Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Finishing is Everything

Heb. 11:29-12:2[1]
Our culture is obsessed with winning. How many times have you heard someone say “Winning is everything.” We are equally obsessed with “winners.” How many ways do we prostrate ourselves before the “winners.” But there are some endeavors where the very contest itself shows that the real victory is finishing, not winning. I think perhaps the “mother of all endurance races” might very well be the “Ironman” championship in Hawaii. You swim 2.4 miles, then you bicycle 112 miles, then you run a marathon. All under 17 hours. In my mind, just finishing one of those endurance contests is “winning.” I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to finish one, only to turn around and do two more!
I think this exposes the folly of our obsession with “winners” in that, while there is only one “winner” of the Ironman championship, it would seem to me incredibly absurd to call someone who “merely” finished, even just before the 17 hour time limit, a “loser.” In fact, the “Ironman mantra”—“just finishing is a victory”—was inspired by Julie Moss, who in 1982 collapsed just yards from winning the women’s championship and literally crawled across the finish line!
I think this points us to a lesson that applies to life in general, particularly the life of faith. We tend to think of faith in terms of what we get out of it, or maybe even in terms of setting a good example for our children. But the apostle to the “Hebrews” reminds us that faith is not a matter of calculating a cost/benefit analysis and determining the best outcome.[2] In the great chain of witnesses he recounts, some of them found that their faith gave them the victory, and some of them found that their faith brought suffering.[3] Perhaps this is part of the reason why, in the midst of some fairly intense difficulties of their own, the “Hebrews” found themselves questioning the value of faith.
Perhaps they made the mistake of thinking that faith would enable them to escape from the hardships of life; perhaps they thought it would secure God’s special favor for them and their loved ones. Perhaps they made the mistake of embracing the view that Christian faith in and of itself brings success and happiness. Perhaps they embraced the idea that they already had all the benefits of the kingdom of God right here and right now—what we might call the original “prosperity gospel.”[4] By contrast, the apostle to the Hebrews calls us to a faith that follows our savior on the path to the cross.[5] Instead of success, the believers he was encouraging found themselves struggling with opposition and hostility and even at times physical violence. They found themselves in the middle of an endurance contest that left them exhausted and frustrated and confused.
It would seem they were asking themselves how they could hold on to faith in the midst of such fierce opposition. It’s a question that is still relevant for us today. We experience the difficulty of maintaining our faith in this culture that is obsessed with “winning” in various ways— from the struggle to attract new members in face of the lure of the prosperity cult to having the church building torched, and everything in between. And the answer that the apostle to the Hebrews gives relates to our situation as well as theirs: we finish the contest of faith by taking a longer look than just “what’s in it for me?”
In essence, the apostle to the Hebrews portrays the life of faith in every generation as a part of a great chain of witness. When we follow the example of the witnesses who have gone before and run the race of faith that is laid out for us, we are in a very real sense taking up and completing their work. So in part, we keep going because we believe what their lives were about was important enough for us to carry on. But when we run our race of faith we are also preparing the way for future generations of witnesses.
So in response to the quandary of faith that by this world’s standards doesn’t always “win”, the apostle to the Hebrews calls us all to do our part to keep the chain moving forward until we all reach the final goal together. And what is the goal? It seems to me that the goal is that the great chain of witness remains unbroken and continues to move forward in the cause of God’s grace until that work comes to completion by renewing the whole face of creation. [6] And when that happens, we all cross the finish line at the same time!
For those of us who determine to make the crucified Christ their example, I think we will find the life of faith challenging at the very least. But part of what keeps us going is the memory of those influential people who left a mark on us by their very character. The best way to honor their memory is to take up their work and finish it by living out our faith despite all obstacles. And part of what keeps us going is that we all have those about whom we care deeply and for whom we feel a special responsibility in terms of shaping their lives. When we continue to run and finally finish our race, we are setting an example for them. We are preparing them for their part in the great chain of witness. Honoring the memory of those who have influenced us; and passing that influence on to the next generation—I think those are some pretty good reasons to make the effort of continuing our life of faith despite all obstacles.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/15/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Craddock, “Hebrews” XII:146, “faith does not calculate results and so believe.”
[3] Craddock, “Hebrews,” 145: “that they did not receive the promise is not due to any flaw in their faith; rather it was due to the unfolding purpose of God.”
[4] Theologians call this a “theology of glory.”
[5] This is called a “theology of the cross.” Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 361: “The church is apostolic when it takes up its cross.”
[6] Cf. Long, 126, where he envisions the community of faith in terms of “a great unbroken cord of faith that stretches all the way from the beginning of human history all the way to the heavenly sanctuary in the City of God, where the cord has been securely fastened and anchored by Jesus.” He continues, “the links are formed by faithful people, hand in hand, generation after generation, holding fast to each other and to ‘our confession.’”

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