In honor of the end of the college football conference championships, and looking forward to the beginning of the college football championship, and in mourning over the exit of the United States from the round of 16 in the World Cup, may we take a moment to meditate on the curious phenomenon of life as a sports fan? Or, if you live in the rest of the world, where “football” means the beautiful game, welcome to the quarterfinals of this every-four-years extravaganza. The power of sport to shape emotion is astounding.
Some certainly do not enjoy following sports, but the ubiquity of sports fandom is quite impressive. Many may be dreaming of glory, others trying to relive their brief glory days, and still more wishing for the income and lifestyle given by life as a professional athlete. Yet even those reasons do not exhaust the phenomenon. My very brief Little League baseball career – no, Little League was too advanced for my talent level — my very brief church league baseball career was largely defined by the statistic errors per inning. (For those of you who do not follow baseball, there is no such statistic. A terrible team performance might have a few errors in a game.) I was, simply put, bad at the game. So, I was banished to left field, because very few can turn on a pitch at such a young age. The result? My brief church league baseball career became long moments of boredom and brief moments of terror. I was, truly, an atrocious fielder.
Yet I absolutely love watching baseball, especially my home team from childhood, the Atlanta Braves. I can follow a 1-0 game, one in which the rest of you are bored out of your minds, and I love every minute of it. Not because I’m skilled, and honestly, not even because I know the game well enough to spot and admire all the little adjustments, the subtle moves that make the difference between winning and losing, but simply because I love watching that game. And, certainly, if I get to do it in person with a pack of peanuts on a pretty day, all the better. But even on television, I love the experience of rooting for my team.
Here’s what strikes me as interesting about the phenomenon of being a sports fan, and this has to be at least sociologically interesting to you even if you could care less about sports: the strange unity that comes from following a team passionately.
In a sense, being a sports fan is a religion. It bonds strangers, the sudden connection between two strangers from completely different backgrounds who turn out to be Cheeseheads. It drives shared ritual, the Saturday tailgates ubiquitous throughout the Southeast. It sparks literally fanatical behavior, the group of young men ascetically spending hours in the cold with body paint but no shirts. It drives our clothing, our attendance, our expenditures, and our emotions. The life of a sports fan engenders loud celebrations and deep agonies.
Why? The union between a sports fan and his or her team is somewhat mystical. Consider: we didn’t make the play, but “we scored.” We didn’t put in the sweat and tears, the time in the weight room, the hours in the film room, the training, the diet, the work, or the sacrifice, yet when the team wins, we turn and say, “WE won!” Though we actually did not play the game, when we unify ourselves with a sports team as a fan, what is true of the team really does — at least in some senses — become true of us. We really do celebrate or grieve with that team, we really do sacrifice our comfort and our possessions to follow it, and we really do connect with others who do the same. As a sports fan, we become one with our team in ways that demonstrably impact the remainder of our lives.
Perhaps surprisingly, this becomes one of the best analogies for the predominant way that the apostle Paul thinks about our salvation, the concept of union with Christ. Over 160 times in the New Testament, Paul declares that those who have come to faith are “in Christ,” that believers are in our faith unified with Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, that what is true of him becomes true of us.
Paul must have absorbed this idea from Jesus’ first question to him: “Why are you persecuting me?” In Acts 9, having knocked Paul both literally and metaphorically off his feet, Jesus identifies with those who follow him. They are in him, so much so that to persecute them was to persecute Jesus himself. In John 17, as Jesus prayed for his followers, he emphasized abiding in him, being connected deeply and personally, abiding as a branch connected to a vine.
How can this be and what does it mean? Ephesians 5:32 says our union with Christ is a mystery, a profound mystery at that, so perhaps the best that can be done is to describe it, even to describe it by analogy, not perfectly define it. We did not hang on the cross, but Paul declares that we “have been crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20). We did not enter the tomb, yet Paul declares that we have “been buried with him” (Col. 2:12). We did not rise from that tomb, but we are “raised up” and “seated with him in the heavenly places” (Eph. 2:6).
These are current realities for the Christian, spiritual realities, but realities. When we are made “in Christ,” we are definitely and progressively changed, being made more and more into his image:
Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:6–15, ESV)
Further, we look forward to a future reality, in which what is physically true already of Christ will become physically true for us, our resurrection from the dead:
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:20–26, ESV)
Such a reality fundamentally reshapes not just who we are, not just what we expect, but also how we live now. Paul continues in Colossians 3:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:1–17, ESV)
When we are “in Christ,” Jesus’ life becomes our life, transforming every part of ourselves, our hopes and dreams, our thoughts and desires, our behavior and our community. Nothing can remain the same. We are truly no longer our own, but in Christ.
Even further, union with Christ gives us union with each other. Simple transitivity would make the point. Therefore, we often declare in worship, “Because we have peace with God, we also have peace with one another.” Union with Christ gives us union with each other, just like being a sports fan can still transcend so many other socioeconomic and even political divisions. There are, at least in the Washington, D.C. area where I live, fewer and fewer shared rituals that can unite across the social and political divides.
For decades, there was one in particular, only lost because of ill performance on the field. For so many years, what mattered for the mood of the town on fall Mondays was not red or blue, Democrat or Republican. Shared across both was a lightness or sadness based on how the team now known as the Washington Commanders had played on Sunday. Things might well still be so, if only the results on the field had been different for the past two decades, and even today, both red and blue seem to be united in complaint about the mismanagement of the team’s football decisions, even further united in hopes that someday the ownership could either change or finally get it right.
Nor is this a particularly D.C. phenomenon. Throughout the nation, the red and the blue are still united in pulling for the home team. The shared religious (and I use that word advisedly) experience of the Saturday or Sunday in the stadium can overcome, albeit briefly, even the deep political divisions, those that churches used to overcome, but increasingly more cannot.
Nor is this phenomenon limited to American football, as all those whose teams competed in Qatar can attest; the entire nation rallies around the home team, whatever its other divisions. Sports creates community. Union with other fans creates an invisible, but easily manifested bond. One only needs to meet a stranger, search for conversation, light upon following a common sports team, and instantly feel the connection that develops.
Sports creates community, and sports are best enjoyed in community. Watching the game live, in the stadium, is a special experience. The sight lines are worse, of course, but the experience is unique, the power of the twelfth man, a visceral shared experience. And, though even watching a game alone can be a delight, it pales in comparison to watching it with friends. The shared community watching the game together celebrates differently; it cheers differently; it banters differently. You simply cannot high five yourself. (That is called clapping.) Being alone at home with the television has some of the power, but not as much.
And so, we need corporate worship. The “Christian without a church” phenomenon is a poor substitute for the lived experience of a shared community, one rooted together in our shared union with Christ, working that union with Christ out in shared lives, in shared worship, in the rituals of our faith. The Christian on his or her own can still be “in Christ,” but the implications of his or her union with Christ are neglected without the community of the church, the outworking of that unity stunted, the celebration muted.
Sports are, in many places, doing what church has now failed to do — unify our schismatic society. Why are sports managing to create a unity that being “in Christ” does not? If the unity among fans of the Commanders, or the Bulldogs, the Braves, the USMNT or the USWNT or any other team can overcome divisions of all sorts, why cannot Christians, who are bound in Christ? If your child is on the team, or your brother or sister, you root harder than if you are a casual fan. You are unified with the team in an even more profound way. Jesus makes us sons and daughters of God (Rom. 8:14), which makes all believers in Christ brothers and sisters. A recovering of our first love, a renewed recognition that we are “in Christ” might just transform how we treat fellow followers of Jesus when we disagree with each other.
I love a good game. But even the best game, the greatest unity of a wonderful time of the sporting year, pales in comparison to the gift we have before us this Advent, that God entered human history, that he became one of us so that we can be found in him.