By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect.
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.
‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son and son against father,
mother against daughter and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’
He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
As the Commonwealth Games have come to an end, so it is maybe fitting that our reading from Hebrews offers us the image of running a race with the crowds cheering us on in the stands. Those who have gone before us, now line the route to cheer us on, and that is wonderful but our eyes should be fixed on Jesus primarily, on the “end” of the race.
Jesus is the pioneer of our faith, the one who set off first, and the perfecter of our faith, the one who will complete it.
Some of us feel a bit too old to be racing and running for real, but we understand something of perseverance, keeping going keeping going. And there is that phrase which links to some of the teaching we have been hearing from Luke in the past weeks – letting go “the sin that clings so closely”.
Facing up – we look to Jesus; looking within – we need to let go those close-clinging sins and attitudes and behaviours, which we might have got quite used to! Facing outwards – we continue with perseverance on the path God calls us, among the people God puts us with.
Our gospel reading reminds us however that this is not always easy. In this longer section of Luke, which began at the end of ch 9, Luke brings together teaching and parables which fill out what discipleship means for a follower of Jesus. There are some huge challenges, first from within – we have heard teaching and parables about greed of all kinds, about our human reluctance to help others; we are taught how to pray; last week was a call to readiness and not to be afraid; this week we are reminded that the world can be hostile, and that Jesus himself is a divisive figure, and so even among families following Jesus will bring division.
There is no getting round that this is difficult and uncomfortable teaching. Most of us want to feel secure and comfortable and affirmed in our faith and through our faith. Our security is found in Jesus, in his welcome, in his love, in his gift of life; Hebrews 11 reminds us of past people of faith; it possibly all feels a bit too “Boys Own”. Many Christians do live in more troubled places; we should be grateful that we can get to church in peace. Some of our congregation have hard races to run, it can feel like we are carrying a heavy load.
Christ came into the world, not least to shine light, but when we have been gifted with seeing that light, we will also find we are more acutely aware of how dark darkness is, in personal lives, in society, in the world. We are called to share light, to bring light where there is darkness. This is not always easy – in fact it can be demanding but I hope we can share, looking out for one another in love and prayer.
Revd Peter Reiss