March 18, 2012

“Beyond the Tebow”

John 3:14-21

I was tempted to wear this rainbow colored wig while reading the gospel lesson.  For those of you of my generation and older, you may remember that for a time there was a person, or persons, who would show up in the stands behind the goal posts or behind the basket, wearing such a wig and holding a large sign that simply read: John 3:16.

This verse is popular for good reason.  It is even good to have on a sign, because it is a distillation of the Gospel.  It speaks of who this person Jesus is, why he came into the world, and what he accomplished.  It is a good evangelistic tool.

But like all snippets of scripture the question arises, “then what?”

This past year has been exciting for sports fans who also happen to care about Christianity.  The media dutifully followed Tim Tebow, the praying quarterback, and it spurred a lot of conversation about the role of faith in the sports arena.   In a resurrection of sorts, this verse, John 3:16, appeared on the black cheek patches Tebow sported during the 2009 BCS Championship Game.  Internet sources say that 92 million people searched for that scripture reference on Google in the hours after the game.  Since then, young people have taken up Tebow’s prayerful pose.  It is called ‘Tebowing,’  it is a verb, as in something like ‘planking’ or ‘owling’ before it.  It is getting down on a knee and praying (or look like you are praying) in the midst of other people doing very different things.

Jeremy Lin, a point guard for the New York Knicks, has helped draw Tebow-like hype to basketball.  Lin is part of a close knit Christian fellowship in New York City.  After a Knicks win in February Lin told a reporter for the San Jose Mercury “I’m thinking about…how can I trust God more?  How can I surrender more?  How can I bring God more glory…it’s a fight.  But it’s one I’m going to keep fighting.  I have not seen Lin engage in any prayerful posturing, but like Tebow, he is not afraid to make his faith part of his everyday life.

As you can imagine, if several million people needed to look up John 3:16, there is a large segment of the population that does not understand this behavior.   Naturally, part of the discussion has focused on whether or not Christian athletes should engage in this attention grabbing behavior.

I, for one, don’t really care one way or another.   See what I wonder about is how these athletes represent off camera.  That’s another term from the Urban Dictionary.  “Represent,” verb.  Go and be a good example to the others of your group or in your position.

Dad: Your Mom wants you to square up this joint, yo.
Kid: So you want me to clean my room?
Dad: Dat would be da hizzy.
Kid: O.K.
Dad: Represent.

This term gets to the point, or consequence of John 3:16.  And we do not need to look to sports athletes or to contemporary jargon for the impetus to do this.  As I read this pericope for today, it  is there, staring us in the face: “3:21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”


Tebow’s team winning six games in a row, or Lin scoring 109 points in his first four games do not necessarily illuminate the gospel.  Nor does striking a prayerful pose or even reflecting faithfully to a visiting reporter reveal any particular faith; Shakespeare was right when he said that “even the devil can quote scripture for his purposes.”

What would be illuminating to me is to see what Tebow and Lin do with their multi-million dollar contracts.  What would be illuminating to me would be to see that both players are somehow able to retain their humility, to be able to resist the temptations of popularity that lead to treating other,  mere mortals, as less than the people we are…for if  John 3:16 is correct, then whether we are pointing to the sky after a touchdown or cursing after a failure, we are all on the same team.

Too often, the famous John 3:16 is lifted up (in the end zones at football games, for example) as if it were the magical snake in the wilderness, as if reciting this magical formula would change anyone’s mind or behavior.

What the gospel has in mind, though, is that people live authentically human lives as a banner for new life to gather around, and the gospel points to the life of Jesus as being the touchstone of that authentic humanity. It takes more than the ability to recite a catchy line – even a scriptural one – to lift that banner. It takes embracing a life-giving way of life. It means turning and walking away from life-diminishing activity to life-affirming activity. It means living honestly enough that you have nothing to hide.

Disciples raise the banner by doing the things Jesus did:  Praying, Worshiping, Sharing this meal around the Eucharistic table, lifting up the poor and powerless and the sick.  During the season of lent, we disciples strive to do this, in and for a world that God loves.  What this bread and this cup offers is beyond the simple formula of John 3:16, it actually powers us for John 3:21; an authentic encounter with the Mysterious, Loving, and Gracious Presence that we call God — and powers us forward in concrete steps, transforming our life to follow the way of Jesus.