The Price of Gold
A sermon on Hebrews 11:29 - 12:2 & Luke 12: 49-56 by Nathan Nettleton, 15 August 2004

Full-blooded Christian discipleship may cost us some precious relationships and a lot of blood sweat and tears, but we will have plenty of new supporters and it all all be well worth it in the end.


Whether you like it or not, you will have trouble avoiding sports news over the next few weeks. With the Olympic Games having just started and the football finals only three weeks away, the media will be saturated with sports reports. And by happy coincidence for preachers, the reading set for today from the letter to the Hebrews contains a sporting image, drawn directly from the ancient Olympic Games, to illustrate its point. If you’ve forgotten it, I’ll come back and talk about it in a moment.

But first I want to acknowledge something about myself that impacts how I hear this illustration. Many of you know that I am a bit of a sports-head, but beyond the ordinary bloke stuff, there is something that occurs in sport that strikes an intense emotional chord in me, and I think it is the same thing that gets picked up in the Hebrews reading. I don’t cry easily. I’m not proud of that. It is an inability to allow myself to close to some emotions that stops me and I’m working to get over it. But in line with what Scott was saying last week about attending to your inner life, I’m doing a bit of inner exploration of the few things that do readily bring tears to my eyes. And one of them is certain moments in sporting competition. It is usually moments of victory, and it is something about having a sense of what it has cost a competitor to achieve this moment. It is something about knowing how hard they have worked, and how many other things they have sacrificed in order to get here, and the moment when the dream comes true for them brings tears to my eyes. It doesn’t have to be the winner: someone who just makes it to the finishing line against seemingly impossible odds will do it to me too. I haven’t yet worked out why it gets me as deeply as it does. I think there must be some early experience or some unmet need in me that it taps into, but I haven’t managed to identify it yet. Now I know some of you are thinking I’m off my tree, but I tell you that by way of acknowledging that anything I say about this passage is coloured by something deep in myself that I don’t really understand.

The reading from the letter to the Hebrews is the climax of a famous chapter which sings the praises of some great heroes of the faith who hung in there against the odds and pressed on with their hope in God. And here, in the culmination, it gives a big and somewhat gruesome summary of the trials and torments that they went through as they pressed on in faith. And then comes the Olympic Games image. The writer paints the picture of the end of the marathon, where the runners have pressed on for miles and miles, relatively alone, and then finally they come through that tunnel and emerge into the cheering main stadium and break into their final sprint for the line. The writer puts us in the place of the runner, and says that all these other heroes of the faith are now up in the grandstands, cheering us on as we seek to throw aside any heaviness and fatigue and run with perseverance what remains of the race that is set before us. It is precisely the sort of image that chokes me up when I witness it. I’ve run a marathon — though not at anything like Olympic pace — and I know what it costs in preparation just to be ready for the race, and I know how painful it is to push through the pain barriers in such a race and make it into the final straight. And that image of the crowd rising as one to greet the one who has pushed through it all and is within sight of the finish brings tears to my eyes.

I suspect that that is precisely what the writer is trying to do to us. The idea is to encourage us to press on even when the going gets tough, to keep the faith and hold our nerve and press on, and the image of that emotional final lap and finish where suddenly it all seems worthwhile and the tears of joy and relief flow freely is held out for motivation. “You’ve come so far, just hang in there. It will all be worth it.”

Although tonight’s gospel reading does not use a sporting illustration, it wouldn’t be hard to create one out of what it does say, because there are some similar ideas at work. Jesus speaks of the conflict that will flare up over him and his message. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and I wish it were already blazing. I have a baptism of fire to face, and I am going to be so stressed until it’s over.” Can you hear some of the Olympians saying that this week. “My mission is to bring fire to the track, and I wish I were burning off my opponents even now. Everything has been finely tuned ready to face the the baptism of fire in that final, and the stress is almost unbearable as that moment draws near.” In Sydney 2000 we even had the baptism of fire imagery made explicit as Cathy Freeman stood in the water and appeared to set the water on fire around her to light the Olympic cauldron.

Like the writer to the Hebrews, Jesus is speaking here about paying the price of Christian discipleship. And in another nice coincidence for us, once again the lectionary readings have made a connection to the subject matter of our current studies in the Catechumenate and home groups. This week we will be looking at the fifth of the ten commandments — honour your father and mother — and here we have Jesus making one of his infamous non-family-friendly statements. “Don’t go thinking my arrival will bring peace. It won’t bring peace but division. Following me will cost some people their relationships with their families.”

You could simply add that to the list of hardships, persecutions and tortures we are warned of in the Hebrews reading. Christian discipleship is no easy ride. There are powers and ideologies and vested interests at work in the world that set the trends and pull the strings and demand our unquestioning allegiance, and putting our faith in Christ means naming them as idols and blasphemies and refusing to bend the knee to them. It means struggling to throw off their weight and rid ourselves of our addictions to their seductive poisons, so that we might run a different race. But the powers will always fight to suppress any such rebellion and we will pay a price. Divided families; loved ones turning against us because they think we’ve lost the plot and spurned what they believe in; hostility and abuse; loneliness; ridicule; cold suspicion. Shout the ten commandments as a slogan and you’ll be on side with the federal treasurer. Try to live by them and you’ll be accused of trying to ruin the economy, bring down the capitalist system, and undermine our family values!

So standing up to that pressure and persevering in the Christian faith is a major challenge. Like setting your sights on winning Olympic gold or just running a marathon at any pace, it is going to take serious commitment. It is going to take sacrifice and rigorous training; blood, sweat and tears. It may cost you your family. It will take sustained discipline. You may have noticed that the words “discipline” and “disciple” are closely related. It is no accident. A disciple is one who takes on the disciplines of the master coach.

As we press on in the faith and face up to the costs of discipleship — the sometimes tortuous disciplines, the alienation from friends whose lives are on very different tracks, the loss of some precious relationships — the sporting images may help with our understanding of what is going on. They may even help with some aspects of what is going on here in the liturgy, because here in the liturgy we are engaged in the fierce competition over the final shape of the world. Here we are trying to do the world right, to live and celebrate and attend to God and one another the way life is supposed to be lived, but we are doing so in the face of a competing way which would seek to dominate and come out on top.

The image of the past heroes of the faith in the grandstands cheering us on is especially obvious here in our liturgy, for there they are depicted for us in the row of icons back there. What we can see is only the front row of the grandstand, but there are rows and rows behind them, high up into the stands; all of whom know what we are up against and are barracking for us like crazy. But there are other sporting metaphors that could be drawn too. You might think of the scripture readings and the sermon here as being like the rallying speech from the coach before the next play. This is not the place for teaching how it’s done — that happens elsewhere — but rather for reinforcing the message and urging you on to go for gold in the ways you already know.You might even think, as you receive bread and wine from the table, of those marathon runners coming through the drinks station, replenishing what they have already burned off and taking on what they need to sustain the herculean effort until they reach the finishing line.

It sounds tough and costly and sacrificial — all gritty work and little reward — and for much of the time that is exactly what it is like. But for us, just as for the Olympians, there is a fervent hope of something ahead that will make it all worthwhile. And for us, perhaps a better way to think of our celebration around the table is not so much as the drinks station mid race, but as a foretaste of the ticker tape parade and celebratory banquet after victory is won. Here we catch a glimpse of the reward in store for those who come home with gold hanging around their necks.

But isn’t there a problem with that image? Isn’t it only a precious few, and most come home disappointed, having done just as much training and given their best every bit as much, but coming home without anything to show for it? Well, at the Olympics that is true, but did you notice the strange twist given to the picture in the letter to the Hebrews. It says of these great heroes of the past that they did not receive what was promised. Ah yes, you think, they missed out on the medals. But no. It says they didn’t receive what was promised, because God had something even better in mind. God did not want them to be made perfect without us. God did not want them crossing the line and us left behind because they got a head start. And suddenly we are given an image of all of us running the race set before us, but looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who has taken it all on himself and pushed through the pain barriers and is reaching the line. Suddenly those up their in the grandstands are not just there in the grandstands. Suddenly they are with us, and we are with them, and all of us are together in Christ, breasting the tape and breaking through to resurrection victory together as one in the body of Christ.

So in the end there is the wonderful promise that it is not all up to you. It is not all about whether you are disciplined enough and tough enough and can sustain the effort in the face of all comers. In the end, it is all about Jesus, and in him the victory is in the bag. It is all about Jesus, and in him and through him, we can already feel the exhilaration of that moment when all the pain and all the sacrifice and all the grief bears its promised fruit and it’s all been worthwhile, and the ticker tape rains down and God hangs that precious gold around our neck and nothing else matters anymore but the glory, the glory of God.