God Moments in Greece Part 3

There's been a long gap between the last post and this one, and the reason is that this reflection on our holiday in Greece has its sequel in the death of my father. We had known he was ill before going on holiday, but with elderly parents, every time you go away you consider the possibility of one of them not being there when you get back. Nevertheless  I earnestly prayed about not going, or returning early, and felt okay about leaving, and hopeful that he would still be around on my return five weeks later. And he was, but only for five days.

My third glimpse of God in Greece was when we visited Olympia, the site of the original ancient Greek Games. For some reason I had always assumed that the Olympics started in Athens, and thought our last day trip of a visit to Olympia would take us to or near Athens. When we docked in the little port of Katakolon in the Ionian Sea off the west coast of Greece, at least 100km away from the capital, and boarded a bus for Olympia 33km inland, I realised I was mistaken. 

The archaeological site of Olympia ranks among the most important historic sites of Greece, and incorporates ruins of the athletic premises used for the Olympic Games, administrative buildings and other lay buildings and monuments. Today this is still the starting place of the Olympic flame, lit by sunlight concentrated by a parabolic mirror. We explored by foot the ancient altars and temples, the stadium, the gymnasium, the hippodrome and the workshops. (We also visited the not-so-ancient restrooms, where 2 yearold Evan impressed us with his first peepee in a public toilet!) Nathan and Alice raced down and back the straight Olympic track, which is about 185 meters and starts from the original line marked by three slabs of marble.
Grandson Nathan and his Mum race at Olympia.
Tradition holds that the first Olympic Games were held in 776BC, to mark a peace treaty between the city states of Sparta and Elis. Eventually all the Greek states took part in them, provided they respected the sacred truce that must be held during the games. This gave the kings and leaders from all over Greece a chance to meet unarmed, and meant that Olympia became an important place for political discussions and trade. Famous people like Plato and Aristotle came to watch. By the fifth century BC, the games extended over five days and included horse racing, track, pentathlon, wrestling, boxing and martial arts.

A competitor had to be a free Greek with no criminal record, who had trained for the games at home for ten months, and for one month in Olympia. Competitors would register by taking a sacred oath that they had trained for this time and that they would respect the rules. Winners did not receive money, but they and their family and city were greatly honoured. The prize was an olive wreath and the right to erect a victory statue. Back home he would usually be given free meals for the rest of his life. However, an athlete who was caught cheating, perhaps through bribing or poisoning, had to pay a fine that paid for a statue of Zeus where his and his family's name would be put in a place in the stadium where all could see and judge.

You may wonder how this interesting but pagan site became a God moment for me.  The reason is that the apostle Paul was thoroughly familiar with such Greek sports events, and demonstrates this by using athletically-oriented phrases and metaphors in his pastoral letters. The Romans who had conquered Greece in the 2nd century BC had  plundered the treasures of Olympia,  so the Games there lost some of their importance and really were just for show. But the practice of holding such events was not lost, and most local cities had their gymnasium and stadia where (naked!) athletes trained and competed in just the same way. Paul writes of running the race and receiving the prize: 

Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win!  All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step.  
I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.

The writer to the Hebrews uses the analogy too: 
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.  

So to be in Olympia, from whence these evocative metaphors came, was very special, and gave me a fresh sense of the purpose of discipleship - to be trained in the school of Jesus for the godshapedlife.  But wait there's more.....

Less than a week later, in California, I was having phone conversations with my 91 yearold Dad and other family members about his funeral, which by now was clearly a matter of weeks, not months, away. It was such a blessing that a man who had served his Lord as a minister and preacher  for over sixty years could have some say about his farewell, and that we had this special opportunity to plan together as a family.  Dad asked if I would preach at his service in Taupo; my younger brother, also a Rev, did the eulogy, and the other three of my siblings did personal reflections. 

Dad had chosen two readings - the familiar "travellers psalm", Psalm 121, and three verses from 2 Timothy 4: 
As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 
From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Here again was the metaphor I had considered so recently! Although a funeral is not the place for a travelogue about ancient Greece, the background I had learned enabled me to speak with confidence about what Paul meant, and to interpret Dad's life of faith in terms of this image. I used my last week of holiday to plan the sermon which turned out to be needed within a week of my return. Here are a couple of paragraphs: (there was a lot more personal stuff than this; if you want to read the whole thing you can email me at reverendviv (at) gmail)

Our second reading (2 Tim 4: 6 – 8) uses an image from Greek history - the athletic contests that were wellknown to the apostle Paul as he travelled the eastern Mediterranean in the first century. It was written near the end of  Pauls’ life, and he uses three images from the arena when he says “I have fought the good fight: I have finished the race: I have kept the faith….the prize awaiting me is a crown of righteousness.” The laurel wreath at those ancient games was a great honour, but within days it would wither. Paul knew the crown that was reserved for him would never fade. This reading reminds us that God’s reality is the reality of eternity.....Our hymn (Fight the Good Fight) picked up the metaphor of a race, and I think one line aptly describes his philosophy of life. “Christ is the path and Christ the prize”. Dad was not one to rabbit on about the four spiritual laws or threaten people with a Christless eternity. He believed that Easter isn’t just something that happened to Jesus, and that will happen to us, but something that gives focus and colour to all of daily life.....
Thinking back to the images in our reading, (Dad's life of faith) was a fight that it required active engagement and a race that needed acute awareness of what was going on around him, the great cloud of witnesses described by the writer to the Hebrews.  Keeping the faith probably refers to the solemn oath taken by ancient Greek athletes, pledging  they would not resort to trickery to win. Paul seems to be saying: “I have kept the rules: I have maintained my integrity.” Bill McLeay was indeed a man of integrity, a man of character.... His journey was an active one,  a dynamic adventure of faith and love and hope.... Dad knew that God’s Big Story has a good ending. Evil is finally overthrown, nations are healed and God lives among his people. That means that even in the midst of the natural sadness and pain of today, we can take heart, and be assured that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

What a privilege, to proclaim the gospel at the funeral service of a man whom I loved, respected and admired for over sixty years, and who taught me more than I ever realise about the art of preaching. 

Thanks be to God.

To Chew Over: What goal lies at the end of your particular race?

Fight the good fight with all thy might;
Christ is thy Strength, and Christ thy Right;
Lay hold on life, and it shall be
Thy joy and crown eternally.

Run the straight race through God’s good grace,
Lift up thine eyes, and seek His face;
Life with its way before us lies,
Christ is the Path, and Christ the Prize.

Cast care aside, upon thy Guide,
Lean, and His mercy will provide;
Lean, and the trusting soul shall prove
Christ is its Life, and Christ its Love.

Faint not nor fear, His arms are near,
He changeth not, and thou art dear.
Only believe, and thou shalt see
That Christ is all in all to thee.
John Monsell.