If you walk into five evangelical churches on the average Sunday, probably three of them will be tossing out sports analogies. Playing and winning and being victorious and RUNNING. We see ourselves as standing on the winner’s platform so often, it’s like the cross was originally planted there at Gethsemane. Whether or not Jesus is there is debatable.
Paul uses sports references. 2 Timothy 4 gives us the portrayal of “finishing the race.” 1 Corinthians 9 gives us the gold medal vision: “Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win!” Jesus makes us victors! Run like the wind!
The thing about sports: they require focus. Running, especially. If you’re running against others, the trick is to keep your eye on the finish line, or so I’m told. Looking at the runners around you will slow you down and throw you off course.
But in our life with Christ, we are not running against others. What good would it do? We have no capacity to win. The race is rigged, it’s already over. The winner has been atop a very real hill, nailed to a cross, and has given us his winner’s crown.
That kind of blows up our whole vision of us as some glorious, exceptional athlete in the body of Christ. If you are a spiritual Jesse Owens, you win. If you are a spiritual failure, you also win. The key is Jesus. So if we’re all getting the same reward, just like in the parable of the vineyard workers in Matthew 20, why are we so busy trying to cut out some of the other winners?
It seems that doctrinal issues in churches have been historical firestorms. After the formation of the Church at Pentecost, probably one of the most significant events in the timeline of Christians was the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther took off on his own (and took large parts of Europe with him), principally on the stance that the Bible should speak louder than the Pope. It was justified; many of the practices coming from Rome in those days (such as the selling of indulgences, the church making money from confession) needed to be called into the light and addressed. Paired with the development of the printing press and the distribution of Bibles, it put millions of people in a place where there faith was solidly their own.
The Protestant Reformation swept Europe, a pretty clear indication that people were weary of the abuses. Following that exodus, a few things happened: the Catholics made bold efforts to try and win people back by instituting reforms, establishing new orders (such as the Jesuits) and cleaned up a lot of the problems that Luther and his followers called into question. From that perspective, the Protestant Reformation brought reformation to both protestants and Catholics. Of course, that didn’t bring Protestants back. That division had come to stay.
Since that split, there have been more separations. Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Episcopals… the list goes on, as do the lists within the lists. Enabling people to choose own their faith has tremendous value, and Jesus and Paul would both agree that preaching the gospel is the thing that matters most. Matthew 9:38-41 even seems to indicate that Jesus was okay with people who didn’t really fully understand the gospel working in his name, because performing miracles in his name led to not “speaking evil” (NLT) of him. Sounds like Jesus didn’t even care whether or not you had an established denomination or a movement, but rather whether or not you were on a path that led to him. I don’t imagine official channels would be so kind.
Here’s the rub: we sometimes need to feel like we’re in the “right” camp. I got a mailing at my house a little while ago from a local church, allowing the option to order a poster. Not a movie poster or a motivational saying — I may have actually gone for that — but a poster which showed the history of the worldwide church. This, of course, was to prove the point that their church was the “original,” handed directly to us by Jesus himself. It was very important to these folks that people understand that, while others may be okay, they were there FIRST.
It was a really boring poster. I can’t see any college kid hanging that up in their dorm room.
John Wesley said, “I want the whole Christ for my Savior, the whole Bible for my book, the whole Church for my fellowship and the whole world for my mission field.” What if that became our focus instead of competing with our brethren? What if we stopped being so worried about other churches looking better than us, and actually kept our eyes on Jesus? What if we were able to celebrate with brothers and sisters of other denominations instead of tagging on our cynical diminishing of what they’ve accomplished? What if we saw their victories as ours, because we truly are all on the same team?
We’re all running to win. All of Christ’s church, all of the believers who fall under his banner. We need to run with empty hands, though. When we run with scissors, eager to draw lines and cut ourselves out neatly from the others in the race (which none of us have a claim to winning), we run a greater risk of impaling ourselves than elevating ourselves. What use is there in elevation anyway?