Even with my aversion to the Union flag and reluctance to be described as British I shouted at the tv in support of Team GB yesterday. (well Scots were part of the team) Yesterday has been described as the greatest ever day for British sport and I certainly can’t remember in my life time a day of sustained success like it. The real phenomenon of these Olympics, at least for those British athletes, has been the crowd. At the Velodrome, at Wimbledon, the rowing lake and athletics stadium a wall of sound has lifted and propelled British athletes to success. One foreign journalist said that it feels like the Brits have finally shed their image for stiff upper lip reserve, instead they have been screaming and jumping in support of their athletes at the Olympics. Jessica Ennis described how she felt pushed round the 800 m race by a solid wall of support. The woman’s pursuit cyclists who set a world record every time they pedalled described it as riding through a wind tunnel of encouragement.
Probably because I am an Early Church history geek, the incredible support of the crowds at the Olympics has made me think about a church leader who seems to have been a bit of fanatical sports fan, his name was Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory lived in the 4th century AD is one the so called “Early Church Fathers” who were the church leaders and thinkers in the earliest centuries of the church who really shaped the way we understand theology and church. As I said as well as being one the most important theologians in the early church, Gregory was clearly a bit of a sports fan, he wrote this about chariot racing, the big spectator sport of his day.
“At horse races, the spectators, intent on victory, shout to their favourites in the contest. From the balcony, they incite the rider to keener effort, urging the horses on while leaning forward and flailing the air with their outstretched hand instead of a whip. I seem to be doing the same thing myself, most valued friend and brother. While you are competing admirably in the divine race, straining constantly for the prize of the heavenly calling, I exhort, urge and encourage you vigorously.”
Gregory talks about how the spots fans of his age were fanatical in their support for the chariot riders, encouraging the riders to greater performances from the stands. He then describes how he feels that is what he is doing for his friend to whom he is writing when it comes to Christian living. He is supporting, encouraging and inspiring this believer to be all he can be for Christ.
Gregory has really got me thinking. You probably already know that the Apostle Paul connects athletics with living as a Christian. Paul talks of the life of following Jesus as a race because they both have a purpose, a goal and yet that race takes effort and we face opposition as we run whose aim is to defeat us. Get the metaphor? I am pretty sure that Jess Ennis and Mo Farah’s coaches probably echoed Paul’s words last night “Don’t you realise that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! “1 Corinthians 9:24
Yesterday by screaming their encouragement, calling on the athletes to fulfil their potential, inspiring them to achieve what is within their reach and not give up the crowd in the stands have played their parts in helping British athletes win. Gregory’s example suggests to me that is exactly the kind of role the church is to provide for us as those running the race of Christian discipleship. Like Gregory we are to “exhort, urge and encourage vigorously” our fellow believers. As we gather for worship today in some sense the experience is to be something akin to what Hoy, Ennis, Grainger and the rest have experienced over the last week when they have competed at the Olympics.
You know what? that’s the kind of church community I want to be part of. I want to be part of a church which is fanatical about encouraging people, inspiring and motivating people in their Christ following life. Most churches I have been part of have been filled with people who are polite observers of other people’s lives, not at all like Gregory of Nyssa, who likens himself to a fanatical fan willing his sports star on. Yet the New Testament seems to support Gregory’s attitude. Just listen to these words and I could quote so many more passages with the same flavour. “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:25
Here is what is in my mind after thinking about this, I am going to try to be as deliberate and determined in encouraging and inspiring my fellow believers in their Christian life as the crowds at Olympics have been in their support of the athletes. I want to join Gregory and incite people to keener effort in their Christ following. Imagine if those who gather for worship today with God’s people, who are feeling downtrodden, defeated, discouraged and on the edge of giving up were to experience a community of Gregory’s, a community of vigorous encouragement and support? If those on the verge of doing great things for God were inspired to cross the line of success? If those who are feeling apathetic were stirred with excitement about being in the race again?