Saturday, December 18, 2010

Galatians 3:1-6. Six Questions.

The legend has it that Pheidippides, a Greek messenger, was sent from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated in the Battle of Marathon in August or September, 490 BC. It is said that he ran the entire distance without stopping and burst into the assembly, exclaiming "Νενικήκαμεν" (Nenikékamen, 'We have won.') before collapsing and dying. The legend may be wrong since the name Pheidippides only appears 400 years after the event and other names of the hero include Thersipus of Erchius, Eucles and Philippides. In 1879, Robert Browning wrote the poem Pheidippides. Browning's poem and his composite story, became part of late-19th century popular culture and was accepted as a historic legend.

The idea of a marathon race was seen as a way of popularising the modern Olympic games, first held in Athens in 1896. The idea of organizing a marathon came from Michel Bréal and it was was heavily supported by Baron Pierre de Coubertin as well as the Greeks who staged a selection race for the Olympic marathon on March 10, 1896 over a course of about 25 miles - the approximate distance between Marathon and Athens, avoiding Mount Pentelli, which stands between them. Between 1896 and 1920 the Olympic marathon was held over a variable distance of about 25 miles, but the current distance of 26 miles and 385 yards derives from a decision in 1921 to fix on the distance used in the London Olympics of 1908. This was known as the 'Race of the Century' because a runner who was winning the race collapsed and nearly died close to the tape. The race was run from Windsor Castle to White City Stadium - a distance of 26 miles and 700 yards - but in order to give Queen Alexandra a better view of the finish from the Royal Box it was shortened to 26 miles and 385 yards.

The huge crowd, including Queen Alexandra, watched as the little Italian, Dorando Pietri, staggered round the final 385 yards, falling several times, and eventually being propelled by officials over the line as Irish-American Johnny Hayes got ever closer. Dorando was disqualified and Hayes was awarded the Gold Medal. However, Queen Alexandra was so moved by his plight that the very next day she presented Dorando with a silver-gilt cup.

Running marathons is a dangerous pursuit and there are many who have died in the attempt. Measurement of certain chemicals in the blood after marathon running indicates that the muscle of the heart is frequently damaged unless the runner has been training in excess of 35 miles a week. When I was young a strikingly similar event to the 1908 marathon took place at the Empire games of 1954 in Vancouver. Jim Peters, the English runner who had three times lowered the best time for a marathon in the previous months, entered the stadium a full 17 minutes ahead of the second placed man.

As the report in the Manchester Guardian put it at the time, 'Instinct and a misbegotten willpower under the merciless sun had Peters keeling over onto the cinder track again and again like a drunken vaudeville tumbler; each time he hauled himself up once more to stagger on in a groggy, futile nobility.' The Daily Mirror wrote, 'Two steps forward, three to the side. So help me, he is running backwards now ... oh, he's down again ... The nauseous spectacle of a semi-conscious man being allowed to destroy himself while no one had the power or gumption to intervene.'

'The ghastly, ghostly mime lasted all of 11 minutes and 200 metres, when a boxer's sprawl of surrender at the halfway mark had the England team's masseur Mick Mayes stepping in to call for stretcher-bearers. Peters, skin a deathly mottled grey and a collar of foam streaming from his mouth, was borne away on a stretcher.'

He never ran again.

I could never run a marathon. To travel from Windsor Castle to London I should take the train. It might be cheating, but I know when I need help.

Over 30 competitors in the Xiamen International Marathon in China were disqualified earlier this year after officials caught them cheating. Race organisers found video footage that revealed some runners had carried the time-recording microchips of others so that one runner would register two or more results on passing the finish line. Others made their way around at least some of the course in vehicles, while some hired impostors.

They were following an honorable (?) tradition. On 21 April 1980, Rosie Ruiz, a 23-year-old New Yorker, was the first woman to cross the finish line in the Boston Marathon. She had achieved the third fastest time ever recorded for a female runner (two hours, thirty-one minutes, and fifty-six seconds), which was made all the more remarkable by the fact that she looked remarkably sweat-free and relaxed as she climbed the winner's podium to accept her wreath. However, race officials almost immediately began to question her victory. The problem was that no one could remember having seen her during the race. Monitors at the various race checkpoints hadn't seen her, nor had any of the other runners. Numerous photographs taken during the race failed to contain any sign of her. Her absence was overwhelming. Finally, a few members of the crowd came forward to reveal that they had seen her jump into the race during its final half-mile. Apparently she had then simply sprinted to the finish line.

As race officials prepared to announce her disqualification from the race, they discovered evidence that she had also cheated during the earlier New York marathon, where she had earned the time that had qualified her to run in the Boston marathon. She had apparently achieved her time in New York by riding the subway

Before her, Fred Lorz easily claimed the men's title in the 1904 St Louis Olympics with a time of three hours, 13 minutes. Officials soon discovered the secret of his success: the 11-mile ride he received in his manager's car.

The question for Fred is, if it was so much easier to ride in your manager's car, why put yourself to the trouble of running at all?

I suppose it was a guilty conscience. He felt he he had to make some contribution to his medal. Rosie had a better idea. Take the victory as a free gift without even breaking into a sweat.

Many Christians are like Fred. Having accepted salvation as a free gift, they feel that to hang on to it they have to earn it all over again by obeying the Law. In Galatians chapter 3 Paul is at pains to negate the idea by asking six questions.

The first is, "Who has bewitched you?"

I was watching a TV detective story the other night. It portrayed Christianity in a poor light. The vicar and his curate went on Gay Pride marches together and the three Church Wardens were respectively a dying pornographer, a hanging, flogging and birching magistrate and a sanctimonious middle aged doctor who liked to 'examine' pretty young girls and ogle their naked photographs. One character claimed that the Bible told Christians to burn sinners at the stake. In fact the only mention of witchcraft in the New Testament is in Galatians 5:20 which lumps witchcraft with a good many other sins and a warning that people who live like this will not enter the the Kingdom of Heaven. No mention of burning at the stake.

I am sure Paul is using a figure of speech here. He means to ask who has led the Galatians astray and the answer is surely the Judaizers, the circumcision party, those who insisted that the Law must be obeyed.

The second question is, "Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law or by believing what you heard?" It is a rhetorical question. Receiving the Holy Spirit must have been a major event in their spiritual life. Before they were dead in trespasses and sins. The Law had not revived them - it never does. The Law crushes. Read Exodus and Leviticus. Isn't it depressing? Where can you turn and not see yourself as guilty as charged? But look at Christ and him crucified! God sent his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life!

The third question is, "Are you so foolish?" You may see on wayside pulpits at this time of the year the words, "Wise men seek him still." But foolishness here is not just the opposite of wisdom; it implies moral delinquency. It is like the "Thou fool!" of the Sermon on the Mount. No one can help being a couple of teaspoons short of a canteen of cutlery. There is no blame attached to that - we can't all be Einsteins. But the foolishness here is that of disbelieving God and the cleverest people can be guilty of that. Paul has begun the chapter with, "You foolish Galatians!" And so they were.

The fourth question is, "After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?" This is where my marathon illustration comes in. There must be enormous personal pride in winning a marathon but in real life you need to be a Kenyan or an Ethiopian to do it. I heard that the Mayor of Rome was planning to cancel the Rome marathon because it was always won by Africans. When you come to think of it running 26 miles for the sake of personal pride is a pretty futile exercise. Better to take a bus. Imagine taking a trolley bus up one of those steep hills in San Francisco, but deciding to walk the rest of the way. The Galatians were doing worse than that. They were abandoning a method that worked for one that didn't.

Many of my readers will know that I am getting an electric train set for Christmas. If you have ever owned one, you will know that the only way to get the locomotive to move is applying electricity to the wheels. imagine that I do this and get the train to move out of the station, but once it gets started I switch the electricity off and decide to push it round the rest of the tract. You'd think me crazy. But that's what abandoning the Spirit and going back to the Law is like.

The fifth question is, "Have you suffered so much for nothing?" The word translated 'suffering' doesn't necessarily imply pain; it can just mean 'experienced'. Compare "Suffer little children to come unto me", which only means 'allow'. But this question sums up the the whole passage - after all you have experienced, how can you go back to the old ways?

The sixth and final question is "Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the Law or because you believe what you heard?" Again, Paul is appealing to their experience. So many Christians want to separate their conversion from their sanctification as these were two different processes. We are saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He cancels the guilt and punishment and the power of sin. Not just our past sins, but our present and future sins. Consequent upon our salvation is the gift of the Holy Spirit who takes responsibility for our sanctification. His main role is to draw attention to the Lord Jesus Christ and make him our template. He grows us closer to Jesus. How foolish (in both senses) to abandon what works and go back to what doesn't.

I sometimes hear people complain about listening to the 'simple gospel' every week. They would prefer to hear the preacher draw out some fine doctrinal point from the book of Numbers or Ezekiel. Nonsense! We should never stray too far from the cross. 'Tell me the old, old story' says the hymn. I never tire of hearing of what Jesus did for me. If I had one sermon to hear before I died it would be of how God loved me so much that he sent his son to die for me. Only Jesus. Only Jesus. Only Jesus.


Carter said...

Jesus, the name we love to hear. Did you ever see Robert Duvall in the movie The Apostle? That is my residual memory of it.

Anonymous said...

Dear Doctor Hamblin,

In all honesty, I read your wonderful CLL-related posts due to an unwanted need. My dear husband has the disease. But I dearly love your Christ-centered posts and look forward to your Christmas poems. "Only Jesus" indeed.