At the end of the Caucus-race in Alice in Wonderland the Dodo, after much thought and a long silence, answered Alice’s searching question with regard to the identity of the winner of the race with the words which have become a kind of recurrent motif for some theologians:
… everybody has won, and all must have prizes.
However, at the London 2012 Olympics, nobody who saw the tears of joy of some who stood on the victors' podium could pretend that there was not a great divide between winning and losing. It was gratifying to see a sporting response from both competitors and spectators, and, indeed, generosity towards those who were not part of Team GB. Also to see some attempt to recognise the Olympic ideal, which stressed the importance of participation. Despite this, the disappointment of not receiving a gold medal was etched on so many faces.
Winning is important for us too as Christians. But in a very different way. We do not have to compete in order to receive the prize of heaven and to enjoy fellowship with God for all eternity. Our victory has already been secured by Jesus, who ran the race for us and took on principalities and powers and even death itself, and who, as so many hymns and songs rightly record, is crowned with glory and honour. How good it would be if we could show Jesus the same adulation that was given to so many of the competitors in the games. The Olympic stadium, the Copper Box, the ExCel, Centre Court at Wimbledon, and the velodrome generated cheering which most competitors had never heard before. In the boxing hall the noise was measured at 113.7 decibels, which, it was said, was louder than a jumbo jet take-off. Now the Sandyford and Presbyterian tradition is not to demonstrate our praise in the same way (and I’m not suggesting we increase the decibels!). But the challenge for us is to celebrate the victory of Jesus on Calvary and to show the same engagement that the spectators demonstrated in their support for the successful athletes.
While we do not have to strive to make ourselves right or to be good enough to join in Christ’s victory parade there are so many exhortations in the Bible encouraging us, in response to the love of Jesus, to show the commitment of the athlete. Being a Christian is not a spectator sport. None of the athletes got on to the podium without commitment. Interviews afterwards revealed the sacrifices which had been made by the athletes themselves, and by parents and friends. Our commitment is not to justify ourselves in God’s sight but to respond to his grace toward us, to this unmerited favour shown by Christ dying in our stead. That may entail our suffering loss. This does not mean that we have to ignore the good things God has given us. As Paul reminds us: ‘God gives us all things richly to enjoy’ (I Timothy, 1: 6: 17). There is a wrong self-denial which fails to appreciate God’s gifts. Lord Reith, who, as the first Director General of the BBC, had such a positive impact on the moral life of the nation, confessed in a Face-to-Face interview with John Freeman, that his one regret was that he discovered too late that ‘life was for living’. But, as Paul argued in the passage in Philippians steeped in spiritual accountancy, the great imperative is to press on towards the higher goal of knowing Christ and his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings:
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. (Philippians, 3: 7-8)
At each event the athlete was seeking to achieve a new ‘personal best’. Even those who had no expectation of receiving medals took great satisfaction from having exceeded their previous record for the event. The commentators seemed to be equally excited about such an achievement and never failed to mention the detail. The athletes show us the folly of relying on past achievement. How sad it was to see some performing way below their personal bests. Similarly, how sad that some folk who were once at the forefront of the fellowship would seem to have lost the desire to be involved (though we need to remind ourselves that there but for the grace of God go we). While recognising that we can never earn our salvation, it is of concern if we can say that we used to be more committed years ago than we are now. Now the outworking of our commitment may change with advancing years, with physical limitation and with changed circumstances (in Sandyford, the emphasis has always been on ‘being’ rather than on ‘doing’). For example, some of the older folk, who in the past have had a very active contribution to make Sandyford the church that we have today, can still, as many do, play an invaluable role of encouragement, not least, in their commitment through prayer. The searching question we all have to ask, however, is that which Jesus put to Peter: ‘Do you love me?’, and the extent to which this love has developed since we first believed.
Among the many positives there were also many failures. What happened, we might ask, to Team GB’s archers and the badminton, basketball, handball, and volleyball teams? One of the judo competitors, Euan Burton, lasted only two minutes. The poor man was inconsolable, feeling that he had let down everyone - parents, coaches and the spectators who had paid to see him compete. The Wall Street Journal, which has kept a medal count of shame for the last two Olympics, has an inverse medal ceremony, which it calls ‘less-than-precious awards’. For those finishing last: a lead medal; second-to-last: a tin medal; third from last: a zinc medal. In this table, Team GB had 8 last finishes, 11 second-to-last finishes and 12 third-to-last finishes, a total of 31 ‘less-than-precious medals’ which placed them at the bottom of the table, with 8 more than their closest competitor, the Ukraine! Many of us might feel that we have amassed a vast collection of lead, tin and zinc medals. How do we cope with this? Not as suggested by Eric Idle’s much appreciated song, which perhaps underlined the message of the games: ‘Always look on the bright side of life’. But by reminding ourselves of the love of God in Jesus. For some of the underperforming athletes there will probably be a withdrawal of the funding which had allowed them to compete. How encouraging, by contrast, that God does not deal with us in the same way! Instead, there are so many promises in the Bible which show us that our God is able to give us another chance, or indeed many chances. One of the recurrent themes in our studies of the life of Joseph was of God’s willingness to forgive and to help us realise our full potential.
The Closing Ceremony
The final celebration at the Olympics organised by Kim Gavin divided opinion: for some, it was a symphony of British Popular Music, visually underpinned by Damien Hirst’s rendering of the union flag; for others, it was cacophony and bling, and a far cry from Danny Boyle’s opening fantasia, with its gently parodic review of Britain’s and London’s history, culminating in Mr Bean’s one-note accompaniment to the London symphony orchestra, and the skydiving monarch. For Christians, the closing ceremony is paradoxically the opening one. At the closing ceremony of this world, when Christ ushers in a new heaven and a new earth, there will be an opening ceremony the like of which Boyle’s Isles of Wonder could never match. In that ceremony, there will be a great gulf fixed between winning and losing. However, everybody who has trusted Christ for salvation will be a winner and will receive as the prize from Him, the true victor, the crown of righteousness. As the hymnist encourages us:
The eternal glories gleam afar, to nerve [our] faint endeavour
What an incentive in all our struggles and challenges to press on in our service in the church, and beyond.
With very best wishes
Noël Peacock, Session Clerk