What would Jesus have made of modern football? Would he have attended matches in his day? Was he a season ticket holder at Nazareth FC? Some Christians argue that football, or any sport, is an expression of the desire to play which God has created in us. These would say that sport should be embraced and encouraged as inherently good. Some even see participation in sport as a mode of worship.
At the other end of the spectrum some Christians point to the corruption of governing bodies, the aggressive and foul-mouthed fans, the on-pitch misdemeanours and off-pitch lasciviousness of high-profile players as reasons to withdraw from sport. As one important article once put it, Can the mind of Christ coexist with the killer instinct? But all this is what football has become: it can’t be in the will of God, can it?
These are the two extremes and it’s pretty obvious that neither can bear scrutiny for long. The reality is more like some mixture of the two. There is no universal agreement amongst Christian thinkers across a range of disciplines on this topic.
So, “to the law and to the testimony” (Isaiah 8:20) ….
The New Testament, since it is given by inspiration, is the best guide. Whatever way Paul, under the Spirit’s guidance, speaks of sport provides the essence of what God would have us know about sport. And so, sport’s highest purpose is – drum roll, please – to teach us about the Christian life. We can say this because that is how Paul uses sport.
The apostle Paul, whom Jesus chose to write the majority of the New Testament, regularly made use of sporting metaphors. He saw something of worth in sport. Let’s briefly consider the key messages in these metaphors.
In Philippians 2:16 Paul suggests that the Christian life is a race to be run, or a fight to be fought. Each of these analogies gives a slightly different lesson, and there are lots of passages which borrow from sport, but I think it’s possible for us to transpose these across to several key features of the Christian life.
Every player is dedicated to making the most of their talent. Every player sacrifices short term pleasure for long term success. Every player willingly exerts themselves. Every player invests their time and emotions. Every player plays to win. Every player thinks about the stakes, and what it will be like to win the biggest prizes in their sport
The ultimate reason we, as Christians, run the race or fight that good fight is to gain the greatest prize. The highest and most-to-be-desired reward is the one for which Paul strove. He said that his patient struggle was in order to ‘win Christ’.
Enjoy the Euros; I certainly will. But as you watch and cheer and (probably) weep, don’t forget that there are lessons that you can apply to your Christian life. This is what the Euros are for.
Sport: what’s the point: join the threads team, Christians In Sport, CVM and SPCK publishers in London on 29 June for a discussion on faith, society and sport. Get your tickets here.