Sometimes when I turn on the TV, it seems to me that the only thing that is on anymore is reality shows. I know that if either Mark or I were big Netflix people we could easily curate our own individual screen experience to our private specifications, but we’re not invested enough in the whole video enterprise for that. We just randomly check in on cable TV every now and again.
It happens that Mark and I both love to cook, and one thing we did used to enjoy was watching the Food Network – but that was back when it actually taught you how to cook! (I know I’m dating myself there.) These days, it’s a parade of back to back episodes of Chopped, Beat Bobby Flay, or Cutthroat Kitchen. Other networks show food competitions too: Hell’s Kitchen, Top Chef. And so many other reality shows that also have that competitive edge: Love it or List It. Storage Wars. So You Think You Can Dance. The Bachelorette. Now one reason for this is that competitive reality programming is cheaper to produce than a show with actual characters and plot. Yes, the producers manipulate the situation to whip up conflicts and dramas, but you don’t have to pay a team of people to sit in a room and write dialogue. Another reason, though, is that we are naturally drawn, as human beings, to stories with conflict and drama, stories of people overcoming the obstacles to win a contest. We want to know who’ll still be there at the finish line.
The end of our reading from Hebrews today evokes this. We don’t know who wrote Hebrews, but appropriately for this week, whoever wrote it was actually using the image of the Olympics in this section of the letter. Not the Rio Olympics, of course, the original ones. Those were still happening at the time Hebrews was written. Listen to how it goes: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and 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 cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. It’s easy to imagine the Olympic athletes in their stadium as we hear those phrases: “we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” and “let us run the race set before us.” But the athletic imagery goes even further. In this section of the epistle, which continues on into chapter 12, the author is using the image not just of any kind of Olympic event, but of a long-distance race, because that’s what the Christian life is. Not a sprint, but a marathon in which the goal is for everyone to finish. In fact, you can see in this section of the epistle three things that help everyone finish -- that let us, once we decide that we are headed for the goal of union with God in Christ, go the distance.
The first is endurance. Whenever we come to a living faith in Jesus -- or for the minority of people who were brought up in church, when the faith that has passively surrounded us gels into a real and active thing -- we often get excited. Most people go through what many spiritual writers call a sort of honeymoon stage with God, when prayer tends to be moving and liturgy and music touch our emotions easily. But by God’s deliberate intention, that stage doesn’t last forever; we have to grow up and keep on choosing the Christian way day by day. If you have raised a child, you know about this. You know that classic technique of getting the child to do something he doesn’t want to do by offering something he does want: “if you clean your room we’ll go to the Custard Cup.” But eventually a parent’s real goal is to help a child grow into someone who will choose things like proper hygiene and responsible behavior because they are good things in themselves and not because there’s chocolate chip on the way. It doesn’t mean you love them less, it means you want the best for them as they mature into fully functioning adults.
God is the same way. When we’re spiritually immature, and we need help in staying committed to giving our time to regular Sunday Mass, to giving our energy in service to the poor, to giving away a proportion of our money, he will often make a concession to our immaturity and motivate us by letting us feel deeply moved in church, for example, or letting us see some touching story of how our donation helped someone in particular. But that stage doesn’t last forever. Mass and serving and giving have to become routine practices that we take responsibility for if we are to stay the course and grow. There will still be moments in all our lives with God that are infinitely sweet, but he wants us to grow past the stage where we’re in it for the sweetness, to mature to the point where we can stick with the baseline practices without needing a treat every time. He wants us to be able to become fully functioning Christian adults. People who can endure.
So endurance. Just day by day walking onward with Christ -- not because it always gives us warm feelings or because there are never frustrations, but because he is the way and the truth the life, and we belong to him.
Discipline is another word the author of Hebrews uses a lot in this section of the epistle, and it’s of course related to discipleship, because there is no long term steady discipleship without discipline. The text comments that “Discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time…” but that we should “endure trials for the sake of discipline.” Again this is a parent-child metaphor, isn’t it? When we hear the word discipline we may think of consequences for misbehavior. But what is more in view here is perhaps the idea of training, upbringing -- Discipleship, again.
To learn to live “for the sake of discipline” is to take the events of your life as opportunities for a loving Divine Parent to train you into spiritual maturity. This means asking questions about your experiences: what is God teaching through this? Why did God permit this? What am I learning about myself from how much this is bothering me? How can this difficult person become a chance for me to rehearse loving unconditionally? Or sometimes, when we really feel in the dark, it can mean making an act of faith and just saying, Lord, I don't understand, it hurts, but I accept reality; please don’t waste this experience. Your will be done.
We sometimes romantically think a really spiritual life would revolve around special holy moments with special holy people in special holy places, but my life is just annoying and ordinary. But the more God coaxes us towards maturity in Christ, the more we see that, in the words of the Bible, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.” There’s nowhere else that would be a better place to meet Christ and train in discipleship to him than the place you are already in. This is a particularly Anglican emphasis, probably, but once you see it, it makes a huge difference.
So endurance, and discipline in the sense of taking your life as material God is using to train you as his disciple. And there is a third, perhaps the most important of all: the goal. As the author puts it, we are “Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Any athlete has to know where she’s headed if she’s going to stay on the path and cross the finish line. You have to know your mission, what you are here for. Athletes need to know it, businesses need to know it, churches need to know it, families need to know it: what’s our mission? And for us as individuals, if we’re on a spiritual path, where does it lead? Where are we headed?
The Christian answer is that we’re headed to the finish line, when God’s Kingdom comes in fullness. We’re headed to union with Christ as citizens of God’s New Heavens and New Earth. So it’s no wonder we’re advised to keep our eyes fixed on him the whole time. Yes, because union with Jesus in a renewed world is our destiny. Yes, because his brilliance and beauty are enough to inspire us to keep on going. Yes, because he has modeled running the race of life perfectly for us as the pioneer of our faith, but don’t miss the second half of that image. This letter calls Jesus not just the pioneer, but also the perfecter of our faith.
As Christians we finish the race not because of how perfectly we ran it, not because of how perfectly we performed our religious observance, not because of how hard we trained or how long we endured, but because once we start relying on him, Jesus himself perfects whatever we offer. We talked about this last week. We put our faith in him and he anchors us from the finish line. And this is where we have a real advantage over a Cake Wars competitor or an Olympic athlete. They have endurance, and we need that too. They have discipline, and we need that too. And they hold the image of the goal, that medal or that prize money in their mind to inspire them, but in their case it’s an image. Just an idea. It has no power other than what they give it by their aspiration and concentration.
Like them, we endure, we build discipline, but when we fix our vision on Christ and trust in him by faith, he stops being an idea and starts being a living and active presence who actually does things in and to and for you. By faith Jesus becomes a living power working within us which can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. And when you run it with him, the race of life takes on his shape, the shape of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, which is its true shape, the beautiful destiny God has been sculpting for us and all creation since before time began.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and 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 cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.