The Scottish sprinter Eric Liddell was favored to win the 100 Meter at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. He decided not to compete in the event. The qualifying heat fell on a Sunday. For him, honoring the Sabbath precluded work of any kind, including running in a track meet.
If you’ve seen the old film “Chariots of Fire,” you know that Liddell ended up bringing home a Gold Medal. The qualifying heat for the 400 took place on a weekday. So he switched to that event and won in the final.
By contrast, playing sports on a Sunday is common in 2022. Young Christian athletes—chauffeured by their devoted, increasingly exhausted parents—travel miles and miles to softball, lacrosse, soccer, and baseball tournaments that last for an entire weekend. Week after week.
Since I’m a bishop you might be expecting me to urge you to follow Liddell’s example and skip Sunday sports and go to church. But that’s not what I’ve got in mind here. Instead, I see in Liddell’s decision a reminder for all of us about what it means to follow Jesus.
As Bonhoeffer famously put it, discipleship has a cost. We have to let some things go when we follow Jesus. And as it turns out, letting go is for our own good.
Being a disciple is more than being a rule follower. It’s about being defined by a relationship. By our relationship with the risen Christ. I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think that Liddell’s decision to forgo the 100 was driven by a commitment to a principle: don’t work on Sunday. He was committed to a person.
Liddell’s real challenge was one that we all face at one time or another. What do I really base my life on? To what am I ultimately committed?
For Christians, our ultimate commitment is to Jesus. So, we ask: Is there anything in my life that competes with my commitment to Jesus? Even and especially good things? If so, can I let that go?
That’s what Jesus is getting at with this shocking statement:
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
Jesus was a devout Jew. He would never have forsaken the commandment to honor his parents. And the Prince of Peace is hardly going to advocate bearing a grudge and harboring ill will toward anybody. He even told us to love our enemy.
However, he was clear that we tend to make good things into ultimate things. Family is a good thing. But it is not the ultimate thing. And if we ask our spouse or our children to be our ultimate thing, we place an unbearable burden upon them.
Here’s the thing. I love my wife. But she’s not going to save me. Especially not from myself. My sons and my daughter mean the world to me. And yet if I were to tie my sense of self-worth to their achievements and success, I would spiritually suffocate them.
People let people down because, well, we’re people. That’s why Jesus talks incessantly about forgiveness and reconciliation. That’s what love for imperfect people looks like. And there are only imperfect people.
An ultimate thing is the ultimate thing precisely because it will never let you down. It makes life worth living no matter what. No human can do that for us. Being a disciple means letting our relationship with Jesus be the ultimate thing. And when we do that, we can really love people as people.
Jesus also warns us about staking our lives on power, status, and wealth. Having some influence, being acknowledged for our achievements, and enjoying financial security are good things. But they are not ultimate things. That’s why Jesus says, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Luke 14:33)
To put it simply, none of this stuff will love you back. And if you love stuff above all else you’ll never really know what it’s like to love another person. Everybody will be just a means to getting and keeping stuff. To genuinely enjoy the things of this world we cannot treat them as our ultimate thing. We have to let them go for our own good.
After the Olympics, Liddell went to serve as a missionary in China. When the Japanese army invaded he was captured and put in a prison camp for civilians. He died there in 1945.
Survivors of the camp reported that he was a powerful, sustaining spiritual presence in their midst. His death left a terrible hole in the surviving community.
During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese Government claimed that Liddell had been offered release in a prisoner exchange. According to them, he declined the offer and gave his place to another prisoner: a pregnant woman. Soon afterward he died.
The account of the exchange remains disputed. But this much is certainly true. Liddell had already defined his life with Christ as the ultimate thing. He was ready to give even his life away to be Jesus’s disciple. Weakened by a brain tumor, he struggled to say the word “surrender” with his last breath.
You can check out my latest book Looking for God in Messy Places here. These days I’m working on a book about discipleship. To contact me about speaking at your event, leading a retreat, or touching base with your book group via Zoom or in-person, click here.