May 21, 2017
The Fifth Sunday after Easter
When I was younger, I used to love to watch the Olympics. One athlete in particular stood out during some of those years. He was a bit younger than I was; I was well into my first career by the time I was able to watch him compete a second time while he tried to launch his. Derek Redmond was determined. He had to finish the race. Period.
He was a young British runner, one who had sky rocketed to fame by shattering his country’s 400-meter record at age 19. But then an Achilles tendon injury forced him to withdraw from the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, and he endured five separate surgeries. When the Summer Olympics arrived in Barcelona in 1992, Derek Redmond was absolutely aching for a medal.
On the day of the 400-meter race, 65,000 fans streamed into the stadium, anxious to witness one of sports’ most thrilling events. High in the stands is Derek’s father, Jim, a faithful witness to every one of his son’s world competitions. According to ESPN, Jim is wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Have you hugged your foot today?”
The race begins and Derek breaks through the pack to seize the lead. “Keep it up, keep it up,” his father Jim says to himself. Heading down the backstretch, only 175 meters from the finish line, Derek is a shoo-in to win this semifinal heat and qualify for the Olympic finals.
But then Derek hears a pop. It’s his right hamstring. He pulls up lame, looking as if he has been shot. His leg quivering, Derek begins to hop on the other leg, and then he slows down and falls to the track. Medical personnel run toward him as he sprawls on the ground, holding his right hamstring.
At the very same moment, there is a stir at the top of the stands. Jim Redmond, seeing his son in trouble, begins to race down from the top row. He is pushing toward the track, sidestepping some people and bumping into others. He has no right or credential or permission to be on the track, but all he can think about is getting to his son, to help him up. He is absolutely single-minded about this, and isn’t going to be stopped by anyone.
On the track, Derek realizes that his dream of an Olympic medal is gone. He is alone. The other runners streak across the finish line, with Steve Lewis of the United States winning the race. He is orphaned, as it were, a lonely figure on the track, friendless, parentless and alone.
Tears pour down Derek’s face, and all he can think is, “I don’t want to take a DNF.” A Did-Not-Finish was not even part of his vocabulary. When the medical crew arrives with a stretcher, Derek tells them, “No, there’s no way I’m getting on that stretcher. I’m going to finish my race.” And so he lifts himself to his feet, ever so slowly and carefully, and he starts hobbling down the track.
Suddenly, the crowd realizes that Derek isn’t dropping out of the race. He isn’t limping off the track in defeat, but is actually continuing on one leg, in a fiercely determined effort to make it to the finish line. One painful step at a time, each one a little slower and more agonizing than the one before, Derek limps onward, and the crowd begins to cheer for him. The fans rise to their feet and their cries grow louder and louder, building into a thundering roar.
At that moment, Jim Redmond reaches the bottom of the stands, vaults over the railing, dodges a security guard, and runs out to his son — with two security people running after him. “That’s my son out there,” he yells back at his pursuers, “and I’m going to help him.”
Jim reaches his son at the final curve, about 120 meters from the finish line, and wraps his arm around his waist. “I’m here, son,” Jim says gently, hugging his boy. “We’ll finish together.”
Derek puts his arms around his father’s shoulders and sobs. Together, arm in arm, father and son struggle toward the finish line with 65,000 people cheering, clapping and crying. Just a few steps from the end, with the crowd in an absolute frenzy, Jim releases the grip he has on his son so that Derek can cross the finish line by himself.
“I’m the proudest father alive,” Jim Redmond tells the press afterward, with tears in his eyes. “I’m prouder of him than I would have been if he had won the gold medal. It took a lot of guts for him to do what he did.” Together, they kept a promise they had made to finish the race, no matter what. (You can still find it online if you want to see or read about him. Derek is now a motivational speaker.)
We could talk here about God the Father and Son. “I am in the Father and the Father is in me,” said Jesus to His disciples on the night before His crucifixion (John 14:10). They were bound together — bound as tightly as Derek and Jim Redmond — as they approached the finish line at the cross.
But a stronger image emerges. Here are the disciples, who’ve been riding on the back of Jesus for three years. This gravy train, such as it was, was coming to an end. He’s talking about His own death in terms that the disciples don’t clearly understand.
Something is in the wind. But Jesus says to them, as they now begin to feel the tension, that he “will not leave [them] orphaned.” “I am coming to you,” He says, and His coming is in the form of the Holy Spirit or here called in the Greek, the Paraclete, or the Advocate.
The word evokes a juridical drama, especially since Jesus himself is described as a Paraclete in 1 John 2:1. Jesus is our advocate; He stands in court with us, pleading our case.
Here, the Holy Spirit is described as another Advocate. Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit will also stand in for us. The Holy Spirit will strengthen us; keep us on track, because he is the “Spirit of truth.”
So let’s think about this a bit.
The disciples are called to get into the action, to run this race, as it were. But Jesus is there with them. They never could have done it without Him. In their faith run, they’ve never been alone. Jesus has always been there. The very physicality of Jesus has been their source of reassurance. The miracles, the teaching, the leadership. It’s been enough to keep them going.
Now He’s talking of dropping out. The unthinkable is happening. How are they to proceed? Some are no doubt already contacting their fishing buddies to see if there’s an opening in the cannery at Capernaum.
But Jesus says that even after His death He will still be with them. He will still encourage them, plead with them, pray for them, and teach them.
But the nature of His presence will change. “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me,” He says. He will be present to them in the form of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth. They will not run this race alone; they will not have to cross the finish line alone.
We all have been in those circumstances where we sign on to do something as long as we have someone to help us with it. If we have to do it alone, forget it.
This is the key issue here. The disciples signed on because Jesus was team leader. We signed on because we believed that God would be present in our lives, that God was trustworthy, that God was someone we could count on.
Then, things happen that seem to suggest that God is not with us. That Jesus has indeed left us “orphaned”. And when that happens we’re tempted to take a DNF.
It’s a strong image: orphaned. It’s the feeling that your own parents have rejected and abandoned you. Your parents! Or perhaps the parents are no longer present because of a tragedy. You are orphaned! You do not have even your closest blood relatives alive to support and encourage you.
Jesus told His disciples that He would not leave them “orphaned” - without a “parent” present in their lives.
In his book, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural, sociologist Peter Berger tells of a priest working in the slums of a European city. “Why do you do it,” someone asked. He answered, “So that the rumor of God may not disappear completely.”
How are we going to react when the rumor of God is fading? When we pull up with a hamstring and no one is coming out of the stands to help us, to put their arms around us? Are we alone?
No. Not for even an instant.
The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of life. Because I live, promises Jesus to His followers, “you also will live.” The good news is that Christ has conquered the power of sin and death, and the same God who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to our bodies through His Spirit that dwells in us (Romans 8:11). No matter what tragedies come our way, whether they are academic or medical or vocational or emotional, we can hold tight to the promise that Jesus gives us the gift of life — life in this world, and life in the world to come.
“What is your only comfort, in life and in death?” asks the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism, a Protestant teaching tool that was written way back in 1562. (It is online in PDF form if you’re interested.) The answer is as true today as it was almost 500 years ago: “That I belong — body and soul, in life and in death — not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”
We belong to Jesus Christ, and His Spirit gives us life. This is good news for any of us who find ourselves limping toward a finish line.
The Holy Spirit is also the Spirit of love. “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me,” says Jesus to His disciples; “and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” The love between God and Jesus is never limited to a supernatural Father-Son relationship — it spills over into our lives and saturates us with unconditional acceptance and affection and acknowledgment.
Of course, there are strings attached. Jesus does talk about obedience. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” That sounds difficult, demanding, and even daunting. The important thing to keep in mind is that the commandments of Jesus all involve living a life of love. Just a few verses earlier, Jesus says to his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Everything is summed up in this one commandment. When you are feeling defeated, love one another. When the medical test is disturbing, love one another. When a family member faces a layoff, love one another. When there’s a death in the community, love one another. When a friend has been rejected, love one another. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,” says Jesus, “if you have love for one another.”
The Spirit of truth leads us into a life of love, thus comforting us and carrying us through anything life throws at us.
“I’m here,” says Jesus, in every time and place and situation. “We’re not taking a DNF. We’ll finish together!”
Let us pray.
Father God, often times we run the race of life and seemingly pop a hamstring andimmediately feeling like we are alone when it happens. We try to follow You, but instead the hamstring of life is just too painful and we collapse. We give in to a DNF.
Lord God, we ask You to help us know that in good times as well as those popped hamstrings, we are never alone. Your Son made it clear He would not abandon us. When we feel abandoned, it most often is because we have not put our trust in You; it is most often when we haven’t followed Your commandment to love one another.
When we put our trust in You unreservedly – when we love one another regardless of who they are – we will never be alone or feel alone. For You are always with us, whether it be in our family, our friends or even our own hearts. Help us to trust in You more, so that we will never fear the race or the popped hamstring, but that we run the good race, regardless of the outcome, because we know that You are there with us – win or lose. We do not have a DNF in our lives, because You are always there to help us across the finish line. We ask all this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.