29th October 2016
Running the Race
Sermon by Revd Dr Max Champion, Pentecost 13, 14th August 2016
Lessons: Jeremiah 20:7-13; Hebrews 11: 29-12:4; Luke 12:49-53
'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 hostility from sinners against himself on the cross ... so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.' (Heb 12:3)
Courage is integral to faith. Who can doubt it after listening to the lessons? Many faithful men and women have suffered terribly for their bold faith. All experienced conflict and upheaval because of the inescapable presence of God in their lives. 'It is,' as the writer to the Hebrews said earlier, 'a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God' (10:31). Faith involves courage.
This is not what we might have expected. Christians often treat faith in God as the path to happiness and security. Others see ‘faith in oneself’ as the key to popularity and success. … However, it is what we should expect if we are serious about following in the footsteps of the ‘great cloud of witnesses' (12:1) and the 'pioneer of our faith' who, having gone before us, now surround us as a community of hope. We stand in a line of brave folk who put their faith in God’s eternal purposes.
Genuine faith commits us to oppose idolatry and inhumanity, knowing that, despite the apparent triumph of evil, God’s purposes shall not be ultimately thwarted. The 'heroes of faith' acted in the belief that the future awaiting humanity will be free from sin and death. So they were free to stand against those who mocked God’s good-and-gracious will. Some suffered and were martyred. Others overcame the odds. All of them, at great personal cost, put their faith in God the Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer of the world.
Faith is not immune from severe testing. In Hebrews, the faithful know what it means to face insurmountable odds. Military leaders (Gideon) are outnumbered. Public servants (Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego) face horrible deaths for political disloyalty. Others suffer brutality, death or exile. Across the ages they show us something of the courage of faith. None had an easy life. All are remembered as faithful servants of God who 'encourage' those who follow.
However, we mustn't live off their capital. Retelling the story of their bravery isn't an excuse to avoid our present calling. Hebrews recalls the 'great cloud of witnesses' (12:1) in order to call us to live by faith.
Is this what we really think the church is called to be in modern Australia?
I suspect that we are more comfortable with a 'faith' that leads to self-discovery and ‘believing in ourselves’ than one that stands against idolatry and inhumanity. Personal growth, not costly service, is now the object of faith. We prefer a faith that meets our needs to one that involves hardship, temptation and suffering.
We may be thrilled by ‘Christian’s’ courage in Bunyan’s story of 'The Pilgrims Progress’ to the Eternal City (loosely based on Hebrews). But none of us wants to be a person of faith in that sense! We would rather walk along a secure path than go down a ‘long and winding road’ toward an unseen destination. Conflict, suffering and martyrdom seem unreal in a society that fosters instant happiness and personal success. Not for us a lifetime of faith that requires perseverance, courage and hope! ...
There is much for us to learn from this 'cloud of witnesses.' They help us re-trace our family history which is full of flawed ancestors who believed in the merciful purposes of God in the face of danger and death. They urge us to re-tell the Grand Story of Israel’s faithful 'pioneers' who looked towards Christ so that we and others may be emboldened to live by faith and hope.
There is plenty to worry about with the declining influence of the Christian Gospel in public life. Values that sprang from Christian faith to uphold human dignity, protect the vulnerable, welcome the stranger, and demand integrity in public life are increasingly held in contempt. The clamour to enshrine in law the rights of individuals is matched by strident demands that religious people, and Christians in particular, be excluded from public debate.
The long period of Christendom, in which Church and State shared in shaping a relatively humane social order, is rapidly drawing to a close. In this situation a church that carefully re-traces its family history will expect to be opposed.
That is because faith in God unsettles our naive faith in our own goodness. At the same time, it fills us with hope for the future that God has promised to Israel and fulfilled in Jesus. We must learn what so many faithful people, now and in the past, know from experience. Faith in God’s eternal purposes means having courage and perseverance to resist evil while living in hope.
The courage to live by faith isn’t something we have to do in our own strength. But we can't make ourselves brave or hopeful by willpower. This is a common mistake among pious believers who think that God’s plans depend on the strength of their faith. When God doesn’t answer heartfelt cries for healing, this shallow ‘faith’ often turns to anger or despair.
Notice that Hebrews doesn’t say that God acted because of their faith! Nor are they praised because their faith was perfect. Far from it! Moses murdered a man, David seduced Bathsheba, Rahab was a prostitute etc. They are remembered as flawed recipients of God’s grace whose confidence in God’s present and future plans enabled them to participate in the Great Story of his redemptive work.
Some of them saw God’s future in their own time. (11:29-34) Others saw the future despite being afflicted, homeless, persecuted, imprisoned or murdered. (11:35-38) All of them, as well as the disciples, were encouraged to look away from themselves to the One truly faithful man – the crucified, risen and ascended Jesus described here as the ‘pioneer and perfecter of our faith.’ (12:2)
Like our pioneering forbears, who prepared a future for us by persevering in face of adversity, Jesus blazed a trail for those who would come to faith in God's costly-and-triumphant love. He is the ‘pioneer’ of the church’s faith. He prepared a future for the church by enduring suffering, humiliation and crucifixion in anticipation of ‘the joy that was set before him’ (12:2) – the joy of celebrating God’s victory over evil. ...
We are invited to join the epic pilgrimage which stretches back to creation and forward to its perfection. As disciples who look ahead to Jesus Christ, we are called to join runners like Abraham and many others, who set out long ago in hope.
When we become fainthearted and tempted to abandon our faith, strength is to be found in considering the hostility that Jesus suffered at the hands of those who crucified him (12:3). He suffered for all who follow so that we may know that our trials have already been experienced and overcome by him.
Therefore, we don't have to worry whether our faith is strong enough. Like those numbered among the cloud of witnesses, we are imperfect folk whose faith is 'perfected' by the One who was crucified, has been raised from the dead and is at God’s right hand. Our faith is ‘perfected’ by God’s grace in him.
Faith in God’s eternal purposes, promised to Israel and embodied in Christ, is a gift of grace to be gladly received. The invitation to be part of the cloud of witnesses is also a summons to challenge actions and policies that mock God's will and trample human dignity. These pioneers cheer us up-and-on when we are discouraged by what seem to be insurmountable obstacles.
In the challenges that the church faces today, we may find courage in those who have gone before, and supremely in Christ, the 'pioneer' who 'endured the cross, disregarded the shame, and triumphed as Lord of heaven and earth. May we, like them, look for signs of God’s presence in protecting the vulnerable, welcoming the stranger, upholding integrity,; not being intimidated by strident efforts to ban Christian faith from public debate.
Above all, let us delight at being part of this epic pilgrimage, which stretches from the creation of the world to its perfection. May we 'be of good courage and hold fast to that which is good' knowing that Christ has gone before us to perfect our faltering faith and assure us of the magnificent future that awaits us in the eternal purposes of God.
Rev Dr Max Champion is the Convenor of the ACC Theology and Ecumenical Relationships Commission