In my last post, I wrote about how Christians should engage with the Olympic games. Since then, I’ve been pleased to see a number of Olympians give glory to God for their achievements. Perhaps the most notable of these athletes is Gabby Douglas who won gold in the women’s gymnastics all-round competition. Gabby’s winning smile and outspoken Christian witness have catapulted her to Tim-Tebow-like status among Christian sports fans. (Watch this video of Gabby’s pre-Olympics interview with her pastor.) Though sports reporters often seem at a loss for how to deal with athletes’ Christ-honoring statements, Christian viewers are encouraged and think of these athletes as heroes of the faith. We think it’s right and proper to give God glory and praise for success in the world.
It’s interesting to compare our thankfulness for successful people who honor Christ with the attitudes of the early church. For the most part, the bishops of the early church counseled their congregations to avoid athletic competitions, both as participants and spectators. What’s more, the early church was often suspicious of worldly success in all its forms. Instead, bishops around the Mediterranean offered the martyrs as heroes of the faith to their congregations. Instead of worldly success, the early church lauded the worldly defeat of the martyrs, a defeat which brought about spiritual victory.
Though seemingly opposite, these two versions of the Christian hero have something important in common. Both versions value the spectacular. When Christian athletes demonstrate unbelievable strength and speed and then give glory to God, well, it’s worth watching. But it is equally compelling when Christians who suffer for their faith continue to glorify God. The church is encouraged through both events. However, it is important to remember that the Spirit’s gift is even greater than this. Christians can give glory to God in the good, the bad, and the day-to-day.
In one of his sermons on the martyrs, Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, told his congregation, “Trials do not cease; fight them, and your crown is ready.” He goes on to explain that these trials are the day-to-day temptations of the world. Little stuff. With words that probably surprised his congregation, Augustine said, “Don’t count yourself as not being a martyr. Your feast day is not indeed in the calendar, but your crown is ready waiting for you.” According to Augustine, every Christian is a hero of the faith. The gospel is the great equalizer. No matter how spectacular your victory or how spectacular your sacrifice, neither is in the same category as the victory and sacrifice of Christ.