To my mind the early part of July each year brings one of the great sporting events of the year, so I was pleased this year to find myself able to sit down for a couple of afternoons in front of the tele and watch the Tour de France in the Alps. Because the Tour is always great television as it rolls through all that beautiful French countryside, all those sunflowers and vineyards. But in the Alps it’s great drama as well as the top cyclists come into their own and slug it out toe to toe, or pedal to pedal.
But it isn’t just them - as you watch the full day unfold, rather than just the highlights you see how much the teams matter. They protect the top cyclists and do whatever is necessary to make sure their leaders are there at the end. The language can be quite dramatic - if some members of a team set a scorching pace so that other teams can’t attack you’ll hear the commentators speak of them burying themselves for the sake of the team leader. And it’s not a bad analogy when you reflect on what they’re doing. If you’ve ever cycled up any of these Alpine climbs you’ll appreciate that ideally you’d like to be quite fresh at the bottom. What these guys may be doing is working flat out till they’re shattered before they even get to the climb then they’ve still got to get up it in pretty good time so they won’t be eliminated and then they can do it all again the next day. It must indeed feel a bit like being buried at times.
But they’re well paid for it. Not all sacrifices are so well rewarded - as a bit of an aside have you spotted this extraordinary local story this week about the priest being prosecuted for moving bones?
A judge at Worcester Crown Court has just decided there was insufficient evidence for a jury to convict this priest, Father Wojciech Jasinski. He had been charged with illegally removing a corpse from a grave.
This corpse was that of a 14-year-old boy was Witold Orlowski, a Polish boy who escaped from the country during World War II and travelled to Mexico, with his mother Zofia and whilst in Mexico he encountered a sick priest, Jozef Jarzebowski.
Witold prayed to God to take his life rather than that of the priest. He died and Fr Jarzebowski lived, eventually moving to Herefordshire. So Witold became a hero among other members of his faith and is rewarded by being the unwitting focus of a corpse stealing case. Strange world isn’t it? As with the Tour de France, I have a feeling that the highlights are not telling the whole story.
And to get, finally, to the point, that is so often true of the readings we hear in church. Inevitably they’re snippets of much longer stories or arguments. In fact the snippet we heard from Romans 9 was so short that you could almost suspect the lectionary compilers were trying to hide something. And maybe they were. Did you catch the gist of what Paul was saying? It boils down to something like him saying he’d happily be damned himself if God’s chosen people would turn to Christ. He feels so strongly about it he’d sacrifice his own salvation. It’s just a flavour of the argument of three dense chapters, Romans 9 - 11 which perhaps understandably we don’t hear from very often because there Paul is trying to make sense of a question that threatened the core of his theology - why, if Christ was the culmination of God’s promises to his people over the millennia were his people, the Jews, not recognising this? God had made promises to the Patriarchs, the founding fathers of the people if you like, and to his prophets and Paul was convinced that Jesus was the culmination of these thousands of years of God dealing with his people. And yet his people wouldn’t see it. Was it their fault, was it God’s fault, or was Paul just wrong? He fiercely rejects all such thoughts while equally strongly defending God’s faithfulness, and while this may seem to us something of a non-issue nowadays you have to admire his strength of feeling.
Never fear, I’m not about to get into some tortuous and circular theological issue, but rather pick out just one of the things that Paul pointed out as part of God’s promise to his people - translated as worship in the reading we heard, it’s given as service in the king James bible. Sitting here right now wondering what on earth I’m going on about, you may well ask how could anyone get so excited about worship or a church service? I hope you’re not, but it can be easy to regard it as just a routine part of Sunday morning, like a routine service on some mechanical equipment. Paul would have said, perish the thought - it’s part of God’s gift to his people, a chance to engage with him, to get some glimpse of wonders which cannot be spoken or written or fully understood. It’s also something that is part of our unfolding lives, part of the fuller picture and not just an edited highlight.
We may think that professional cyclists “burying” themselves for their team mates are a breed apart. And that the idea of a 14 year-old boy praying that he may be sacrificed for the sake of an ailing priest is almost spooky. But when we turn to Paul and hear him prepared to sacrifice the salvation he so passionately sought for the sake of a theological point we should pause before we move on. Sure, he was striving for effect, but all the things he valued in that short snippet when he reflected on what God’s chosen people had - theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, those are the foundations of the things we now understand as ours - Jesus grew out of all that. Our Christian understanding grew out of all that. The little snippets - the highlights if you like can point us at the fuller picture. Maybe our service this morning will help us to see more clearly how we fit in to God’s world and his love for us.