Sermon for Solemn Evensong & Benediction Sunday 12 August 2012
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Several weeks ago I went and saw the Stage adaptation of Chariots of Fire. Though perhaps a little over sentimental; towards the end, it began to reveal something much deeper and profound in the human spirit through faith, rather than only cataloguing fast and successful athletes.
You will no doubt recall the story, two British sprinters competing in the 1924 Olympics. They are Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish missionary running the race set before him in his words, “to the Glory of God”, and Harold Abrahams, a Jew, running to prove his place in Cambridge society and to fight anti-Semitism.
Both athletes get to prove their point and both fulfil their ambition. But for me, not surprisingly, it’s Eric Liddell whose qualifying heat in the Olympics, scheduled for a Sunday and who famously refuses to run captures my imagination.
First he holds fast to his principle of keeping the Sabbath, and though life doesn’t always work out for us in this way, for Eric, his steadfastness is rewarded by a fellow undergraduate Lord Lindsay allowing him to take his place and compete in another track event, obviously not taking place on a Sunday. So Eric runs the 400m and wins, and Harold runs the 100 meters and wins. They win their respective races, they make their point and achieve subsequent fame, nothing dissimilar to our modern athletes.
But the life for Eric after these games is much more interesting. He turns his back on celebrity, and goes and continues his real vocation, to become a missionary in Northern China, following in the footsteps of his parents, but in a place which had become a treacherous battleground with the invading Japanese. In 1941 against the advice of the British Government and with Japan becoming more aggressive towards China, Liddell stayed to teach the poor. By 1943 he was interred in Weihsein Interment Camp where he continued to teach and preach the Gospel until his death in 1945.
Of course, many died in those camps, and Eric would be remembered only for being an Olympian if it wasn’t for what he did before his death. In 2008 just before the Beijing Games, Chinese authorities revealed that Liddell had refused an opportunity to leave the prisoner camp (prisoner release negotiated through Churchill), and instead gave his place of freedom to a pregnant woman. The Sacrifice of one, liberated two, the freedom of two no doubt gave birth to a new generation in a family at least. The news of his “sacrifice” in 1945 hadn’t been realised until 2008, long after the film, but soon enough for this to be added to the stage play.
In the 1924 games, Liddell took his team mates place to run a race not scheduled on the Sabbath, and in doing so, he secured a victory. However, in the race of life, he took our Lord’s place, he imitated him and liberated a single pregnant woman and claimed a radically different victory; one which feels a little like a Maximillian Kolbe moment.
The Christian life set before us, encourages us to head towards a goal, a selfless goal. We are encouraged by the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, to look away from the world and look towards Jesus, to look away from the expected human response and to do the unexpected which is inspired in Christ. In him we will find the Kingdom of God, in him, we will find the promises of God which reveal something working in us more substantial to what we would otherwise be. For in this race, we are to look away from our selfish desires and find Christ, we are to look away from that which diminishes us in the short-term and look towards the greater victory… “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” The persevering obedience of faith in Christ, was the race set before the Hebrews, wherein they could either win the crown of glory, or face the alternative. The same is set before us.
But the writer to the Hebrews also advises, “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus”. Sin and selfishness easily beset us, we are prone to it, yet, we must learn not to buckle under it, or succumb to it. We cannot allow the sin and error of our lives to change our direction away from Christ. We cannot choose an easier path, the path before us is essential, it is our vocation and with the help of God we will succeed.
We see that Christ takes the eternal Joy to heart but still endures everything in that temporary destination of the Cross. And we are to do the same. We might not rid ourselves completely of error or misdoing, but we cannot use our failings of this life to excuse us from aiming to run to Christ. For we know our Sin, we know how it clings, and how our frail and failing nature hinders us from running the Christian race set before us.
But those failings must not conquer us. We are to steadfastly look to Jesus in this benediction and frequently be reminded of him, and consider him. For in him is our salvation if we are to believe anything contained within our sacred texts.
So come expectant to this benediction, to look and receive, just as we come expecting to be fed by the sacrament at Mass for, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Sermon preached by Fr. John Pritchard