This Summer of Sport we’ve seen the fittest, strongest, fastest people in the world competing in the Olympic games. We cheered on household names like Mo Farrah, Jessica Ennis and Usain Bolt. Then it got even better with the Paralympics. Who would of thought one man’s radical ideas, a doctor treating paraplegics at Stoke Mandeville Hospital some 60 years ago, would become a huge global event with even greater significance than the Olympics itself?
Ellie Simmonds for sports personality of the year? She’d get my vote for sure. What an amazing achievement for an 18 year old with a physical impairment. The Ancient Greeks saw the ideal Olympian as young, clean-shaven and athletic. If you had a beard you were seen as a barbarian! If you were female you were excluded. If you had a disability you were right off the scale. If Aristotle was transported from antiquity to our modern age and watched the Paralympic games he would find the whole concept incomprehensible.
During the late 19th century the notion of the survival of the fittest would lead to abhorrent ideas that people with disabilities should be exterminated, or hidden away from society. Adolf Hitler was an advocate of Social Darwinism. His “final solution” for ridding the world of useless people effectively wiped out 6 million souls (the majority of whom were Jewish) off the face of the planet. The stigma of polio even meant that the US President Franklin Roosevelt’s wheelchair was always hidden from the cameras when he appeared on TV. Even today in many parts of the world, the disabled are hidden away from sight because they are considered a curse on society. Yet this goes against every principle of the Christian faith, which sees all men and women – whatever their age, gender or ability – as made in the image of God.
Ironically we’ve got Hitler to thank for the Paralympics, as Ludwig Guttmann was a Jewish doctor on the run from the Nazis who took refuge in the UK. And millions have watched this man’s vision of world-class handicapped athletes competing in this huge sporting event. You’d have to be very hard-hearted if you haven’t been inspired by the stories of struggle, determination and triumph. Robert preached to us last week reminding us of Moses protesting to God that he wasn’t good enough, or capable enough for God to use him. On his blog Robert says: “To say that Ellie Simmonds is a great swimmer is a bit like saying Geoff Boycott was quite a good cricketer, Pele was a good footballer, or Mohammed Ali was a talented boxer. These three were able bodied of course, whereas Ellie has overcome the restraints her 4′ 7″ frame has imposed. To watch her today winning her final and setting a new World record was truly inspirational, and will I am sure encourage all those in all walks of life, not just sport, to press on, knowing that, despite the inevitable setbacks, their dreams can come true.”
I couldn’t have said it any better. Sunday’s closing ceremony will conclude the first Paralympics ever to be sold out. We’ve been inspired, but we can also learn a lesson or two. Primarily that nothing that life throws at us needs to get in our way to stop us from achieving what we are capable of. Secondly the Paralympics show that everyone is equal. Equality, especially for the marginalized and rejected is the Bible’s message too. Believers are told that: “We are the Body of Christ, in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.”
I know it’s popular but I’ve never watched The Apprentice. I don’t like the way everyone has to outshine each other and anyone who doesn’t measure up is fired. That’s the way of the world I know but thank God the Church isn’t like that! We don’t need degrees or smart suits. We come and belong just as we are. There’s no competition, the only criteria is to follow Jesus Christ. Some may have physical or mental impairments, but everyone has a special place of honour in the church – exclusively as ALL OF US, because of sin, are spiritually handicapped. However everyone who has disability also has ability. Therefore we can’t say to anyone: “We don’t need you”, and “You have no talents.” Rank, achievement, even good works fall away from the love and grace of God. I think it’s worth repeating this familiar story…
A water bearer in India had two large pots, each hung on either end of a pole that he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house, the cracked pot arrived only half full. For a full two years this went on daily. The poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do.
The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and in his compassion he said, ‘As we return to the master’s house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path. The bearer said to the pot, ‘Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you’ve watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house.
The Bible says a great deal about God’s intentions for people with disabilities. We hear this loudly and clearly in our texts from Isaiah and Matthew. Isaiah says we will see God’s glory and majesty as weak hands are strengthened and feeble knees are made firm. This is a sacred promise for those suffering from arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, MS, and any condition that weakens joints and limbs. SIsaiah urges us to look for the coming of the Lord, when “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” (35:5-6).
In response to John’s question Jesus clarifies who He is. Drawing on Isaiah He instructs John’s disciples to report what they have seen. The Messiah is healing the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf and the poor. More than this He’s even bringing the dead back to life. He is restoring the disabled to health and wholeness, destroying the myth that they are being punished for their sins. Metaphorically speaking, it is worth remembering the terms blind, deaf and lame describe sinful people too. A blind person represents the spiritual blindness of people who do not know, or care, where they are going and a deaf person pictures the hard hearts of people who will not listen to God.
The Gospel in some sense is about turning these disabilities into possibilities. The possibility of salvation from sin, death and judgment – restoration – is it’s ultimate message. Jesus was moved with compassion to heal physical blindness and people with withered limbs – but His main concern was to “To preach the good news to the (spiritually) poor; to proclaim freedom for the prisoners (those bound by satan), and the recovery of sight for the (spiritually) blind…” (Luke 4:18-19). When Jesus healed the physically blind man who lay by the pool of Bethesda, He said to him: “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse will happen to you” (John. 5:14). Basically repent and seek eternal salvation for this is more important than being able to see.
Wheelchair-bound physicist Stephen Hawking speaking through his famous computerized voice challenged athletes at the start of the games to “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Be curious.” Are you probing what life’s priorities are? Are you gazing heavenward where at God’s right hand Jesus now stands? Three cheers for the Paralympics but Alleluia! upon Alleluia! for Christ is the Lamb, the joy of all, and through resurrection all of creation will, one day, be brought to perfection praising His name. So let us run with endurance the race God has set before us keeping our eyes upon Jesus on whom our faith depends from start to finish (Heb.12:1-2). So be it. Amen.