Sermon for Trinity 19C
In the Race of Faith, we’re all involved in active baton passing.
Luke 17: 5 The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.
2 Timothy 1:5I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands...
One of the biggest disappointments of the Rio Olympics track and field events was the disqualification of the GB men’s 4x400 sprint relay team.
They had run a storming race, beating their own record in training, and thought they would be straight into the final with it. But there was a problem.
Baton passing is a fine art, and you’re supposed to do it within a 20-yard stretch of track. If your foot is deemed to be over the line, even by a fraction, whilst you pass it to the next runner, you are disqualified. And if they progress beyond the line before receiving the baton, the team is disqualified.
Obviously you’re running really fast in a sprint relay, but as you approach the next runner, you must position yourself completely accurately, and so must they; you must slow a bit, they have to start running so as not to lose the momentum, and you must pass it within that very narrow margin of track.
The GB men’s team had run a blistering sub 3 minute heat, which would have put them in the frame for a medal in the final; all the passes appeared to have gone well, but after jubilant scenes at the finish line, news filtered through that they had been disqualified.
They appealed, but were unsuccessful despite video footage being inconclusive. The judges ruled that Matthew Hudson Smith had marginally had his foot over the line while waiting for Delano Williams to pass the baton.
India were deemed to have committed the same offense and Trinidad and Tobago received a lane violation, thus shifting the host team, Brazil, three places up the scoreboard and into the final.
In a similar disappointment, the US men’s 4x100m relay team were also disqualified after finishing in Bronze Medal position, due to an early hand off between Mike Rodgers and Justin Gatlin.
In the nail biting sport of sprint relay, the successful passing of the baton is the crucial lynch pin of the whole race. But passing the baton has its glitches, and those glitches would seem to be rather common.
In the race of faith, the successful passing of the baton is the crucial lynch pin of the whole race. But it too has its glitches.
The fact that we’re here this morning gathered and worshipping is testament to the baton passing of each generation before us, but we also know that there’s been a dramatic falling away of attendance within the C of E lately, particularly in younger generations, and perhaps we might be able to put that down to glitches in the baton passing.
Despite population growth, numbers attending church services has dropped 12% over the last decade and generally speaking many C of E congregations are aging whilst fewer young people (under 50s) are engaging. Less than 2% of the population go to an Anglican church on a Sunday.
It’s a good job that our gospel reminds us of mustard seed faith. With mustard seed faith, we can join in with God in the seemingly impossible task of baton passing.
Let’s look at how we all need to need be actively involved in passing on the baton of faith.
Timothy, had received the baton of faith and it would appear he was a third generation Christian: in the Epistle, Paul refers to the faith that first lived in his grandmother, Lois, and in his mother, Eunice.
Scholars generally agree that Paul is near the end of his life here and that he wrote this letter to Timothy in the mid 60s, so just enough time for there to be a first generation Jewish believer in Jesus, (Lois) who then passed the faith onto her daughter, Eunice, who passed it to Timothy.
Never underestimate the power of a praying parent, grandparent (or partner or godparent for that matter).
In the 98th year of her life, my Grandmother was known to attend the monthly prayer group which took place up in her local church, as people sat round in a circle of chairs and prayed for the young. Although she could have rested on her laurels, having almost run the race to completion herself, she went to that prayer group because she believed in young people and recognised the need to pass the baton. She was ignited from within by the need to pass the baton. She was in some ways, difficult, uncompromising and a bit of a social snob, but she was unceasing in her prayers for the generations below her to know Christ.
As you get older, it seems you have nothing to lose. If people think you’re barmy for talking about Christ, that doesn’t really matter, because God will honour your mustard seed faith, and uproot mulberry trees into the sea for you. Someone, somewhere, will get the baton from your prayerful witness. If we don’t share the gospel, the baton falls.
So Timothy learnt the faith through his family. But Paul had also been instrumental in his faith journey. We read that he had laid hands on Timothy for him to receive the Holy Spirit, and in the Epistle he encourages Timothy to continually fan into flame the gift of the Spirit that was given him at that time.
It’s the same for us – the best way to pass the baton is to be alive in your faith. The best signpost to Christ is a fully functioning Christian. That’s why we continually need to be renewed in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Timothy’s faith pedigree tells us two important things about handing on the faith (passing the baton).
Firstly, the family is the primary conduit for faith, but each person needs to individually appropriate that faith for himself or herself. Timothy’s faith was caught, but also affirmed individually.
There’s a tension here for churchgoing families.
Children are not easily fooled. They imbibe actions and not just words. What feeds them primarily is real spiritual life flowing out from a lived experience of Jesus Christ. This is more than simply church attendance.
Yes, we long for them to develop church-going habits too, but primarily they need to see a lived daily faith that speaks to life issues at each stage of growing up.
So that’s baton passing within the family. And research suggests that the majority of people who come to a living faith in Jesus, will do so before their 18th birthday. So that’s even more reason to pray for your children, grandchildren and godchildren, nephews and nieces.
But, secondly, not everyone is lucky enough to see living faith modelled within their family.
So we also need to be involved in baton passing more generally. This is clearly what happened with the very first believers in Jesus.
Someone, somewhere, modelled Christ to them in such a way that they turned to him and became believers. So someone shared their faith with Lois, Timothy’s Grandmother, and she became the first family member to know Christ. Perhaps it was a neighbour or a friend, someone who pointed to Christ in persuasive words and loving actions.
Paul himself came to faith by what seemed to be a direct intervention of the risen Christ, as he fell to the ground on his way to persecute the young church. He then devoted his whole life to spreading the message, passing the baton. Not many of us will come to faith like that, but you do hear of the occasional experience when God appears to someone in a dream, say, or in extremis.
Paul assumes that baton passing will be one of the chief characteristics of the Christian church. That’s why he has identified Timothy as a successor – a very different person to him I’m sure – but carrying on the race with the baton firmly in his hand.
Investing in successors is a risky business because our successors do things differently from their predecessors.
That’s the nature of baton passing. We need to have humility, and to be encouragers here. As I look back on 50 years of church going the most significant catalyst in baton passing that I can identify in the family of Christ, is the individuals who are encouragers.
The baton, of course, is the gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, which is for all people everywhere. ‘For this gospel I was appointed a herald, an apostle and a teacher’, writes Paul from prison, and he urges Timothy to ‘guard the good treasure entrusted to you.’
Passing the batons happens in those fortunate families where faith is truly alive, but they may be in the minority. So baton passing is up to all of us.
In looking at this enormous task, we come back to the mustard seed faith.
It’s just as well Jesus talked of faith as having very small beginnings, because otherwise I think we’d be tempted to give up. If we have faith as small as a mustard seed, we can say to a tree, be uprooted, and thrown into the sea, and it will be done, Jesus says.
Christianity started with one person. It spread to 12, then to 72, then to 3000 on the Day of Pentecost. We don’t need to lose heart about passing the baton. But we do need to be actively involved in doing it.
And when we’ve done what we can, when we’ve had faith, and prayed, and cared enough to pass the baton on, in words and deeds, in fact all we’ve done is been faithful servants, and not super human Christians.
And that’s quite a relief too.