I am using this space to share the text of a recent talk I gave at the Wheaton College football chapel. I tailored the idea to them but I think you can find the value in your context as well. Enjoy.
You have a unique opportunity, as Wheaton Thunder football players, to understand scripture in a way that others do not.
We each individually have that opportunity. Your life experiences differ from mine. I grew up without a father. My dad died when I was an infant. I struggled to understand the verses that referred to God as a father. I had no idea what that was. I needed people with great dad’s to help me get it.
The story of your life, the good and the bad, the up and the down is the story God is telling you and telling the world through you. He has revealed himself to you in ways that he has not to me. That’s why we need to share our lives, our experiences, our revelations of scripture to help each other grow and understand God. Thus we become one body.
Which is the passage that you have a unique opportunity to understand: 1 Corinthians 12
As a Wheaton Thunder football player you have a great opportunity to learn what it means to be the body of Christ.
It’s still early in the season, so you probably aren’t too beat up yet. As the season wears on some of you will be injured. All of you will be nicked up by the time playoffs arrive. You all know what it’s like to be less than 100%.
I spent a lot of time in the training room. By the end of my senior year, if I had not been taped together, I might have fallen apart on the field. I dislocated a shoulder, tore the rotator cuff in the other and I had chronic turf toe.
One part suffers, the whole body suffers. Every athlete gets that.
As a football player you get this on another level. When Paul talks about all parts being needed, the diversity of the body being what makes it work so well. Hands need feet. Eyes need ears. Nose tackles need corners. Quarterbacks need guards. Starters need scout teams. And everyone needs the kickers.
Next man up is a way of life for football players. Someone gets injured, someone else has to step in. There is immediate drop off but as you work together, you grow stronger. The team, the body pulls together. Then that player brings his strengths to improve the whole.
I made the starting lineup because more talented players were injured.
I was usually the smallest guy on the field. That is okay if you’re the fastest. I wasn’t. I had to stand out some other way, find a competitive edge where I could. I became the most clever guy on the field. I disguised my alignment to get defensive players out of position all the time.
I even got an outside linebacker, to chase me thirty yards down field on a streak during a running play. I came up to the line, told him I was about embarrass him so bad the coach would humiliate him in films on Monday after I burned him deep for a touchdown. If he had paid attention to the films he would have known that I wasn’t the deep threat.
Scout teams. When Paul writes about one part saying it is not part of a body because it is not a different part, that applies to you. You are as much a part of this team as the starters. And to the starters, the part about saying you don’t need another part, that refers to the scout team as well. They get little glory and they work their tails off. If not for them, you would not be half of what you are. You succeed because they make you.
As a freshman, football was very disappointing for me. At my high school I was a football god. I was the whole offense. Here, I was just another running back. I was actually 7th on the depth chart. Getting beat up all week in practice and then not dressing for the game demoralized me. I wanted to quit.
Another running back on the scout team, talked me out of it. I stuck around. I am very grateful to this day that I did.
I was part of a body. I am part of body.
Early on, the team didn’t matter much to me, certain players did, but the team as a whole did not. It took all four years of being here for that to click for me. Being connected to a body finally made sense.
That’s the next, deeper layer of this passage that you as a Wheaton Thunder football player have the unique opportunity to understand. Being part of a body, the body of Christ. Take advantage of that. The people in this room, the people in the locker room are an amazing gift from God to you. Bonds are forming between you that will last your lifetime and that will matter your whole life.
As the first one to arrive for the first team meeting my freshman year, I took a seat in the back. Next guy to enter walked straight up to me. “You must be a freshman too,” he said. “You look as scared as I feel. Can I sit by you?” I shrugged. Best noncommittal decision of my life. He’s still one of my best friends thirty years later.
On the first day of my television announcing class, the professor told us to partner up to prepare our material. I decided on a pretty girl for my partner. Before I could approach her, our starting defensive tackle grabbed my arm. “We’re both football players,” he said. It never occurred to me that would ever be a criteria for teaming up. I still wasn’t close to most of my teammates, especially the ones that beat me up in practice on a regular basis. AND… Pretty girls! But to him, it was the only criteria.
One team, one body.
My freshman year, as we played Milikin, I watched them run all over us. I decided to do something about that. As the scout team running back, I decided to push my teammates to make the defense better at stopping the run. I refused let the first tackler take me down. At the bottom of the pile I heard lots of threats. I needed to stop making this harder than it had to be or I would end up with a broken leg.
I bore no love to those guys. I avoided them in the dining hall. I wanted nothing to do with them. They were jerks. Then one day I heard someone mocking one of those linebackers. I got up in his face, ready to fight him. How dare he mock my teammate? He may have been a jerk, but he was my jerk and nobody could mess with him when I was around.
Back then, Dr. Root was still known as Roothog and he served as our running back coach. He insisted that we grew closer to Jesus by serving each other. To that purpose he had the running backs clean the mud off our teammates shoes by scraping them with a tongue depressor.
Kneeling in front of someone and scraping mud off their shoes is humiliating. It is harder when the person you are serving is the person who just offered to break your leg a few days before.
One game we got so far ahead that I actually made it into the game. When I came to the sideline, I was grabbed by both armpits, lifted off the ground and dragged to the bench. Our starting running back and one of the starting receivers had plopped me down so they could clean my shoes.
I learned that day that sometimes being served is more humbling than serving.
After that game, in the locker room, I was cornered by one of the starting linebackers that threatened me everyday in practice. He apologize for being a jerk to me. The value I provided to him and the team finally made sense. He thanked me for pushing him, making him stronger.
One body, one team.
As a senior, I lined up at the end of the last day of practice so the team could say goodbye. A freshman whose locker was near mine, thanked me for something I had done at the beginning of the year. I hadn’t remembered it until he mentioned it, but it was one of the most important moments of his season. During orientation week, a group of us seniors decided to crash the ice cream social for the freshmen. Free ice cream, and maybe there were some really cute new girls. I suddenly became aware that Joe was sitting near us but outside the conversation. I asked him to join us. He did. Simple thing. Small thing to me. Huge to him.
It’s easy for us to picture ourselves incarnating Christ when we serve. And with good reason. Scripture teems with calls to help those in need, those with less. We express our role as God’s image when we dispense mercy, hope and love. We become the body of Christ doing the work of God.
But let’s turn this on it’s head. You also incarnate Christ when you are being served. Didn’t Jesus tell us that any time we care for those in need, we are doing it to him as much as we are to the person we served? If we are made in God’s image, are we any less so when we need help as opposed to when we can give help?
Every time you pick a teammate off the ground, you are reminding them of who Jesus is. Every time you are picked up from the ground, you remind your teammate of who Jesus is. Because of this, everything you do, is an act of becoming Christ, revealing Christ, incarnating Christ to each other. Ecclesiastes tells us that a cord of three strands is not easily broken. These moments of bringing Jesus into your everyday helps bond relationships more powerfully than you can imagine.
I told you about how deep my lifelong friendships are with my teammates. It will be the same for you. These guys in this room are the guys you are going to ask to stand up in your wedding. You’re going to call out to them when things are awesome: you got the job, you finished your degree, you got the book contract, you’re having a baby, you got promoted.
They’re also the ones you reach out to when things go bad. You lost your job, you got rejected by the publisher, you didn’t get into the grad program, you had a miscarriage, you’re marriage is on the rocks, your mother died, the diagnosis is scary, your kid attempted suicide. These are likely to be the guys to carry your coffin or you to carry theirs.
The bond you build now, the trust you build now is something you will rely on your whole life.
That’s great for the future. But what does that mean for you tomorrow when you face Kalamazoo?
One of coach’s old sayings was that character is what you do when no one is watching. My corollary to that is that your character is exposed when things go wrong.
I’ve seen your character exposed.
I watched your last game last year, the playoff loss to Whitewater. I saw something there that should strike terror in any opponent who watches the film of that game. I saw a team that never gave up. I saw a team that continued to fight more fiercely as hope faded. I saw a team pull together in extremely trying conditions. I saw a team that bonded in the fire of defeat. You sweated together, you bled together. You fought together. You lost together. You wept together. Key concept here? Together.
When I studied in England, I got to watch the Oxford Bulldogs, an American football club, play a game. Coverage fell apart on one play and they were at each others throats. They never recovered from that. They completely dissolved. There was no together.
But you have mastered together already. And that means Kalamazoo is in a world of hurt. Tomorrow on that field, that guy in front of you, beside you, behind you is your brother. That guy that comes onto the field as you go off is your brother. You are all the body of Christ.
One body. One Team.
My call to you tomorrow, next week, in November: pull together, build each other up, serve each other, defend each other. Incarnate Christ. Remind each other what Jesus looks like. Be the powerful body you are.
Be a team.