backpack explosives.
- It isn’t easy to be a person who “stores up treasures in heaven” in a consumerist culture.
- It isn’t easy to “bear another’s burdens” in a “me” culture
Being a Christian isn’t just a matter of being true to our inner selves.
Our true inner selves–we have to be honest and admit this–want to cut people off in traffic, load up our credit cards to buy the latest tech gadget, tell people in need “too bad, but it’s YOUR problem.” Our true inner selves want to sleep in on Sunday morning, read the paper, and take a pass on church. Sigmund Freud had a name for that “true inner self;” he called it the Id: the drive for immediate gratification of all impulses. The Id is present from birth, and is a natural if primitive part of all human beings. There is nothing “natural” about being a Christian. It isn’t easy to follow Jesus—who leads us on a risk-filled path. Trying to follow Jesus can easily lead to the ‘faith fatigue’ the Letter to the Hebrews is about. One thing this letter reminds us, is that we are not the first ones to try to follow the path that leads to God.
In the Letter, we hear of others who took the path at a run—Abel, Noah, Abraham, David—who sought “a better country, that is a heavenly one” (11:16) But then the preacher to the Hebrews springs a surprise in the sermon. He reveals that this is not an individual footrace–each runner headed for the finish line–but instead a relay race. All those who ran before us in faith ran their portion of the track well, but they didn’t finish the race, they “did not receive what was promised” (11:39). They have instead passed the baton to us, and they have taken their place in the great stadium around the finish line. The race cannot be finished unless we finish it. Those who have run before us cannot, “apart from us, be made perfect” (11:40), and they have now become a “great cloud of witnesses” waiting to see what we will do.
So now the baton is in our hands, and the last leg of the great race lies before us. The stadium is filled with those who have run before, cheering encouragement. We are weary and discouraged; our hands droop and our knees are weak (12:12), but we cannot let that bother us now. We are to keep our eyes on the prize, our eyes on Jesus, “the one who runs ahead…and has already finished the race that is the life of faith.” Like a competitive swimmer who shaves his body to be ready to swim the race swiftly, we are called to put aside all the impediments that would hold us back and “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (12:2). And when we break the tape and cross the finish line, we will find that we have come to a place that only this poetry from the Letter to the Hebrews can describe:
You have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering. And to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven. And to God the judge of all, And to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, And to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, And to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (12:22-24)
Run the race with perseverance and you will find that it ends at the very gates of the Kingdom of God.
(My sermon is based on a study of the Letter to the Hebrews by the Rev. Tom Long, one of my heroes, who is professor of preaching at Emory University in Atlanta. I have added a couple of points but want to attribute it, and encourage you to read more from him if you want to. Anne+)
Note: THOMAS G. LONG is the Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He is the author of Hebrews in the Interpretation series (1997).