So the Olympics came to Box Hill
It brought great crowds. People coming out of their homes, out from behind their net curtains and TV sets, out onto the street to join in the spectacle, to join together and make the atmosphere of the games. It brought a remarkable number of visitors from overseas – foreigners – people like us but different – Germans, Belgians, French, Dutch, Norwegians, Finns, Americans, New Zealanders, Moroccans, Brazilians …
Like the ancient Greek Olympics, it saw a great coming together of peoples of all the known world
Different races excelling at different sports – Chinese in table tennis, Caribbeans in sprinting, East Africans in Long Distance races, Iranians in weight lifting, the British in cycling, sailing and rowing – sports where natural athleticism is given a mechanical advantage…
I was proud that so much of our success in the medal table came from our ability to offer a nurturing home to people from all over the world and so access some of these talent pools – like Mo Farah, born in Somalia and raised here in London.
One of the other striking features of the games was the number of athletes making religious gestures, looking to heaven, praying both before and after their events.
These people were the best in the world at their chosen discipline but they were humble in recognising that, in the bigger scheme of things, without God, they were nothing.
Many were crossing themselves – like Usain Bolt – the fastest Christian in the world and not what you would think of first as the paradigm of humility. But he too recognised that what he had achieved he owed to a power beyond himself, and he gave thanks.
I know that not all of these athletes were giving thanks to the God of Jesus Christ.
No one knows who or what Andy Murray is addressing when he looks to the heavens – he won’t tell us and why should he.
Because people from different countries have different traditions – different understandings of the almighty. Different people take different paths, make different choices.
And that is something of a theme running through our lectionary readings this morning. In our reading from the book of Joshua we have the story of how the people of Israel on their journey from Egypt had met many peoples with many religions, the Egyptians, the Amorites, the Canaanites and older religions from their original home in the banks of the Euphrates – now they had to choose – to follow the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob or one of the other gods whom they had encountered.
Joshua invites them “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness”
And they respond: “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods! It was the Lord our God himself who brought us and our parents up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we travelled. And the Lord drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.”
In our Gospel we saw the disciples being faced with a similar choice – whether to stay faithful to Jesus who had lead them on their journey to date or to leave him as the differences stated to become clear between what he was preaching and the traditional Jewish faith of the Old Testament scriptures.
Joshua had reminded the Israelites about how God had looked after them on their journey from Egypt where they had received manna from heaven – in our Gospel reading Jesus provided them with physical bread (like manna) in the feeding of the 5,000 (earlier in John 6) – he now says of this: “this is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died” now he offers them something new and different, the chance to choose spiritual food “whoever feeds on this bread” he says ”will live forever”.
One of the other things I noticed about the Olympics was the the Olympic motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” is comparative adverbs – putting the emphasis on the activity – doing something faster, higher, stronger – rather than the athletes themselves. For there are no eternal absolutes with human beings, –no fastest, strongest, highest person. Not even Bradley Wiggins in his super streamlined helmet (pictured) could help Mark Cavendish to victory in the Road Race. For there is always a faster, higher stronger person just around the corner – even faster one day than Usain Bolt – and the athletes are reminded that whilst they are celebrated for a few days, their strength will pass and others will win in future games.
So it is with the physical word – all strength fails. With physical bread we will always become hungry again – there is always the need for another meal – but Jesus offered the food of the spirit which fills and fulfils.
He said these great words of majesty and power – “the words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life.”
And Peter affirms this – “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
As Christians we know and affirm this to be true – this faith is – in the words of St Paul from Ephesians, the armour of God which we wear into battle each day in our ordinary lives. Perhaps we do not fight as great a battle here on Box Hill as is fought by our persecuted brothers and sisters in other places in the world – in China, Pakistan, in Africa – but we have our battles to fight and we should be proud of our heritage and our tradition – proud to declare it for ourselves and to affirm it to others. We have made our choice.
And so our prayer this morning and every morning is that we may stand beside St Paul and buckle on the belt which is our faith, grounded in truth, put on the breastplate of righteousness which sees us in good standing with God and our fellow men. May our well shod feet take us wherever the Gospel may lead, protected by the shield of faith and the helmet of our salvation through our knowledge of the redeeming love of God and his son Jesus Christ. But, above all, I pray we carry the sword of the spirit, which is the Word of God, giving us courage to bring our convictions to others – friends, neighbours, relatives and strangers in their hour of need. May we all be good Christian soldiers. This morning, this week and always. Amen.