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. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
Writing in the middle of the Rio Olympics, these verses seem very apt as I come to the end of Hebrews. I know that the language of ‘witnesses’ refers mainly to the way in which the heroes of faith who have gone before us bear witness to God’s faithfulness, testifying to us so that we may find strength to run our race well.
At the same time, I do think it’s reasonable to stay with the image for a while, and imagine the witnesses – from times long past and those saints we have known personally – finding their race of life and climbing, one by one, into the stands to watch and cheer as we run the race still set before us.
I’m not much of an athlete, but I think I’d probably try more determinedly if I knew that Andy Murray had taken a seat in the audience after winning a gold medal to watch and cheer as I tried to get the ball over the net; or if Jason Kenny was cheering me on from the velodrome as I ride my bike from place to place.
It’s a powerful image – and one which I can see worked out as the saints watch, pray and cheer me on in the race of a faithful life. I know it’s one that many people find helpful when they’ve been bereaved. There’s a real sense of fellowship and encouragement that comes with hearing the cheer of the crowd, confident that those we have loved and who have died in Christ have now taken their seats.
Within the image is also a corrective to one tendency of many who’ve been bereaved; that of paying too much attention to the crowd, not enough to the race. With the possible exception of Usain Bolt, no Olympic medalist stops to wave to the crowd or look for a familiar face in the middle of the race; and were they to do so, they’d be letting down those who have taken their seats to cheer then on. The crowd want their heroes to run the race well, focusing on the finish line and not on the supporters.
In the same way, we let down not just Good and ourselves but also those who’ve gone before us in faith if we concentrate on them rather than on the end of our race, looking to Jesus at the finish line. There’ll be time when our race is run for us to climb into the stands with those ahead of us and cheer on the next generation of runners.
But for now we each have a race to run. Those who cheer us on include past champions and runners of all kinds. Let’s give them a better show than the Olympics, and run our race well. At its end is something better than a medal and a puzzling plastic trophy; at the finish line is Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.