Scripture: 1 Peter 2:2-10
There is a lot we are missing out on right now because of the global pandemic. Even with states like Indiana working back to a degree of normalcy it will likely still be quite some time until some of the aspects of life that we enjoy the most return in a major form. One of these aspects that a lot of people are missing is sports. Right now baseball season should be getting into full swing, the NBA and the NHL should both be in playoffs, and the world should be gearing up for the summer Olympics. A lot of people are missing live sports. In fact for a little over a third of young men in their 20s and 30s, the loss of live sports is what they claim is the worst part of the global pandemic. While I am in that demographic, I am not one of the people most impacted by the loss of live sports. Honestly, I do not have a favorite sports team, in any sport. I generally find watching sports enjoyable but I am typically more interested in watching a close competition and less interested in a particular team winning. I have practically zero investment in the success or failure of any sports team. I have tried, but I just cannot do it. The closest I get is rooting for the US national teams in events like the World Cup or Olympics. Cheering those athletes on make sense, because they represent me. Perhaps that is why I have a hard time rallying behind a specific team, because I do not feel like they are my team. For instance, if I had to name a favorite football team I would say the Colts just because they are the Indiana team. However, they are not my team. I have no ownership or stake in the team. If the players were all from Indiana then I might have some investment, but the players are just professionals who happen to be at the Colts because they are the team that offered them the best contract. As the city of Baltimore knows, it is also not a guarantee the Colts will always be the Indiana team. The thing that creates fan ownership in a team is more or less deciding that this is your team and going all in on it.
Again something about how I am wired keeps me from doing that, and I realize I am missing out. If you are a fanatical fan of some sports team then I am happy for you. Statically speaking you are happy too. A lot of social science studies have been done on the phenomenon of sports fanaticism. These studies show some consistent results. For instance the most rabid sports fans consistently have higher self-esteem, are less likely to be depressed, or experience feelings of loneliness. The studies go into a lot of detail but they can all be summed up simply: rooting for their favorite team makes people feel better about your life. Sports fans get a deep sense of connection and being part of something bigger and better than themselves when they invest themselves in their team. If this is true, then the large appeal of sports across ages and cultures is that it taps into something deep within in the human spirit. I think it is by God’s design that we have a desire to be part of something greater, to be fully invested in something outside ourselves, and to know we belong to something that last. This morning’s scripture is about how our faith fulfills those needs.
Over the past several decades the passion and level of sports fanaticism has been on a steady rise. One of the thoughts about why this is happening is a tribalism theory. This theory also recognizes the desire that people have to belong to something greater than themselves. According to this theory many people historically found this connection through their tribe, their local network of connections with people like them. However, as the world has continually become more global, Western culture particularly has become less tribal. The basis of the theory is people are finding their new tribe in sports. This idea of looking for tribes has a lot of validity, and it goes a long way to shedding light on this morning’s scripture. Peter wrote this letter to Christians living in what is now modern day Turkey. This letter would have been circulated around the cities of that region. Tribalism was alive and strong in the age that this letter was written. The city the person was from or the people they belonged to went a long way to forming the identity of a person. The customs they followed, the languages they knew, the friends they kept and even the religious practices of a person were all dictated by their tribal affiliation. This created a big crisis for those early Christians who converted to follow Jesus. They had to give up the religious practices that helped provide that tribal glue. Christianity cut across ethnic lines, so they found themselves bound in fellowship with people different than them. These early Christians found themselves disposed by the culture they had grown up in, and they had essentially lost part of their identity. There is a good chance that all of you know at least one die hard Cubs fan. Imagine what it would be like for that person if the Cubs disbanded as a team. It would be like losing a large part of themselves, and that is the kind of situation that these young Christians that Peter was writing to found themselves in.
Peter acknowledges that these believers are probably feeling a little out of sorts. In verse four he compared Jesus to a living cornerstone that has been rejected by most people but chosen by God. He states that in the same way they have been rejected but chosen by God to be built into a spiritual house. It is in verse nine and ten though that Peter gets to the heart of his encouragement for isolated feeling believers. Peter wrote, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praise of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people but now you are a people of God, one you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” Can you try to imagine, how profound this message was? The people Peter were writing to felt cut off from a large part of their identity, they were probably being pressured to turn back to their old life, to their old tribe. Then Peter connects the dots for them. They have a tribe, they have a nation because they have been chosen to be a holy nation.
Membership in the Christian nation is not by birthright, but it is by mercy. The message though is even more remarkable than that. Can you imagine how much grief, bullying, and abuse these young Christians had to put up with when they turned to Christ and away from old traditions? Peter reminds them though that the words they have been told are lies. They are not losers or rejects they are God’s chosen people. God chose them to be God’s people. More than that though, God chose them to be a royal priesthood. In the first century, it was only through a priest that someone could connect with the divine. Yet as God’s chosen people they had this connection already. They did not need another priest to intercede for them because their intermediary (and our intermediary) to God the Father is Jesus the son. For those first century Christians that this was written to, it must have been incredible news! They had lost part of their identity, but found a new identity in Christ. They had lost their tribe, but they found a new tribe in the church. The primary investment of their life moved from being where they were from to being where their hope was found.
Today a lot of people have invested a lot of their life into being an enthusiastic sports fan. I have a hard time summoning the emotional energy to be a dedicated sports fan, but being enthusiastic about my faith is something I get. It is something that I am deeply invested in, because how could I not be? I know the depths of sin from which Jesus saved me. As this morning’s scripture states I have tasted that the Lord is good. Because He lives, I have a blessed assurance in an amazing grace that has saved my soul. I cheer that there is victory in Jesus. I celebrate that because he has won the victory I know I have nothing to fear because the Lord is with me. We are God’s special possession, which God cared enough to redeem from darkness, we have received mercy, and we are a holy nation united under King Jesus. Brothers and sisters in Christ that is something to get fired up about!
The question is why don’t we? Why do we tend not to have the same level of excitement and enthusiasm about living out our faith and worshiping our savior as we do about sports teams? I remember back in the mid 2000’s when the Colts were at the height of popularity and success. If the colts played a 1:00 P.M. game, then it was a given that 11:00 A.M. church services were going to be lightly attended. In the same way during those years, if the Colts played at 4:00 P.M., then I knew youth group would only have the handful of non-football watching students. Skipping church for the big game was just expected. Why do we not skip the big game for church? Why is the idea of even doing that laughable?
We should be just as enthusiastic about our faith as we are about which team we want to win a game. Years ago someone pointed out to me a fascinating aspect in American Sign Language. In ASL, this is the sign for Methodist. The fascinating piece is that there is another word in sign language that uses the same sign. The sign for enthusiasm is the same thing. When the etymology of sign language was developing throughout the 19th and early 20th century, there was a clear connection between being a Methodist and being enthusiastic. For all of the reasons already stated, we should be enthusiastic about our faith. So members of the family of God, help me. Let’s reclaim our enthusiasm. When someone serves God sacrificially we should cheer that on as much as a fan cheers on their team getting a home run. When prayers are answered and God work miraculously we should be on our feet just like there was third down conversion touchdown. When we gather to worship God, we should do so with as much as excitement as when the true blue fans have when their team takes the field. May we be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, and may we be so enthusiastically.
We can reclaim the same level of devotion that many feel for sports teams in our faith, but there is a dark side to fandom. When researchers want to do studies on hatred, they use die hard sports fans and ask them about their feelings on rival teams. You can do this experiment yourself. Find a Cubs fans and start talking about how great the St. Louis Cardinals are. Watch how fast they get red with indignation. I know for me, the Methodist expression of Christianity is my tribe, but that does not mean I believe the family of God is limited only to those who recognize the cross and the flame. We need to avoid the worst of denominational tribalism and recognize that everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord and Savior is on the same team. I feel fairly confident in saying that there is not a scoreboard in heaven that keeps track of which denomination is winning the most souls. It is silly for churches to view one another as the competition. Until every knee on earth bows and confesses Jesus as Lord and Savior there is plenty of kingdom building to go around. So when another faith community has a win we should rejoice with them. When another faith community succeeds the kingdom of heaven is built up, and we should all find great happiness in that.
This is our team. We are part of a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. We are God’s special possession. May we allow those truths to deeply speak to identity and who we understand ourselves to be. May we realize that as believers and followers of Jesus Christ we are already part of something bigger than ourselves. May we live out our faith with such investment, such passion, and such excitement that it can only be described as enthusiastic. As this morning scripture states may we with all the enthusiasm we can muster “declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”