I don’t watch athletics much, just when the Olympics are on – and the moments I remember are not the world-beating performances but the heart-warming actions.
We’ve just seen the moment when Jonny Brownlee got into trouble near the end of the 2016 World Triathlon race; his brother Alistair not only helped Jonny to the finish line but made sure Jonny crossed it before he did! The following year Ariana Luterman did something similar at the Dallas Marathon, to help race leader Chandler Self. (watch)
St Paul often used images from sport. When he wrote to Christians in Philippi, Galatia and Corinth, he spoke about running well, not running in vain, and that only one athlete can claim the prize! He also spoke about training like a boxer! In the second letter to Timothy, written years later, we find the declaration “I have finished the race!” Well, I hope making it into heaven isn’t quite like first prize in a race – otherwise, if St Paul won the prize then I’m out of the running! But don’t worry, Paul himself says the prize is not only for himself but for all who long for Jesus to return.
What happens when an athlete is helped across the line? Should their time be recorded, or the competitor disqualified? Neither Self nor Brownlee were disqualified – because the help came from another runner, and they weren’t racing for prize money.
In fact, we’re all like Jonny Brownlee and Chandler Self on a bad day… we don’t have the power within us to make it all the way on our own. None of us can win the prize of heaven by our own efforts, even if most of the time we behave really well! We need Jesus to help us across the line. Indeed, that’s why Jesus came from heaven, to live as another runner in the human race, to help us cross the line without being disqualified!
The world we live in today finds this message hard to accept. Jesus as a wise teacher who says great things about loving one another and not judging one another? Very popular! Jesus as the one who says “I am the way… no-one enters heaven except through me…” or “Unless you eat my bread and drink my blood you have no life within you?” Not popular at all! But there’s nothing new in Jesus being unpopular. We’ve heard what happened when he preached in his home town. “Who does this guy think he is?” said the people – “We know his family!”
By the way, you might have noticed that in this reading Jesus has four named brothers and at least two unnamed sisters. In Bible days it was common to use the words “brother” and “sister” to include half-siblings and cousins, and our Catholic understanding is that Mary had no other children after Jesus. But you can’t prove that from within the Bible, so be careful not to get into an argument with other Christians about what the Bible says, only about what it means!
Back to St Paul, who was also very skeptical about Jesus being Son of God or even a true prophet, until the day Jesus appeared to him in a blinding light on the Road to Damascus. But Paul devoted the rest of his life to preaching about Jesus and inviting thousands upon thousands of people to follow him. Not all of St Paul’s missions were successful – it might have seemed like a clever trick to say “You have an altar to an Unknown God – let me help you know Jesus!” But it didn’t make many converts and Paul quickly moved on from Athens. In other towns he was beaten and left for dead! Yet Paul never gave up. When he succeeded in planting churches and making converts, that was one kind of victory. When he suffered for the sake of Jesus, that was another!
There’s something in our broken human nature which doesn’t want to say that Jesus is Lord. That same brokenness stopped many of the ancient Hebrews from living according to God’s Law. The Prophet Ezekiel was given a hard task – “Tell those people that they are rebelling against My Law,” said God, “even though they won’t listen to you!” And that same brokenness in us keeps whispering: “You can do it on your own! You don’t need help! You are better than everyone else! You need to win this argument, because if you don’t, you’re a weakling.”
That voice is strong – but that voice is wrong. It takes real strength to do what Ariana Luterman and Alistair Brownlee did. There is a higher victory which is more than winning a sporting event. There is an inner strength which looks at a human dispute and says, “I choose to let you win.” When that’s your true choice, that’s a true victory.
The Danish Poet, Piet Hein, once wrote something like this:
The noble art of losing face may some day save the human race
and turn to an eternal prize* what weaker minds would call disgrace.
We are called to a special kind of weakness. The kind which lets others win because we are strong enough to do so. The kind which lets Jesus be Lord, because we recognise who he is. The kind which will eventually qualify us to enter heaven. If you wish to gain the only prize worth gaining for eternity, and if you are weak enough to be helped across the line, keep on running!
* Piet Hein actually wrote “turn into eternal merit” – I have taken the liberty of adjusting the scansion and prize focus for didactic reasons. I trust that if this causes the poet to lose face, it will be at the price of eternal grace!