The Faith of Football Signs

January 31, 2021

Series: January 2021

Category: Deepening Our Understanding of Familiar Passages

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Today's Scripture


First Reading - Genesis 12:1-3

12Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

Second Reading - John 3:16

16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Today's Sermon


“The Faith of Football Signs”

            In professional football, it’s playoff time, the lead up to the Super Bowl to be exact, the championship game.  Whether or not you’re a football fan, you may remember that years ago it was commonplace during key moments when the camera angle would include the crowd for someone to be holding a sign that read the citation for the passage you just heard, “John 3:16.”  Do you remember this?

            I don’t doubt the earnestness of the sign holders.  Believe in Jesus so you don’t perish and can have eternal life.  I am equally convinced, however, that if that’s their interpretation of the verse, they, and countless other Christians, have gotten it sadly wrong. 

            We get it wrong, or less right, or emphasize the wrong thing in the faith all the time.  Many grow sour on religion because it gets it wrong or centers the wrong things while the true center was relegated to the sidelines.  Maybe it’s an overemphasis on certain rules or ritual while ignoring the gospel Jesus embodied, or an obsession with a particular view of personal piety, a focus on a narrow interpretation of sexual ethics misunderstood by the way, or just the hypocrisy of a judgmental body that claims as Lord and Savior the one who said in no uncertain terms, “Do not judge” (Mt. 7:1).

            I was reflecting on this notion of missing the point around Martin Luther King Day.  I have some regret about not mentioning King in my sermon that Sunday.  True it’s not technically a church holiday, but if there was ever a modern Christian who deserves a Sunday, King would be among them.  I better understood why I took a pass this year when I read a lot of people offering a critique I could not fully articulate, namely about predominately white churches, white groups and individuals, essentially misusing King each year, cherry picking the passages that make us feel warm and hopeful – the dream of children playing together, the vision from the mountain top and the Promised Land.  Now, who wouldn’t want to feel warm and hopeful, particularly during a time that has been so hard?  There’s nothing wrong with those things.

            The problem is the warm and hopeful by our standards is not all there was to King.  What needed to, and what still needs, to be accomplished cannot be accomplished by the warm and reassuring alone.  Mainstream culture has developed an entirely palatable King, when much of what he said was sour to many at the time and would be still today.  He was absolutely in keeping with the prophetic tradition in this manner.  He wasn’t killed because he made people feel warm and hopeful.  He was killed because he questioned how things worked.  He called people in power to account and to change the structures. 

            You might even turn to the way we commemorate MLK Day as an example of how we miss the mark.  We have turned it into a national day of service.  Now, who could argue with a day of service?  It certainly beats a national day of non service.  But, think a little more critically about what a service day is.  Acts of service can lead us to believe that if we just fill in some gaps here and there, sporadically with no real coordination or lasting commitment, the system works fine.  Collecting food certainly feeds people, but it also makes us feel better about what is fundamentally broken.  It has the potential to keep us from asking why people are hungry when others are rolling in wealth.  Good service should lead us to ask critical questions, but much service functions to distract us from such questions, assuaging guilt.  King’s profound act was not in holding a canned food drive for sanitation workers; King organized to advocate for better working conditions and higher pay.  You don’t hear many pastors who look like me quote the passages from King that raised the questions he did about economics and militarism, even though those questions were a significant portion of his message.  We laud his way of nonviolence when it comes to protest, not as much when it comes to war.

            And this brings us back to the signs in the end zones at football games and that seemingly innocuous, charitable even, holding up of signs with “John 3:16” scrawled across them.  “For God so loved the world, that he [God] gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).  Out of what circumstance was this gospel born?  John’s community had been expelled from their worshiping community, largely related to their commitment to Jesus.  There were certain rules or practices that distinguished who was in from who was out.  This line from Jesus’ mouth was an assurance to them that regardless of what any human community says, their trust in Jesus was enough.  They were not addressing a question about those who didn’t already follow Jesus.  It wasn’t on their mind.  It was an assurance of inclusion despite nonconformity, not a threat of exclusion if there is not conformity though that is precisely how it is used today –accept Jesus or perish.  It is so easy to go wrong.

            In this passage, with which we thought we were familiar, the message is of the radical grace of God we see in Jesus.  It defies the transactional way in which we operate – you do this and get that.  No, God is the agent.  God gives freely.  Jesus gives freely, and nobody gets to decide how small the circle is when it comes to eternal life.  Eastern Orthodox scholar and writer David Bentley Hart may be just the latest to offer an eloquent attack on the notion of eternal damnation altogether, something with which so much Christianity seems obsessed.  I commend him to you.  Moved by this otherworldly grace we see in Christ, we are called to extend it into the temporal existence of this life in which too many are damned by structures that are unjust. 

            Today is our annual congregational meeting, a time when it’s natural to think about the point of the church, especially in this day and age.  Do we really need a church?  Many can think of some personal benefits – having gained this or that, but that, again, is worldly transactional thinking.  The church needs to exist, like other sacred gatherings, because left to its own devices society has the tendency to miss the signs or miss their true meaning.  If God so loves the world, so much that God wants the whole world to be saved, which is the next verse by the way (Jn. 3:17), then maybe we should too, and not by trying to get them to become us.  Rather than holding up a sign declaring anything, perhaps we should be holding up signs asking how we can help make it better for those who are truly in need.  That’s an image that should bring you hope and warmth on what is forecast to be a cold and rainy day. 


Quotes, Questions and Prompts for Reflection, Discussion, and Prayer

“As far as I am concerned, anyone who hopes for the universal reconciliation of all creatures with God must already believe that this would be the best possible ending to the Christian story; and such a person has then no excuse for imagining that God could bring any but the best possible ending to pass without thereby being in some sense a failed creator.”-David Bentley Hart

1. When you think of John 3:16, what comes to mind?

2. What if you don’t “believe in him”?  

3. What were you taught Christianity has to say about those who believe differently or don’t believe at all?

4. What do you do with the pieces of our religion that seem exclusive?

5. How can we take our faith seriously in a pluralistic world?