The Christian Race
I am sure that all readers of the Congregational Record were looking forward to the first pastoral letter from our new minister, Jonathan de Groot. In the last letter, I took the opportunity to thank everyone for their support in the expectation that it would be the last pastoral letter of the vacancy. However, some delay in securing the building warrant for the substantial refurbishment which has been carried out at the manse has caused a consequential deferral of the date for the Induction of Jonathan de Groot. We are very grateful to all who have helped, particularly Jim Clark, the fabric convener, who has spent many hours and even days at the manse dealing with contractors, and Jonathan Middleton, who has supplied the architectural input. We are also grateful to the de Groot family for their patience and understanding. To save people writing or phoning we will announce the date of the Induction on the Sandyford website as well as in our services.
For so many in Glasgow the month of July was dominated by the Commonwealth Games. Wall to wall sunshine (for most of the 11 days) provided invaluable vitamin D for Glaswegians, who might, with their characteristically self-deprecatory humour, have predicted that the rain would have fallen laterally every day. From so many points of view the games were a great success, being heralded, perhaps with that endearing West Coast use of hyperbole, ‘the best ever’. The Sandyford Café was so much appreciated, and we are very grateful to Peter Billington and to all who helped to welcome some 1000 people (see Peter’s report on pp. 10-11).
The games imagery has been exploited throughout the Bible to encourage people in their commitment and service. While the Commonwealth Games differed in many respects from, for example, their Grecian counterparts, we may draw on the Glasgow 2014 experience to help focus on our own challenges in the days ahead. The writer to the Hebrews sought to raise confidence and commitment in those to whom he was writing by drawing on what would have been an image as familiar in his day as the Games are to us:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrew 12: 1-2)
To be selected to compete for Scotland, as indeed for many of the 71 nations taking part, all competitors had either themselves or one of their parents to have been born in the country and to have attained the minimum standard for the particular event on at least two separate occasions. However, reaching the qualifying standard did not guarantee selection; in fact, no more than three competitors could be selected for any event. God sets an infinitesimally higher standard for all who would serve Him. It is a world record which, attained by one person only, Jesus Christ, has never been equalled or beaten. But, in His great love and mercy, God has said that He will count the perfect life of Jesus instead of our sinful one, and will view the death of Jesus at Calvary as sufficient to cancel out our sin.
There is no nationality qualification either. Nor any limit on the number God can use in his service. In fact, the book of Revelation states that there will be a ‘multitude that no man can number, drawn from every tribe and nation’.
And God does not select just the elite (whoever these may be). Admittedly, the crowds in Glasgow were not elitist in their support, witness the encouragement given to struggling competitors and teams (an announcer, I’m told, stirred up the crowd to get behind the Ugandan Rugby team (and not just because they were playing England!)), and to the para-athletes (the thirteen-year-old bronze-winning Erraid Davies becoming the heroine of the Games). But all teams in the Games and the Para-Games had still a restricted entry. The only fitness required in God’s service is not our ability but that we see our need of Jesus and own Him as our Lord and Saviour. Jesus came to ‘invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind’ (Luke 14: 13), and to ‘rescue the lame’ (Zephaniah 3: 19). What an inclusive invitation!
Now some coming to our congregation are keeping back from entering the Christian race through a concern that they need to wait until they are worthy to confess the name of Jesus. And as we know from examples in the Bible (see particularly the letter to the Galatians) and from our own experience, we can so easily stumble in the race with self-dependence and self-exertion. The athlete will try again and again to meet the qualifying standard. But are we not relieved that in the Christian faith it is trusting, and not trying, and believing not doing, that prevails with God!
That said, within this relationship of trusting Jesus, we are all engaged in a race. Our personal best for Jesus should be exceeded each day. If we are to be effective in His service the total surrender to God’s will is of paramount importance. The single-mindedness of the competitors showed the sense of pride in being invited to represent their country or island community: (link) Lynsey Sharp won an 800m silver medal just hours after being hooked up to a drip in the village hospital; the party of 8 from St Helena (link) (a remote island in the South Atlantic Ocean, which has a population of only about 4,000), had to take a Royal Mail ship, two flights of 8,500 miles and spend 10 days in travelling, and train on the deck of the boat. How much more should our sense of privilege stir us to be better servants of Jesus.
There is therefore a negative challenge for all who would ‘run the race’. For those mentioned above there was much self-denial. Similarly, we are exhorted to ‘throw off everything that hinders’ our running: what marathon runner (and the Christian race is a marathon and not a sprint) would set off in climbing boots with a heavy rucksack on his/her back! In fact, the athletes' clothing becomes more light-weight in each Games. We can carry unnecessary baggage – a diary of engagements in which God might seem to be marginalised or an intrusion, the memory of past hurts and grievances or of unfulfilled ambitions. We are also instructed to free ourselves from the entanglements of sin – those habits, that taste, that disposition, that heart of unbelief, which can slow us down.
Glasgow’s newly found motto ‘People make Glasgow’ was put to the test. To say that it passed it would be an understatement. ‘The People’s Games’ became the headline in so many newspapers and broadcasts. Competitors also testified to the immense help given them by the crowds in the various venues, and indeed outside them.
In the Christan race, we too can be spurred on by what the writer to the Hebrews calls ‘the cloud of witnesses’. While the majority of spectators at Glasgow 2014 would perhaps never have participated in the particular sport for which they had gained tickets, the witnesses mentioned in Hebrews 12: 1 had all run the race before us. Weakness, exposure to temptation, loneliness, fears, mocking, scorn, scourging, torture, stoning, affliction, destitution, poverty, bitterness, tears, are just some of the sufferings that the ‘heroes of the faith’ listed in Hebrews chapter 11 had to endure. And millions since them, who have proved God in similar trials, have left behind a testimony to encourage us to complete the race.
But what of our failures? One of the most disappointing aspects of the Games was the underperformance of Michael Jamieson, whose picture had been on posters and billboards advertising the Games in various parts of the city. While a silver medal could hardly have been termed failure, yet to Jamieson, who had been feted since winning a silver medal in the London Olympics, and who had confidently expected to break the world record in the 200 metres breaststroke, his underperformance was a crushing blow, all the more so as he failed to qualify for the 100 metres breaststroke final and was defeated by younger swimmers. Jamieson looked broken, abandoned by those who had, before the event, put him on the winner’s podium and who quickly transferred their acclaim to new home-grown heroes.
What a contrast in the Christian race! Jesus never abandons us in our failures. In the Hebrews‘ Hall of Fame, the heroes scaled great spiritual heights but also sank into very deep troughs in which they could so easily have forfeited their service. The biographies of the ’heroes of the faith' and of the disciples themselves reassure all of us who have disappointed our God and who have failed to live up to both His, and indeed our own, expectations, that His restoring grace is without limit.
The finishing line
But, and this is a great incentive, while we can take great encouragement from the example of those who have gone before us we have a far greater role-model and encourager: Jesus, the ‘author and finisher of our faith’. He was there with the runners at the starting line and is at the finishing line waiting to welcome and reward all who have trusted and served Him. In the pastoral letter in September 2012 following the London Olympics (‘All Winners’), a comparison was drawn between the opening and closing ceremonies and that ‘Great Day’. Let us here merely direct our focus on Jesus, who was prepared to ‘endure the cross’, ‘scorning its shame’. For what? For ‘the joy set before him’. This – amazing though it seems – includes the joy of welcoming all his people, including ourselves. Jesus did not sit down until He had finished the race. Nor should we! What encouragement and challenge as we enter a new era in the history of our congregation to re-dedicate ourselves to ‘run with perseverance the race marked out for us’.
With very best wishes
Noel Peacock, Session ClerkView All Letters