If you’ve been watching the winter Olympics you’ll be aware of some controversies that have arisen. I’m thinking particularly of the ladies figure skating where there was confusion over the top placings and no one could understand why the Russian won and not the South Korean. And then why was British speed skater Elise Christie eliminated again after so much bad luck? Obviously the competitors and judges need to understand the rules, but do the spectators need to understand them too to appreciate what’s going on?
Even in our technological age, with so much at our fingertips, it’s not unusual for us to feel that we’re not in control, that we don’t have ownership or even influence in the situations that we find ourselves. In our gospel reading today, Jesus shows us how we can turn situations around, take control by doing the unexpected, going beyond what is asked or required, making those who might seem to have the upper hand, stop and think.
Sports men and women are challenged not just to embrace the rules and spirit of the Olympic Games, but to push themselves further than they or others thought possible. Jesus trains us to: turn the other cheek; go the extra mile; love your enemy; and to be perfect (that is, whole or complete).
Most of the nominees for best film at last weekend’s BAFTA ceremony were stories of going beyond, that we might find love for both neighbour and enemy: 12 Years a Slave battles with themes of slavery, abolition, personal dignity and the fight to stay alive; Philomena is the story of an Irish woman trying to find the child she gave up for adoption; Captain Philips explores the relationship between abductees and pirate kidnappers; Gravity tackles feelings of being lost, aloneness and hope of rescue. British director of 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen, said: ‘Right now there are 21 million people in slavery. I just hope that 150 years from now our ambivalence will not allow another film-maker to make this film.’
The stories of individuals who make themselves vulnerable in the face of the expectations of others can lead us and our wider community to find hope in the face of seemingly overwhelming adversity. Like great Olympians or movie screen heroes, we are called to strive for something better, both individually and as a church.
People were intrigued by Jesus (what he said and did) and this provoked them to ask questions.
In the same way if Christians today adopt values and practices that are different from normal this will provoke questions and lead to natural evangelism – which is more genuine and effective than any schemes.
The Church must become a Sign of the Kingdom – but this will only happen when the members are prepared to be different and take risks.
Last week, I spoke about the challenge of reconciliation, of being instruments of peace in our communities. This ‘going beyond’, stepping ‘outside the box’ means being prepared to be different, to upset the apple cart, not going with the flow. It may be uncomfortable, it may make you unpopular. But we will be following in the steps of Jesus.
Also in the last week or so, there have been reports in the media of what various bishops have said. The bishops of the church of England ruled out the blessing of same-sex marriages whilst on the same day the (RC) Archbishop of Westminster criticised the government’s welfare reforms for leaving people in destitution. Which is closer to what Jesus might have said? How can we best announce God’s equal and unconditional love for every single person. The church will not be seen to be relevant to people’s live, we will not convince people of Christ’s love, of his ability to meet their deepest needs while we are seen to be preoccupied with fund-raising and maintaining buildings. I’m sorry if that shocks or offends you. I’m not saying that we don’t have a responsibility to care for buildings and to meet the costs of ministry but if we want to grow the church, if we want to make disciples for Christ, if we want to share the good news we have to think about what really matters to us about our faith, what is at the heart of the gospel and be prepared to go the extra mile, to go beyond what is required of us. As Jesus pointed out, there is nothing special about being kind to our families and friends, nothing special about giving to charity, nothing special about helping those have met with apparently undeserved misfortune, victims of crime and so on. But loving your enemies? Praying for those who harm you? Helping those who appear not to be helping themselves, who have committed crimes or are addicted?
Keeping the rules is easy. Remember the meeting between Jesus and the rich young man. He claimed to have kept the 10 commandments – no problem there. But Jesus showed him that he needed to do more than that, to follow the example of the good Samaritan who was himself despised and excluded; to go the extra mile.
By going beyond what is asked of us we can both challenge society’s expectations and fulfill God’s.
A prayer, using the Winter Olympic slogan ‘Hot, Cool, Yours’, to accompany a time of reflection
Hot is the fire that burns within me in the face of injustice:
against those who seek vengeance;
against those who strike the weak;
against those who steal from the poor;
against those who ask for too much.
You are the Lord, my God.
Turn me to face your way,
for I claim to be a child of God.
Cool is often the response I give in the face of inequality:
when I fail to speak out against oppression;
when I fail to stand up to the one who bullies my neighbour;
when I fail to campaign for the poor;
when I fail to turn towards those who everyone else has turned away from.
You are the Lord, my God.
Turn me to face your way,
for I claim to be a child
Yours is the Kingdom
which defies society’s expectations.
Yours is power
which enables us to risk going beyond rules.
Yours is the glory
reflected in each person who turns from darkness to light.
You are the Lord, our God.
Turn us to face your way,
for we claim to be your children.