Discoveries from Football: The beauty and danger of “Vicarious”
What was the most watched television event of all time? That would be two days ago when those of us who call Seattle home cheered until we had no voices or adrenaline left in our bodies as our beloved Seahawks kept scoring, over and over again in the quintessential cultural expression of all that is America, the Super Bowl. Because the possibilities of championships are so rare in Seattle, when we have a chance, the whole city jumps on board. Friends who joined us in watching at halftime were traveling south from the Canadian border during the first part of the game and said the streets were empty. The church I lead is diverse enough that there are plenty of non-fans, for a whom an afternoon of watching big guys beat up on each other would never normally be part of their Sunday routine. But this Sunday was different. I don’t know anyone who lives in or near Seattle who didn’t watch. The number 12 was plastered on cars, houses, buildings, shirts, dogs, faces – everywhere. Churches cancelled (or moved) services, to accommodate. Stores closed. It was like soccer in South America. Everyone was saying “I’m in.” The experience of an entire community setting aside their political,worldview, doctrinal, and economic differences for a concentrated afternoon of battle was more than enjoyable; it was uplifting.
At a different level, the whole things also seems a bit odd. Spectator sports are so entrenched in culture that we rarely stop to examine them but the reality is that we invest our time and emotions in identifying with a team so much that their victory and defeat becomes ours, in spite of the fact that it’s the ones on the field who are battling, risking, and have invested all their lives in the craft, not us. We watch movies, listen to symphonies, go to plays and concerts, and in every case celebrate the excellence of those who have developed their craft. But sport is different because not only do we marvel at the talent on the field, we identify with it. Their victory is ours, so much so that there’s dancing in the streets. Trees are climbed. Flags are flown. Sofas are set on fire. Everyone, the whole city: victors! This, in spite of the fact that we’ve done nothing but watch.
This, of course, happens every single Sunday of the year, even without football, in buildings around the world, where people gather for worship, which is the ultimate vicarious celebration. We, all of us, have a real stake in the cosmic battle fought by Christ, because in this battle the future of the cosmos hangs in the balance. Like football, all we can do is cheer, and hope, and celebrate when the right team wins. Every Sunday is intended to be a celebration of sorts, a reminder of the work done by Christ “for us” as is said here and here. It’s vicarious, which means that someone else did something and we, in some measure participate in the outcome without participating in the battle. It’s even better than football because the trophy is not vicariously ours because we bought a t-shirt or shouted our lungs out. The trophy, the fruit of victory is ours actually, changing our lives in both time and eternity. I’m the recipient of incredible gifts, precisely because Christ went into the arena, fought the battle, and won, bringing the trophy home for team humanity. There are Broncos and Seahawks who gathered and prayed together this past Sunday on the field after the game because they know that this is the greater victory!
Vicarious, though, is a dangerous concept when applied wholesale to our faith. The guiding preposition of Romans 5 is the word “for”, with Christ dying for us, winning the victory for us, coming to earth for us. In that chapter we’re in the stands, and when the trophy is won, we’re invited down on the field to share in the fruit of it. But now, having been invited down on the field, we’re stunned to discover that we’re told to report to practice on Tuesday, that though the meta-victory of history has been won, there’s more to be done. We’re no longer spectators. We’re team members. In Romans 6, the governing participle is “with”, and it’s there we discover that Christ died “for” us so that we might die “with” him, now living our lives as teams members, following his lead as we seek to play our role, not in the stands, but on the field.
Lots of worship songs are about Romans 5, and “for”, and how awesome it was, and is, that Christ fought for us and won. Less is said, and sung, about the reality that we’re now on the field. Less is said about “with” as it appears in Romans 6 (with our invitation to die with him), or Philippians 3, where we’re told that it’s Paul’s deepest desire to share in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings “with” him, so that he might also fully share in the power of his resurrection life.
Paul understood that he was sitting in the stands at the beginning of the game, eating chips and hot wings, while cheering for what Christ did. But there’s that point in the story where God tells Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, Esther Peter, Mary, James, Paul to get off the sofa, tells them that what he really did was earn them the right to join the game. That, of course, requires sacrifice, and self denial, and self discipline. Far easy to sit and cheer, and then just buy the t-shirt.
Football has been a gift to Seattle this past season. The vicarious victories have been pure joy, bringing us together and elevating our collective psyche. But they’ve done more, actually, at least for some. They’ve inspired us to get off the sofa and live more fully. As my youngest daughter wrote after the game: Thanks to the Seahawks for being amazing…may you inspire a similar insane passion for all things this city loves. Inspire: ‘to breathe in’. Yes. A life is breathed into us through the heroics of others, not so we could keep sitting, but so we might get up and join the game – creating, improving, resolving, healing, serving, building, writing, sculpting clay and sculpting lives.
It’s time to join the game.