Worship at the Abbey

Sermon for a Service in Celebration of the London Olympic Games

15 July 2012 at 18:00 pm

The Right Reverend Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford

“Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it”. (1 Cor. 9.24)

Dare I disagree with St Paul from the pulpit of Westminster Abbey?

Well, before you send in the vergers to drag me away, let me first affirm that when it comes to races he is most certainly correct.  If while waiting for the service to begin, you read  the notes in your service booklet you will have discovered that there  36 different Olympic and 20  Paralympic sports, and in the Olympics alone that adds up to more than 300 separate events  and there are more than 200 countries taking part; and once you’ve factored in all the heats, and not to mention all the hundreds of qualifying competitions that have happened right around the globe, an awful lot of running and jumping  and lifting and throwing  and diving and swimming and cycling and training and coaching, and getting up at 5.00am in the morning to train again,  has gone on so that in each event one person will win the prize, and standing on the top of the podium, their national anthem playing proudly, receive the gold medal.

Everyone runs in the race says Paul. Only one wins the prize, therefore run in such a way that you may win it.

And, no, we still haven’t got to my disagreement, for a fundamental Olympic value is that although there is only one gold medal, it is the taking part, the running the race, the giving of one’s best and the comradeship and international cooperation that sports engender, that is as important as the winning. And surely it is these things that we are here to celebrate this evening in this rich and beautiful service and setting.

No. My disagreement with Paul is that when we apply this analogy to life itself we continue to imagine that there is only one gold medal on offer, for the Christian faith says something shockingly different.

Let me paint the picture again. For there to be one winner, there must be hundreds of losers. Hundreds of athletes, hundreds of heats, each race whittling the number down till in a few weeks’ time eight runners line up for, let us say, the 100metres final and only one of them wins. (And I think we know who that will probably be!)   Hundreds of losers, one winner.

Or else think of that lottery ticket that many of you bought to support the very funding of the Olympic Games in this country. Every Saturday millions of people buy themselves a little bit of hope. Not just hundreds of losers, but millions, so that one lucky person gets the prize.

And this is what the Christian faith proclaims. Not millions of losers, so that there might be one winner. But one loser so that all might gain the prize. And of course that is actually what St Paul bangs on about in all his letters; it is what we heard in the reading from the letter to the Romans a few minutes ago, that Christ became the servant of all so that all may receive the promises of God.

On a Friday afternoon two thousand years ago God in Jesus Christ became the loser, the victim, the defeated one. He took upon himself the sins of all the world and the ghastly consequences of that sin in the ignorant, brutish cruelty of those who put him on that cross.  And he did it for a purpose, that one by one every human being, every single one of us, might step forward and receive the prize, the gold medal, the lasting gift of reconciliation, the forgiveness of our sins, peace and life with God.

There is, as you may also have read, an ancient tradition of an Olympic truce, a time when around the Games, arms were laid down, disagreements set aside. Oh, how our confused and compromised world needs this peace. But we cannot achieve it in our own strength. We need the peace that comes from Christ. We need his victory over our failings. We need to see that in so many ways we have not run well and in so many situations have actually trampled on the needs of others. 

May the great joy that will grip our nation and our world as these London Olympic and Paralympic Games begin, remind us of lasting values of victorious peace, something that is available and given to all of us because of what God has done in Christ, and awaken in us a hope for peace; may we run well, but also, recognising our failings, humbly seek the forgiveness that only God can bring, and then receive the prize that he has secured for everyone; “and may the God of hope fill you will all joy and peace in believing”