Reflection by Iestyn Henson on the evening of 19th April 2015 – a week before he and our minister, Rev. Phil Wall, take part in the London Marathon.
Running the Race (Hebrews 12:1-3 – Good as New and other translations; 1 Corinthians 9:23-27; reference also Sydney Carter’s ‘One more step along the world I go)
I sometime get quite worried when starting to write a sermon; I get worried that I’m going to find the right words to say, that is, the right way to express what I feel I’m being called to share with you, the right words so that you’ll hear what I say in the way that is meaningful. I get worried that the speaking will be too long or too short, that the pace or the tone of voice will be enough to keep you awake, and engaged.
And for this reason, we’re going to sing our next hymn, a prayer for all of us: “May the mind of Christ my saviour” (Kate B Wilkinson)
One of the tricks of finding the right words to say is to talk in everyday language, using ordinary thoughts and ideas, images and stories. If there’s one singular criticism I have of street preachers (and goodness knows, I don’t think I could do it myself) – if there’s one criticism I have, it’s that they tend not to talk in language that their intended audience is likely to understand. Their preaching often contains jargon, words only understood by those in the know, and it also often contains some extremely complex theologies which, if I’m honest, I’m not convinced they understand properly themselves, let alone have the ability to explain to the completely uninitiated.
You may have seen the Jehovah’s witnesses in town, or outside railway stations recently. A couple are at Abercynon regularly, and we exchange a ‘good morning’, as you do. But if you’ve ever picked up the Watchtower or other literature, it’s pretty difficult to fathom, pretty inaccessible (which sort of defeats the point?).
These are not mistakes which Jesus made; though he could engage in theological debate with the best of the Rabbis, scribes and pharisees, when preaching to the ordinary people, he used ordinary language. His stories were full of pictures from daily life, profound truth wrapped up not in religious jargon, but in the ordinary. I think we forget this all too easily.
The tradition of which Jesus was a part was, though, a very long one. Think for a moment of the way the psalmist sings praise, or cries out to God; think of how the prophets connect with the people. The language is straightforward; poetic, frequently, but not incomprehensible. The Hebrew people were steeped in this kind of preaching and teaching; they would not have been alone in the ancient world either. This is the tradition in which Paul and the other apostles find themselves, when writing letters to the Christians of the early churches – and you’ll notice that I deliberately chose two letters with similar language – one to the Hebrew Christians, and one to the Christians in Corinth, which is in Greece. They reference the ordinary things, in plain language.
Let me tell you, in plain language, a little more about my running….
Throughout the training, I’ve tried to run at least twice every week; one short run and one long one. It’s the long one which is hard work!! I’ve run most of the way with Darren, or with the other Parkrunners – including long sections of all the half-marathons. Phil has joined the Pontypridd Roadents running club, and several of the clubs members have become friends too through the training and racing. Different people adopt different techniques to help them run – particularly on the long runs. Darren enters what he describes as a ‘Zen’ state, where he can clear his mind, unclutter things and concentrate on his breathing, his movement. Phil, I know, enjoys listening to music. For me, running is ‘thinking time’ and occasionally, music time too. There have been several times when I’ve found myself singing along in my head ‘One more step along the world I go’ – I have to sing it either quite fast or very slow to match the speed of my steps! But more often, running is ‘thinking time’ – I can plan work, or domestic things in my head; I found that I can plan services such as this one, and think about hymns and readings.
And it was in this singing in my head, and in this thinking time, a long time ago, that I wondered about a little sermon on the subject, the sermon which you are now hearing, of course, not only a sermon about running the race, but one which has come about as a direct result of the training which Paul speaks of!
The people of the Greek and Roman world – and I include the Hebrews in this of course – knew plenty about athletics; it was a major spectator sport at the time, though the idea of ordinary people running for fun, or even because they were good at it, would have been somewhat anathema. Athletes were almost all slaves or servants, picked out at an early age and trained, and competing on behalf of their owners. It’s not a comfortable thought, and certainly not one often discussed as part of the ‘Olympic ideal’, but the reality was probably much more like horse-racing or show jumping today; owners and trainers pitting their best against each other for bragging rights.
But because the ancient people knew about sporting events, the letter writers could use this as imagery, as word pictures for what they wanted to say about faith.
Let’s start with Hebrews, and note up front that scholars now think that it is unlikely that Paul himself was the author of Hebrews (some scholars suggest it may have been Pricilla, see http://godswordtowomen.org/hoppin.htm for one discussion of this, and don’t be put off by the web site name!). But it’s possible that the author knew Paul’s thinking and some of his way of expressing things. The writer has certainly latched onto some of Paul’s sporting analogies. I checked dates, by the way, and 1 Corinthians was probably written about 8-10 years before Hebrews, so this makes sense if the letters were being circulated.
The writer of the Hebrews has this lovely image of us having confidence in our race, confidence in knowing the course, because Jesus has been there before us, and didn’t give up. Sydney Carter’s couplet which we sang “Give me courage when the world is rough; keep me loving though the world is tough” is one of the simplest yet most heartfelt prayers we can ever sing – we must remember not to forget that, just because it’s tucked away in the 4th verse!
Paul and the other apostles knew what it was like when the going got tough, what long distance runners call ‘hitting the wall’; Paul himself seems to have had perhaps only three gears – fast, very fast or full stop. The more often I read the story of the road to Damascus, the more I’m convinced that here’s a Pharisee who is working so hard to persecute the Christians, driving himself beyond his physical and mental stamina, that a crash was inevitable; it’s what we would recognise as a breakdown now, something which incapacitates, to the point of blindness and complete dependence on other people. And it’s in this breakdown that Paul is confronted by Jesus, it’s in the crash that he realises that he’s got it all wrong, that his efforts have been focussed in completely the wrong direction. When he is recovered, Paul sets of at full pelt in the Jesus direction, and doesn’t always hold onto full health even then.
Our lives on earth are frequently tough; our health, our circumstance, our day-to-day living, our work, our families and loved ones, plenty more, all give cause for concern from time to time. In other parts of the world, it is still almost unthinkably tougher still. But Jesus came and shared human life in all its variety; God cares for us because God in Christ has been in our position, God in Christ understands what we’re going through and, as the writer to the Hebrews says, did not give up, even when faced with the cross.
It’s in the letter to the Corinthians however that we get a little more in terms of practical advice. Paul here talks of the race we are running, not just in terms of our earthly lives, but really in terms of our lives of faith. “Run then” says Paul ” in such a way as to win the prize. Every athlete trains… we do for a crown which will last for ever”
Paul even has some tips as to what sort of thing this training should involve. You need to run straight – sounds a little obvious doesn’t it, but running straight gets you there faster, it gets you there without obstacles. I can never read this without thinking both of Isaiah’s prophesy – set to music by Handel – “Every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight and the rough places plain”; and of course Jesus who said ‘I am the way’. Run straight, run the Jesus way.
And when Paul is talking about hardening his body, like a boxer, what he is really saying is ‘keep fit’, be ready for whatever comes your way. It’s strange to think that although we ran 20 miles the other Monday, and intend going 26 next weekend, if we didn’t keep on running regularly, we would soon lose that ability. And our life of faith is the same; you have to practice to keep it up. By the way, I think this is why those people who say you can be a Christian without going to church are wrong, why people who want to live in a Christian country, but have no interest in the Biblical Jesus are missing the point. And if you’ll allow me to digress just a little, I’ll mention too a group you may have heard of called ‘Britain’s First’ -a group which claims, even at the electoral ballot box, that it wants to reclaim Britain as a Christian Country. Well, don’t get fooled. Britain’s First are fascists, they hold similar views about Britain as Hitler did of Nazi Germany, and they live their lives by hate. They cannot possibly be Christians. We’ve got an election approaching – almost, but not quite as fast as the marathon next week it seems. I’m not going to tell anyone how to vote, you’re all too intelligent and free-thinking for me to try that. But do listen carefully to what the politicians of all colours are saying; measure their words against what you know to be the Good News.
Coming to church, sharing your faith with each other, allowing me to share mine with you up at the front, reading your Bibles, having conversations with God in prayer; all these things are the ‘keeping fit’ which Paul talks about. And you don’t keep fit by sitting still either of course! This life of faith, this journey we are on is one of movement, and also of change – you can see that just by looking the history of God’s people, and it’s one of the central messages of Pentecost, that with the guidance of the Spirit, we can move forward, yes even run forward, to new things, to better things.
So here’s another parable for you from my own running experience, and in drawing on my own experience, I don’t so much as try and put myself up there with Paul, but rather illustrate what Paul means. You see, when I first started running in Ponty Park 15 months ago, it would take me over 28 minutes to run the 5km (and then, out of puff, and aching all over for several days). And then two things happened. The first was that someone reminded me that to run comfortably, you had to have the right shoes on. Now where is it that we’re told we have to have the right clothing? Ephesians chapter 6 or if you prefer, Colossians chapter 12, if you want to look it up. The second thing though was that the breathlessness and the aching started to go, and I found that with training, I could push myself further and faster – and I can now do the 5km in less than 23 minutes. Paul means it you know, as you run this race of faith, it may not be easy – in fact, if you’re running seriously it never is – but the training gives you every chance imaginable of winning the crown.
So then, three things to take away with you this evening – at least 3 things: Firstly, have confidence in the race you are running; secondly, run straight; finally, train properly, practice. Everyday, ordinary language, and as clear as it is true, today as it was almost 2000 years ago.
Let me finish by returning to Sydney Carter’s prayerful song once more for the final verse captures something also of this timelessness:
You are older than the world can be, you are younger than the life in me; Ever old, and ever new, keep me travelling along with you.
May we run the race to be so, ever travelling the way of Jesus. Amen.