This will surprise none of you, but I am not a keen runner.
In the roof of our house there’s a box with some of my school days paraphernalia and in it are two sporting ribbons. One, from year 8, for second prize in the hurdles and the other, from year 11, for third in the 3,000 metres. For the sake of accuracy, I should add that both sports days were at small missionary schools – there were only 12 in my year 8 class – and the number of people in each event roughly equaled the number of ribbons awarded.
And now I live in a household of conversations that mostly mystify me; about being sorry to have missed training, or the benefits of getting a running coach, or what’s going on with this muscle or that muscle, or being sad that you lost your gains over the holidays… Can I just say that if I lost my gains over the holidays – rather than gaining more gains – I would not be sad.
And so I came to this Sunday’s reading with some resistance – resistance strengthened by years of hearing young (almost always male) muscular Christians preaching about running to win the prize, stripping off all that gets in the way, being totally fixed on Jesus, totally fixed on the finishing line, totally fixed on what you believe and the ensuing adrenalin rush!
Which is why when I started to do some reading for today, I was surprised to learn that the word ἀγωνα here, translated as race, “let us run with perseverance the race”, can also be translated ‘struggle’. Essentially the word means ‘agony!’ (In the context of running, this makes a lot more sense to me!) What the writer of Hebrews is doing is inviting us into the agony of Christ, urging us to perseverance in the struggle for Christ. According to the Greek scholar, “translating [ἀγωνα] as race makes sense given the verb ‘run’ used in 12:1. However this may seem like a competition against others.” Which it is not!
Because the first thing this passage has just spent a whole chapter telling us is that we do not run this race, persevere in this struggle, alone! We run the race with others – with a host of odd and eclectic others – and, what is really interesting about the list, at least to a lacklustre sportsperson like me, is that this is a list of winners and losers.
That just as when we think of the Usain Bolts of the world or the Cathy Freemans or the Sally Pearsons, we also remember Eddie the Eagle or the Jamaican bobsleigh team or Eric ‘The Eel’ Moussambani or Trevor Misipeka….
Do you know the story of Trevor Misipeka? Trevor was a member of the Samoan team at the 2011 Edmonton World Championships, but when they arrived, they discovered the IAAF’s policy on allowing competitors from small countries to enter without meeting qualifying standards had been changed. It was OK for track events, but not for field. Misipeka was a shot putter. He weighed in at 133kg. But with two days’ notice, two days to train, the Samoan Federation told him he was running the 100 metres. He finished last, recording a time of 14.28 seconds, one of the slowest times ever seen in the World Championships. He went on to do a business degree and have a far more sporting success playing indoor gridiron.
Or do you know the story of George Stuart Robertson? George was an Oxford graduate who saw an ad for the inaugural games of the modern Olympics in the window of a London travel agent and paid his 11 pounds to go. As he said, “Greek classics were my proper academic field, so I could hardly resist a go at the Olympics, could I?” When he arrived, he was dismayed to discover that the discipline he knew, hammer throwing, was not included, so he entered the shot put and discus. His discus throw was 25.20 metres, the worst Olympic discus result ever recorded. He did, however, recite an ode to athletic prowess in Ancient Greek at the closing ceremony that he had composed and was awarded an olive and laurel wreath from the King of Greece.
And in the same way, our passage from Hebrews lists those, “who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight…,”alongside those who, “suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.… [who] were stoned to death…sawn in two…killed by the sword; [and] went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented.…”
And as much as I’d rather be in the first group and not the second, it is profoundly reassuring that being counted amongst God’s faithful is not dependant on success or ability or even historical circumstances. Or perhaps that realisation is also deeply unsettling – when we think about how desperately we cling to being successful, to being thought a success; to realise that in the end faith is simply having discovered that God is faithful, not what we have achieved.
I wonder what that might mean for us to grasp this as a church – not just as individuals?
But there is another unsettling thing about this list, something that may not have crossed the writer of Hebrews’ mind; that included in this list are people involved with invasion and occupation, with what we call ’ethnic cleansing’, with human sacrifice. It raises again for us how difficult evaluating historic figures can be (a live issue for us in Canberra) and for dealing with the negative interactions we have had with people in the past and with the ongoing interactions we have each day and our own sin. Perhaps with more honesty about our humanness, more experience of God’s grace, we can have faith in the God who is faithful – not just to the good, but also to the bad, and to everyone in between, to every one of us.
Which brings me to the second thing in this passage; laying aside, “every weight and the sin that so easily entangles”. In those adrenalin filled sermons I mentioned earlier the emphasis was always on discovering the sin in your life that was holding you back, getting fit for God so you were fit for God, being made perfect, looking to Jesus the perfector of our faith… Which seems to tie in perfectly with what we know of the ancient Olympic games. Athletes did strip naked and the events celebrated the beauty of nude male bodies. (Women did not compete, and for some reason – anxious husbands perhaps – married women could not even watch!)
But I have been wondering if this emphasis on becoming perfect, being perfect, is actually unhelpful for us; that when we strive for perfection for God, we lay more weight on ourselves, tangle ourselves up in even more sinful knots. That “to run with perseverance” means that God comes to us just as we are, just where we are, just at this moment; that all that is asked of us is to respond to God’s faithfulness.
I was at the doctors recently and on the Better Health Channel they play while you’re waiting and waiting… there was a piece about all the excuses we use for not exercising; I’m too busy, it’s too hot or too cold, I’m too unfit, I’m too old… and the host dismantled them one by one, giving simple, doable ideas for getting going with exercise right here and right now.
And that is what is asked of us too; to do what we can do – right here and right now. As the American Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, said, “It seems to me that I have greater peace and am closer to God when am I not trying to be a contemplative, or trying anything special, but simply orienting my life fully and completely toward what seems to be required of a person [like me] at a time like this.”
“Made perfect” here in verse 40 and “Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith” in verse two both come from the Greek word ‘telos’, meaning the end or the goal. What Jesus does is to help us reach the end of our journey. Something like this moment from Rio in 2016 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ywUjFGp_VpY
Jesus is the one saying to us, “Get up, get up, we have to finish this.” ‘We’ have to finish this, because Jesus ‘the pioneer’ began this journey and he has finished it, and he walks and knows each step of the way.
Which is why, finally, our passage urges us to look to Jesus. Why would we look anywhere else?
And yet, I do not believe, as it is sometimes conveyed that looking to Jesus involves a kind of tunnel vison, a focus on escaping to another world, and a disregard for the world around us, the mistaken belief, as commentator William Loader puts it that, “Jesus’ chief concern is getting us through this world as an encumbrance so that we can join him in another place and another time.” This belief does come through in the book of Hebrews. It was written for people who were suffering and whose experience of life was that the meaning of life mostly lay beyond it, but we know the Bible also teaches that creation is good, and we find God in it
We can therefore, Loader says, “Cut the metaphor adrift from such a grid to the point where our looking to Jesus becomes an aspect of our ongoing spiritual journey and that we find him not seated on a throne in an ethereal realm, but out in the real world in which we live …”
Our journey of faith involves being open to the world that God loved, and Christ agonised for, and open to the great company of multifarious faithful with multifarious interpretations of faithful living – and faith itself – that share our journey. Our faith is not a fixed focus, a fixed set of beliefs, but an openness to the God who is faithful to us. In novelist Doris Betts’ words, faith is “not synonymous with certainty…[but] is the decision to keep your eyes open.”
So, what does it mean to run with perseverance the race set before us? It means to be graciously gathered up, regardless of who we are and what we’ve done, into the company of those who have found God faithful. It means to start just as we are and to know that Jesus walks beside us. It means to keep our eyes open on this journey that may take us to heaven or through hell, through the known or to the farthest limits of the sea, through darkness and light to see the Spirit of God brooding over us.
I would like to close with a prayer from Kathy Galloway of the Iona Community.
God of many names, my name is known to you.
I am held in the hand of your life,
and I do not know what you will make of me.
All I know is that I cannot make myself
any more than I could in my mother’s womb.
But this I can do, this I choose,
to give myself into the hand of your continuing creativity.
My past, with its joys and triumphs, its failures and regrets.
My present, with its struggles and accomplishments, its hopes and setbacks.
My future, with its fears and freedom, its pain and promise.
To loose and to bind, to strength and to shape,
to become what I will,
trusting the hand that made the world
trusting the spirit that breathes life
trusting the love that will not let me go
trusting the promise of the Word made flesh.