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Eric Liddell 100

Jun 27, 2024
Lindsey Sanderson
News | Prayers

22nd June 2024, St. Giles Cathedral. Edinburgh

Texts: Micah 6.6-8; Matthew 5.1-12

Come Holy Spirit, open our ears to hear, our minds to understand, and our hearts to love. May our living reflect your dwelling within us, enabling us to be people of love, joy, hope and peace. Amen.

On 17th December 1925 Eric Liddell wrote a letter to Elsa McKechnie, acknowledging the founding of 14 year old Elsa’s Eric Liddell Club. ‘I do not know what I might be let in for’, he wrote, ‘however there are times when we have to risk a little’ and to receive the adulation of some teenage girls was clearly something Eric considered a risk. Many years later Elsa would recall having heard Eric speak at Morningside Congregational Church, and reflect that it was his sincerity and humility which drew her and her friends to their expression of fandom. Elsa found in Eric a role model. Fast forward almost 60 years and the release of Chariots of Fire introduced me to Eric Liddell. A little younger than Elsa, here for me was someone with whom I could identify – someone who was nurtured in the Congregational Union of Scotland that was nurturing me, and significantly someone whose own commitment to not running on a Sunday, chimed with my experience growing up - that Sunday was a day for church, and family and not friends birthday parties, or the one I did particularly struggle with, school skiing lessons in Glen Shee.  Role models are important for all of us, especially when we see ourselves in others and take inspiration from that.

Today we gather as part the celebrations marking 100 years since Eric Liddell won gold in the 400m at the Paris Olympics. We come together as those who have family connections to Eric, those who have connections through the sporting worlds of athletics and rugby, those who have connections through the faith community of which Eric was a part, the Congregational Union, Scottish Congregational College and the London Missionary Society, and those who are connected though the ongoing work of the Eric Liddell Community. These multiple connections offer different perspectives into his life and legacy, but they are held together in what Elsa McKechnie identified in her Eric Liddell Club as an enthusiastic teenager so many years ago, Eric’s sincerity and humility, which were an embodiment of his Christian faith.

The passages of Scripture we heard a few moments ago were ones which were important to Eric during his years as a missionary in China, particularly in the period following the Japanese invasion of China. They perhaps help us to understand his motivation, and consequently something of why he had such an impact on people in both his native Scotland and amongst those with whom he worked in China, and offer us an invitation to be motivated in similar ways in our life’s journeys, whether or not we regard ourselves as people of faith.  

“What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”.

The scene is akin to a court room drama. In the verses which lead to Micah’s well known rhetorical question, God says, “I have something I need to bring to your attention, a controversy I need to voice, so listen. What exactly have I done wrong? I am constantly saving you so that you will always remember my righteous deeds.” God does not accuse the ancient people of any explicitly wrongdoing; instead, God delivers a self-defence speech.

Then it is time for the people to respond to God’s complaint. But they have nothing to say in light of God’s powerful and reassuring words except to ask questions. They inquire about proper offerings that might be fitting as a response to God’s saving actions, in a series of rhetorical questions. The central issue with all the questions concerns the gift, the sacrifice;

What is it, O God, that you want from us? What do you require? Just tell us your favourite offering, and we will surely sacrifice it — even if it is a rather extreme request.

The last verse of this passage — the one most familiar to us — turns the questions away from their focus on the types of offerings and toward a focus on the type of person.

God does not want a specific type of offering. God wants a specific type of person.

The passage culminates with an answer. It may not be the answer the people expect. In fact, it is not the answer they seek. They have focused on offerings — small and large. They have emphasized sacrificial worship to the exclusion of justice and kindness. But God’s concern here is to point out that God requires more than sacrifice when entering God’s presence.

God clarifies what is good.

To do justice. To love kindness. To walk humbly with your God.

Now that the clarification has been given to us, the more difficult task is to live into these requirements as God’s people, for justice is perhaps not our default operating system, humility is not second nature and loving kindness is a tall order to fulfil each and every day.

For Eric, living into these requirements meant surrendering himself to God, giving all of himself, including his athletic ability to God. He encouraged people to embrace the fact that the Kingdom of Heaven was within them and that this was where the power of faith came from and also the power to run a race. Ian Charleston who played Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire recalls that while filming he suddenly realised the impact of Eric’s unusual running style with head flung back, ‘he must have run with his head up and literally trusted to get there. He ran with faith. He didn’t even look where he was going. ..he just let go, completely relaxed.’ Complete and willing surrender to the demands of faith and the discernment of God’s will on and off the running track. Eric found this discernment through prayer. Eric’s wife Florence recalled, ‘He believed in praying…I think that was the secret of his life. He would think through the whole day and what he had to do, and that was where he would get the strength to do it.’  

Walk humbly with God. Love kindness. Do justice.

The second passage we heard was Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes, a passage Eric often preached about during his time in the internment camp. These words of blessing were for Eric the way in which he believed love could be translated into living. The Beatitudes are not just blessings but a call to action.

Here is a reworking of these blessings written by Brian McLaren and Rob Bell which may help us to place this ancient framework for living into a more contemporary form.

The poor, and those in solidarity with them – God is on your side.

Those who mourn and feel grief about the state of the world – God is on your side.

The non-violent, gentle and humble – God is on your side.

Those who hunger and thirst for the common good –God is on your side.

The merciful and compassionate – God is on your side.

Those characterized by sincerity, kindness and generosity – God is on your side.

Those who work for peace and reconciliation – God is on your side.

Those who keep seeking justice – God is on your side.

Those who stand for justice and truth as the prophets did, who refuse to be quiet even when slandered, misrepresented, threatened, imprisoned or harmed – God is on your side!


The Beatitudes are a call to action. They offer further explanation of Walking humbly with God. Loving kindness. Doing justice;  the surrendering of all life to God. The Beatitudes are a call to action to make Jesus present and visible and manifest God’s love in the most difficult of circumstances and this is what those who remember Eric from the Internment camp recall.  A person who was able to speak to anyone in the camp -  school child or business man, who was there to help mend broken hockey sticks for the teenagers, carry water or coal for those who were ill,  who taught science classes, and organised entertainment and who even gave up his unbreakable principle of no Sunday games. Eric had been determined there would be no Sunday hockey but when he discovered that the teenagers had gone ahead and played a match without a referee which had resulted in an absolute rammy, he turned up the following Sunday to referee the match.  The Beatitudes are a call to action for the sake of creating the world God imagines, a world of doing justice, lovingkindness and walking humbly with God.  Even within the confines of an internment camp Eric acted to create a community which more fully embodied the Kingdom of heaven in the midst of the trauma and brutality experienced in camp life.

We have gathered today, to remember and give thanks for the life and faith of Eric Liddell, to recall how the values of compassion, integrity and passion highlighted in this legacy year, were values that shaped and moulded his life of discipleship. Many of us will share that same desire to  surrender ourselves to God and see in Eric’s life what we seek to live out in our own – a connection to God in prayer, a life of sincerity and humility using  all of the skills and talents with which we have been blessed to share the love of God just as Eric used his gifts, including his running.  I suspect  he may well have been embarrassed by being the centre of attention today but perhaps if he were here I wonder if he would repeat words spoken at a public welcome home event when he returned to Edinburgh in 1931. ‘We are all missionaries. We carry our religion with us, or we allow our religion to carry us. Wherever we go, we either bring people nearer to Christ, or we repel them from Christ’. Eric’s life was one which attracted people to Christ, and as such he is a role model not just for Elsa McKechnie, or even those of us who share Eric’s heritage as Scottish Congregationalists. He is a role model for all who seek to follow Christ and for this we give thanks to God. Amen.



The Disciplines of the Christian Life Eric Liddell SPCK Publishing 2009

The Flying Scotsman Sally Magnesson Quartet Books 1981


Lindsey Sanderson

Moderator, National Synod of Scotland, The United Reformed Church.