It has always been a bit of a thing in some Christian circles to get someone to come and talk about their conversion. Usually it's better if it's someone famous, and if they were famous and really bad beforehand, even better. It's like we need these amazing heroes, people who we can never match up to.
By faith the people [of Israel] passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
No More Heroes
The writer of this New Testament letter to the Hebrews, who incidently was not St. Paul, although we don’t know who it actually was, does not make faith easy for us. He was originally writing to very early Jewish Christians, and because they were Jews long before they were Christians he uses their own stories, stories from the Old Testament, to give them heroes to emulate. If you read the whole of the chapter he names, amongst others, Abraham, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson and so on and so on. And that, I think, is what makes it difficult for us because I think that actually we have a problem with heroes. In the late 1970's the punk band The Stranglers had a hit with No More Heroes, and that’s illustrates the problem we have. It’s not that we don’t have heroes, it’s just that they don’t stay heroes for very long. You see we live in an information age where it’s very difficult to keep secret the private lives of the famous, and so what we find is that all of our heroes turn out to be deeply flawed women and men. One by one all the people we love and look up to have turned out to be far less perfect than we thought they were. It’s interesting to watch how sponsors swiftly abandon a sporting star when their errant love-lives or some other aspect of where they don’t live up to expectations are spread across the front pages of the tabloid press.
The most recent example of this was Papiss Cisse, the Newcastle footballer who refused to wear a shirt with the name of their sponsor, the payday loan company Wonga, on it because he felt that money lending to make a profit was usury and was condemned by Islam. For a short time he was a hero for Muslims for taking a stand, until pictures emerged of him laying bets in a casino.
No more Heroes...
So instead the writer to the Hebrews gives us all these amazing Biblical heroes of faith who we’re supposed to look up to, but the reality is that actually it weighs us down, because we think, ‘Moses? Abraham? What’s the point of even trying in the face of those amazing people?’
I don’t know about you but I look at some of my peers who are Christians and they seem to be so holy, so together, such faith-filled and faithful people that it’s easy to feel quite inferior. And that’s just thinking about the ordinary Christians who I know, never mind these Biblical superheroes. But we don’t need to feel that way, because actually, far from being superheroes, all these Biblical heroes were also flawed people. Let me tell you the other side to the stories that the writer to the Hebrews tells. Abraham tried to pass off his wife as his sister in order to save his skin. (Actually it was a half-truth, because Sarah was also his half-sister...) Moses outright refused God’s calling on his life in the first instance, and he was also guilty of murdering an Egyptian.
Rahab was a prostitute, Barak was actually led by Deborah - she was the real hero (so why didn't she get a mention?); Samson was capable of inhuman cruelty and clearly had a borderline psychotic personality disorder, and so it goes on.
This same idea about flawed heroes even happens with some of the heroes of the Christian faith from the New Testament. Some people look to St. Paul as a man of resolute faith, yet there are several occasions in scripture when he completely loses his temper with people. We sanitise some of what he wrote in our English translations but in the original language he got pretty ripe with his retorts to those who criticised him.
Or how about St. Peter? He was the one about whom Jesus said, ‘You are Peter the Rock, and on this Rock I will build my church.’ What a great hero of the faith! Yet this was also Peter who went on to publically disown Jesus and lose the courage of his convictions later on when he stopped playing with his non-Jewish Christian friends as soon as some Jewish Christians came along.
Or there’s Mary, Jesus’s mother. Gentle Mary, who some denominations think of as the encapsulation of what a woman should be like, well at least that’s what some of the men think. They forget that in John’s Gospel Mary utterly strong-armed Jesus into his first miracle of changing 180 gallons of water into wine at a wedding reception. A great miracle but when she first suggested he do something Jesus had basically said, ‘Look mother - it’s their problem, not ours.’
Shall I go on? Our church's patron saint, Mary Magdalene was a raving demoniac, Thomas wouldn’t believe anything unless he saw it with his own eyes, James and John wanted to call fire down out from heaven on anyone who disagreed with Jesus and so on and so on.
Every single one of the Biblical heroes apart from Jesus was flawed. And do you know what? It doesn’t matter. Or at least it didn’t matter to their faith that they were imperfect people.
The writer to the Hebrews says, ‘Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that easily distracts us.’ Trying to live up to the lives of heroes is a big weight that I think we should be able to lay down. We look at them and we think, ‘I could never be that good.’ But that’s OK, because neither were they. All of the heroes that you will ever find in the Bible were flawed people who just did the best that they could and simply kept going.
So what I’m trying to say is simply this: There are many reasons why faith can be tough going. There are many reasons why people quit their spiritual journeys. But please don’t let that reason be, ‘I’ve given up because I’m not good enough’. The only biblical hero who was actually good enough was Christ himself.
The whole point of the Christian message is that actually, we’re not good enough, but he is. Being a Christian is more or less a person saying to God, ‘When you look at me God, I want you to see Jesus, not me.’
So how do we get around this? I think we do it by honesty. I think we need to recognise that the people who look like they are really amazing powerful Christians have just the same struggles and inabilities to cope as the rest of us. In other words we need each other, and we need to be honest with each other.
Let us be each other’s heroes because we are ordinary men and women of struggling and faltering faith who are here for each other. May we never desert someone who is struggling. Faith is not for superheroes - it’s for ordinary men and women like us.