If you haven’t noticed, yet, I love to watch sports. Baseball is probably my favorite, because it is a cerebral game that forces you to think three or four batters ahead. Football, though, is probably the sport that gets me the most animated. I’ve been told that I can get a little loud and crazy when we’re not winning or the referees make a call that I do not appreciate.
Most of the time, though, I am watching the games in my home office and with the door closed to give some protection to the family. We don’t go to as many games as I would like, primarily because of cost and the challenges of taking Noah to an event with a large crowd. The last time I went to a home college football game was probably 2007. I probably haven’t been to a college football game, in general, since West Virginia last played Louisville at Cardinal Stadium in 2010.
The one thing that I miss about going to games in person is the pageantry. You don’t get a good feel for the crowd noise, especially before a game, by sitting on your recliner with a Diet Coke and a bag of chips by your side. Those moments before a game are special. You have the band playing. You have the anticipation from the crowd for what will come. You have the players getting ready and jumping around in the tunnel. All of this rises to a point that it runs over with excitement and jubilation when the team runs out onto the field.
I love that moment. It gets you excited. Now, can you imagine if the pregame ritual was kind of “eh.” Imagine what it would feel like if you sat in the crowd and the entire stadium was discouraged or despondent. Imagine if the band stopped playing. Imagine if the team walked out with their heads down believing that there is no way they could win. How would we respond? We probably wouldn’t be too excited about the game, and probably would turn the channel or go home early believing that there is no way our team would win.
Imagine if that is how we treated our faith in Christ. Imagine if instead of players running out on the field, it was us going into our mission field of Huntington. What if we were despondent, discouraged, and detached from it all? Would we be growing in our faith in Christ? Would we be able to share the love of Christ with others in such a way that it would encourage people to come along side us?
I ask that because faith in Christ is a journey. We are all on this journey of discipleship and growth today. Sometimes our faith and discipleship journey are held back by things that seek to discourage us and prevent us from growing in Christ’s love. They prevent us from being the people and church God calls us to be and knows we can be. If we are to be the people and church Christ calls us to be, then, it means we must let go of anything that would lead us to being despondent, discouraged, and detached. It means following Christ on the journey the Lord has set out for us by modeling Christ’s example of his own journey.
Hebrews 12:1-2 uses the imagery of an athletic competition to describe the life of following Christ. This is a common theme in Hebrews and the epistles, because it is one the people were familiar with. Scripture writers would, like we do today, use things that were familiar and common to the believers to help people understand the principles of faith.
One of the common images of the time was the idea of the ancient Olympic games. It was a marvel of athletic competition in the Greek culture, which had immersed itself within the Jewish practices and customs in Jesus’ time. Among the most prominent competitions was the marathon race. The race dates back to the Battle of Marathon, when Philippides ran from Marathon to Athens to announce that the Persians were victorious. The modern marathon honors this moment. A marathon is a long journey, more than 26 miles, that requires stamina and perseverance to accomplish.
That image is a great metaphor for the journey of discipleship and following Christ. We have this misguided idea, today, that following Christ is only about accepting Jesus. There is more to it than just believing in Christ. It is a lifelong journey of discipleship where we are becoming more defined by the life of Christ and less defined by our own desires. It is not a one-day journey. The journey of discipleship in Christ is a complete dedication and reorientation of our lives that requires commitment, sacrifice, and perseverance to stay focus on Christ.
The journey is not a solo endeavor. It is not like my morning walks at Ritter Park or around the area where I’m trying to spend time alone. Discipleship is a journey that we travel on with a cloud of witnesses supporting us. The cloud of witnesses has two important meanings for us. The first is that it represents those who have gone before us. Those who have traveled the road in good and bad times, and, yet, have persevered to remain focused on God’s holy love. The other is it represents each of us. We give witness to our faith in God by how we live, speak, and act with one another. All of this gives us encouragement and strength to maintain our journey with Christ in good times and bad.
Since we are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses, this support network that reminds us that we are not alone, we must let go of anything that would slow us down. These are things that would prevent us from growing in the image and likeness of Christ, both as individuals and a community of faith.
Imagine for a moment that as we are on this journey we are carrying with us the things that can slow us down. When we are weighed down, we don’t have the desire to move forward and we ultimately stop or give up all together.
There are weights that we can all carry both as individuals and as a community of faith. They could be struggles in our lives, hurts from our past, our fears, our anxieties, our biases, or things that we have not asked for forgiveness over. They could also be our unwillingness to take on the practices of faith – prayer, communion, worship, reading Scripture, being in fellowship with other believers – that strengthens us on this journey. When we carry these things as a follower of Christ, we prevent ourselves from growing in the image of Christ by reflection his love, grace, and hope.
The same is true for our walk, together, as a community of faith. As a community, these weights might be: our desire for the church to be a social club for the few and privileged, our desire to look backwards instead of looking towards the present and future, our belief that no one will do anything, our fears, our desire for division, or even our inability to truly give of ourselves to Christ and wanting a faith that doesn’t challenge our worldviews. When we carry these things as a church, as a community of faith, we cannot be the church and community Christ calls us to be.
How do we let go of the things that hold us back on this journey of faith? We do so by modeling our life completely by the way that Jesus carried himself in his journey on the earth.
We often forget that Jesus was on a journey, as well, as he taught the way to the Father. His life is the model for discipleship we need to persevere on our journey of growing in the image of Christ. The journey that we are on is not one that we carved for ourselves. We are on a journey that is led by Christ, because he is the one who sets the path for us.
His journey was one of complete dedication to God. Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus was and is the embodiment of discipleship and dedication to the Father. Everything he did was to give honor and glory to God. The journey was not about him. It was all about the Father’s love being shared with all people. He was obedient even when he struggled with the very calling of his life, such as when he was tempted in Jericho on the Mount of Temptation or at the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his arrest. He stayed committed even when it meant that he would be humiliated and tortured in public on the cross. He remained on the journey, because his eyes were focused on the Father’s love.
Jesus is the one leading us on the journey. He is setting the path before us to grow in discipleship. If we are to follow the Lord, we have to keep our eyes on Christ and maintain our complete dedication and focus on the Lord. It will not be easy. There will be times when we want to give up. There will be times when we want to blame each other. There will be times when we will seek an easier way. In each of these moments, when we feel weighed down, Christ will be there calling us to let go of the things that hold us back and keep our eyes focused on him.
When we do, we will see that the journey is worth partaking in. It is a journey that leads us to becoming more like Christ as we abandon our own desires and take on the image of Christ. The journey of discipleship will lead us to being people who love God, grow daily in our knowledge and understanding of what it means to follow the Lord, and will, then, go out and share God’s love with our words, actions, and deeds. The journey is one that will require everything we have and will lead us to the God’s perfect desire for us, our community, and the world.
It is a journey of spiritual growth and transformation. Take up this journey today. Take this journey of complete dedication and growth seriously, by letting go of the things that can hold you down, the things that can hold us down, from being the people and church Christ calls us to be.
You are not on this journey by yourself. We do not do this on our own. We go with Christ, filled by God’s love, and encouraged by those who are going on this journey with us. That is you. That is me. That is the entire church. That is the entire Methodist movement. That is the entire Christian movement. That is those who have gone before us. That is the entire cloud of witnesses. Therefore, let us go with Christ and let us go with a desire to grow in the image of Christ by not letting anything hold us back.