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Let the Games Begin!

Friday, July 21st the 2020 Olympic Games began. After a year of delay due to the pandemic, the XXXII Olympiad opened with the usual fanfare of a grand Opening Ceremony, except that this year there were no cheering spectators in the stands. While in many ways the Olympics will look different this year due to the rising rate of COVID cases in Japan and around the world, the purpose of the games remains the same. A quick look at the history of the Olympics will remind us of that purpose.
The ancient Olympiad began in 776 BCE as a competition of Greek men representing city-states across the empire from Iberia (Spain) to the Black Sea (Turkey). The participants, that came from every corner of the Greek world, competed for the ultimate prize- the olive wreath and the opportunity to return home as a victorious hero. This competition, that happened every four years, helped to strengthen a union of city-states that was often embattled. The ancient Olympic values of friendship, excellence, respect, courage, determination, inspiration, and equality reminded spectators, competitors, and their home cities that unity held the greatest glory. The rise of the Roman empire eventually moved the games to Rome, and over time the games lost their core values and importance. In 339 CE, after 293 Olympics over more than a millennium, the Roman Emperor Theodosius (a Christian) banned the games as a pagan ritual.
In 1896, the Olympic games were revived by the French Baron Pierre de Coubertin. This idealistic Frenchman had studied the ancient Greek Olympics and believed that the Olympic games could contribute to world peace and international friendship. Since that time, the Olympics have continued every 4 years except for the interruption of the World Wars (1916, 1940, 1944). Each Olympiad becomes a gathering where conflict gives way to competition, friendship is found between enemies, and victory is defined by excellence not destruction. The modern Olympic Oath expresses these goals:
“We promise to take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules and in the spirit of fair play, inclusion, and equality. We stand in solidarity and commit ourselves to sport without doping, without cheating, without any form of discrimination. We do this for the honor of our teams, in respect for the Fundamental Principles of Olympism, and to make the world a better place through sport.”
Each Olympics we watch the world try to rise above its animosity and division to live into the core values of Olympism of Excellence, Respect and Friendship.
I wonder, looking at the history and intended purpose of the Olympics, whether the world ever looks to the Church to see such a witness. Do they expect to see us exemplify the core values of our faith: Love, Forgiveness, Grace? Do they tune in eager to experience how those values are lived out in our communities? Do they hope their children will be influenced by what they see in us? Do they expect that our presence in the community will bring peace and unity between people? Do they see Jesus in us, or do they trip over us on their way to see Jesus?
The Opening Ceremony on Friday night, entitled United by Emotion, expressed the Japanese hope that this Olympics will bring the world together after a year of isolation and division. Having experienced with you the roller coaster that emotion created this past year in our country, I am not so sure that emotion is the most trustworthy instrument of unity. But, scripture teaches us that Jesus is trustworthy. In Him, we can find a unity that transcends our petty rivalries and disagreements. Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Jesus prayed at the Last Supper that we would live into that unity… that we would bear witness to the world of what graceful fellowship looks like.
At the Opening Ceremonies on Friday night, we saw the flags of all the nations paraded into the stadium- a beautiful display of the diversity in the world. At the climax of the program the Olympic flag rose higher than all the rest- calling all the athletes to a greater unity. That moment brought to mind the declaration of Jesus, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people unto me.” (John 12:32) Do you hear the call to lift high the Cross... to shine with the light of His mercy and grace in all we say and do? No flag, even with the legacy of the Olympic rings, has the transformational power to heal human division, but the Savior gave His life to bring healing. May our lives point the world to the One, the only One who rises above all the brokenness to bring peace.
With you watching the world compete as they watch us share His love,
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