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Sermon - 10 Pentecost

In the Name... Two hikers were suddenly confronted by a large bear right on the trail. Without hesitation, one pulled off his boots, got a pair of running shoes out of his backpack and began to put them on. “What are you doing,” the other hiker said. “You’ll never outrun the bear.” “I don’t have to outrun the bear.” he replied. Back in August, 2012, Sue and I were sitting in the London Olympic Stadium watching Usain Bolt stroll across the finish line to the cheers of eighty thousand people. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and one of the things that struck me about it was the power of the analogy which we heard this morning in Hebrews. Throughout Scripture, we find a lot of imagery that reflects athletic competition. Various writers compare our lives with stadium events and many emphasize the need for us to put as much effort into training our souls as athletes put into training their bodies. For example, distance runners must possess endurance above all else. Endurance is more valuable to them than strength or style and can often be the most vital factor to achieving victory. James 1:2-4 says that endurance causes believers to be “complete, lacking in nothing.” Galatians 6:9 tells Christians not to grow weary of doing good, for those who do not grow weary will reap the rewards of their good deeds, while 1 Peter 1:5-10 deals with perseverance of character and integrity. All these, and more, are examples of how the need to train for endurance applies to those running the Christian race. Training alone, though, can be discouraging, and top-level runners know that training alongside others pushes them to break personal barriers and achieve performance goals. In the same way, Christians can benefit from fellowship with other believers. And again, we have scriptural examples. Hebrews 10:25 urges believers always meet together, while 1st Thessalonians 5:11 contains a similar message to “encourage one another, and build up one another.” Of course, successful athletes must have an experienced coach - even Usain Bolt had a coach - and sitting under the instruction of an experienced Christian teacher is vital to spiritual growth. But here, in Hebrews 12, we find an image that doesn't occur anywhere else because the author is focussed, not on the action on the field, or on the coaches or on the other competitors, but on the stands; stands which are filled with the people we heard described last week as the heroes of faith. And the imagery is of all these heroes of faith cheering us on as we run the race. Now, I’m going to say something very strange here and that is that over the years I have been amazed at the number of professed Christians I have met who don’t believe in real life after death. I know that sounds strange since you might think that life after death is what we are all about. After all, Easter is something of a big deal. But I have to say it’s true. For example, some people have a very Buddhist approach in that they think that after death all our souls are absorbed into a nirvana of non-being; that we lose our personality and individuality and become one with the cosmos, somehow. And there are others who have a more orthodox view that we do retain our personal identity, but that we become so totally focused on being in the presence of God that we cease to think for ourselves. These Christians believe that a sort of Berlin Wall exists between this world and the next and, I must confess, that as pious as this sounds, I find it depressing. Fortunately, the teaching of the Church has always been that after death, we are still very much alive and that, far from a Berlin Wall, the barrier between this world and the next is more like a sieve and that is the very point made in this morning’s passage. You see, many ancient religions didn’t believe in any sort of life after death. Even the Jews were divided on the subject. The Pharisees believed in a resurrection and a Day of Judgement, but the Sadducees believed that this life was all there was and you lived on, so to speak, through your children. It was the Christians who developed the unique concept of a personal soul and body linked for eternity. It was the Christians alone who understood that there was no break between the now and the then. And it was the Christians who articulated that those who have gone before are still as interested in us as they were when they were here. This was radical then and, apparently, is still radical today, but that is the whole idea behind what we call the “communion of saints.” Texas A&M is famous for its football fan base, even to the point that it has copyrighted the term “12th Man” to refer to its fans. The idea being that the fans’ enthusiasm gives the team the edge of having a12th player on the field. Well, that is exactly what Hebrews 12 is saying; that we on earth have the active support of the billions of Christians in Heaven and that they are cheering us on every day and that with their support we can do amazing things. Sue and I saw an example in London of how crowd enthusiasm can make a difference. Liu Xiang is a record-holding hurdler. In Athens, he won China’s first-ever gold medal in a men’s track event and was a favourite to win again in London. We watched him start his heat and then suddenly fall and crash. Attempting to clear the first hurdle, he pulled his Achilles tendon. The crowd let out a collective sigh of disappointment. But, when he got up, instead of hobbling to the sidelines, he went back to the hurdles and hopped beside them, on one leg, the full 110 metre stretch. He then kissed the last hurdle before he left the track with the help of the other runners and the crowd rose and applauded him as if he’d won the gold. And so, Liu Xiang’s tragic day became one of the enduring images of the 2012 London Olympics. In view of his injury, and having no chance to even qualify, someone asked him why he bothered to finish the heat. Why didn't he quit? He replied: "I was not sent here just to start.” Liu knew that it was important for all those people who were watching, both the 80,000 in the stadium and the billions on TV, especially in China. He knew he was there for something greater than himself and that kept him going when logic said give up. So, I ask this morning, "What is it that keeps you going in the race of life?” There will always be temptations to fall by the wayside. But when that temptation comes, think about the millions and billions, the great and the small, the famous and the unknown of Christ's people who fill the stands as our 12th Man, urging us on, willing us to complete the course we have started and achieve the crown of glory that fadeth not away. The communion, the communication of saints. In the Name…

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