All the World Loves a Winner
I am writing on Friday morning and so far Michael Phelps has won six gold medals in the six Olympic events in which he has thus far competed. Two more to go; the 100-meter fly tomorrow and the 400-meter medley on Sunday. The media is wondering if he is the greatest Olympian ever.
Who knows? What is grreatness? Maybe Jesse Owens whose four gold medals in Berlin reminded Hitler and the Nazis that the master race may not have been so masterful after all was the greatest Olympian ever. Maybe it was Eric Liddell, the Flying Scotsman and later missionary to China, who refused to run his best event, the 100-meter race, on a Sunday in the 1924 Paris Games because it would have violated his faithful observance of the Sabbath. Maybe it was some athlete none of us have ever heard of who overcame personal or social or political obstacles just to compete and quietly showed a courage and valor that many medal winners never match. Who knows who the greatest Olympian was or is?
But Michael Phelps is close to becoming the winningest Olympian, and all the world loves a winner. We love Michael Phelps in the same way we love Tiger Woods or loved Michael Jordan. They are the best at what they do; a combination of the right DNA and a lot of hard work.
For many of us Michael Phelps seems a sort of “everykid.” He grew up in the Baltimore suburbs. He was diagnosed ADHD and his parents divorced. Now he spends too much time with video games. We’ve heard the same story a thousand times. Partly to burn energy, young Michael was taken to join a neighborhood swim club, and the rest is history, as they say. There is something wonderfully ordinary about this extraordinary athlete who may, this weekend, become the winningest Olympian ever.
The Apostle Paul was a sports fan. It shows in his writing. Towards the end of his life, he tells his young protégé, Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race.” Then he talks about a crown of righteousness – the victor’s wreath from the Greek games, now an image of God’s reward for the life of faith (2 Timothy 4:7-8) . Like a good track coach, he urges his Corinthians friends to “run to win.” And perhaps alluding to the First Century version of our doping scandals, he reminds us that you can’t win if you don’t play by the rules.
We can do worse than making some Michael Phelps applications to our Christian lives.
But of all the athletic images in Scripture, none fascinates me more than the image portrayed in Hebrews 12:1-3. Here the picture may be of some cross-country race run on a treacherous and unknown course. I often thought of this passage during high-country wilderness treks in the Sierra Nevada. The race of Hebrews 12 is not around a well-maintained track or along an often-practiced route. And save for One who has gone ahead, marking the way, vanquishing both brigand and beast who would do us in, this is a race we’d never finish.
But we don’t run the race alone. First, there is a great throng, the great cloud or witnesses who encourage us and cheer us on. They are all the heroes of the faith listed in Hebrews 11. Both David the King and Rahab the Harlot are shouting our names and spurring us on! And to the Biblical cloud of witnesses we might add all the saints known and unknown; the saints of our lives. There, a faithful grandparent now gone but who we remember for telling and showing the life of faith; here that amazing friend whose struggle with cancer taught how to live and to die in the comfort of the Faithful Savior.
While we hear and are encouraged by the words of the great cloud of witnesses, the writer of Hebrews tells us to fix our eyes on Jesus, “the author and perfecter of our faith.” He is the One who has gone ahead and made the way safe for us.
But, really, who is Jesus? The media of his day would have declared him one of the greatest of all losers. Hebrews acknowledges as much when it speaks of the cross (the hideous reminder of Rome’s cruel injustice) and the shame (he became cursed) he endured.
Indeed, on Friday it looked as if the cross and the shame had won. Jesus, the great loser. It wasn’t until Sunday that it became clear that an amazing victory, the greatest ever, had been won.
Much of the world, the Friday world, still considers Jesus a loser and so, also, they consider us losers who trust all that we are and all that we have to him. Paul tells us that they have a right to consider us so – if Sunday’s victory is not real.
All the world loves a winner. I hope Michael Phelps pulls it off. I hope tomorrow and Sunday are good days for him.
But the gospel calls you and me to love a loser, at least a loser by the standard of what the world considers great. But here’s the surprise and the mystery, here’s the story we have to tell the whole world: in the Loser’s loss is our gain. Everything that has gone wrong, including our relationship with the One who created us, is made right again.