NFL, MLB, and the Pax Romana*

1 Cor. 2:1-12; Matt. 5:13-20

Michael Lewis is a sports journalist.  Not too long ago he wrote an article appearing in New York Times Magazine, called “The Changing Room,” in which he compares an N. F. L. locker room to an M. L. B. clubhouse.+

“The first time I walked into an N. F. L. locker room,” he writes, “I was shocked at how little effort went into making me feel as if I didn’t belong.”  He goes on to explain that no one in the locker room tries to make you feel unwelcome for being there.  In fact, he argues, if you pick the biggest, most frightening-looking man in the place and go up to him, he’ll probably do his best to help you out.

Joining players after a Major League Baseball game, on quite the other hand, there is a certain “edginess,” making outsiders feel uncomfortable, even unwelcome.  Indeed, the name chosen for their gathering place itself is exclusive: The Clubhouse.  Either you are a member or you don’t belong.

As I read through this article I was thinking about our theme for the year here at St. Luke’s: radical hospitality.  Which setting do I like better, I asked myself; which scenario seems more hospitable to me?  Why, the football scenario, of course!

Of course I’d want to walk into a room as an outsider and feel instantly welcome.  If I were in Michael Lewis’s shoes, as a sports reporter, I wouldn’t want to walk into some exclusive-feeling clubhouse where people are generally unwilling to help me out, where a feeling of intrusion comes across.  No way!  I’d much rather walk into a scene where people smile and are generally happy that I’ve come to visit, happy to share their experiences with me.  Give me the N. F. L. locker room any day over the M. L. B. clubhouse!

But then I continued to read the article.

“There’s a reason for this,” Mr. Lewis writes: “In a football locker room, there is no question who really belongs.”

And he explains that in Major League Baseball the reporters can actually be the physical match of the players, especially when the reporter is young, or when the reporter was a former M. L. B. player himself.  There is something of an insecurity in the M. L. B. clubhouse.

But in an N. F. L. locker room, there’s no question.  “There’s no doubt about who could beat up whom, if it came to that.”  In other words, there is a clearly defined hierarchy.  “This clarity,” Lewis concludes, “has the effect of putting everyone at ease.”

So, with respect to thinking about radical hospitality, I did a double-take.  The football locker room seemed at first glance to me to be the place I’d want to visit.  But now, if Mr. Lewis’s assessment is correct, I’m thinking, um, maybe not so much.

Don’t get me wrong.  I want to be a part of a church where visitors walk in and feel welcome from the moment they pass through the door, where the members are more than helpful to the visitors.  But I don’t want this to be merely surface behavior.

What happens when visitors come back?  What happens when visitors want to become members?  Michael Lewis could never have been anything other than a reporter in that N. F. L. locker room.  And all the N. F. L. players knew it!  He wasn’t a threat to their established order, their established hierarchy.  I should certainly hope that this inhospitable N. F. L. pecking order wouldn’t happen in churches.

Oh, but it does!

How can I say that?  It comes right out of today’s scripture passages.

In Matthew, we find Jesus preaching what we call the Sermon on the Mount.  He has just finished the beatitudes in which he defines who are the citizens of the Kingdom of God—in contrast to the citizens of the kingdom of Rome.  Jesus is preaching to common Jews in Palestine.  They are poor in spirit, mourning, and meek.  For they are very low on the Roman hierarchical pyramid.  Yet they are also pure in heart, merciful, and peacemakers.  They don’t upset the status quo.

To the Romans, then, who are in charge, much as the N. F. L. players are in charge in their own locker room, all is well.  The world is at peace.

The Roman leaders had a name for their peaceful empire, by the way: pax Romana.  There was peace, yes; but only because the persons lower down on the pyramid felt like an N. F. L. linebacker was looking over their shoulders, watching every single move they made.

Over in Corinth, another region under the umbrella of the pax Romana, there was now a Christian church.  But it had established a pecking order within its own body mimicking the Roman hierarchy.  The wealthy were taking all the communion bread and wine and leaving none for the poor.  Certain members were shown preferential treatment in matters of morality—or immorality—for whatever reason.  And Paul knew it.  So he writes the letter we now know as 1 Corinthians to address this very un-Christian approach to life in community.

Here’s what these passages say—and here is the lesson today for us.

First, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth. . . .  You are the light of the world. . . .  Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The scribes and Pharisees had established a sort of hierarchy of righteousness.  They mimicked the Roman hierarchy in their own, inhospitable way.  This is not the way of true righteousness.  Relationship with Christ is the way of true righteousness, a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.

Second, Paul says, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ.”

The Corinthian church was one body made up of many parts, sure.  But many parts does not mean pyramid.  That type of thinking leads to division, exclusion, class distinction, who can beat up whom, and so on—regardless of how hospitable things might seem to a visitor.

So put these together and here’s our lesson: as we grow in our understanding of radical hospitality, our focus has to be relationship with Christ.  We must make no distinction in our life together between Jew or Greek, male or female, old or young, or whether someone is an N. F. L. linebacker or a reporter.  We are all one in Christ.

Mr. Lewis’s article states that baseball players view the visitor—the reporter—as a threat; whereas football players say the outsider is no threat whatsoever.  (For football players, the reporter has never been baptized into the church of the N. F. L.; nor will he ever be.  Plain and simple!)

Now I’m not here to argue with Mr. Lewis.  Instead I want to point out that neither the N. F. L. locker room nor the M. L. B. clubhouse provides us a good model for hospitality.

St. Luke’s is not a baseball clubhouse, a sanctuary into which we retreat after facing opposition for the week; it is not a place whose peace is disrupted by the slightest disturbance in the equilibrium.

But neither is St. Luke’s a football locker room, a place into which we invite outsiders to view us only as spectators, as if to say we have something awesome; too bad you can’t be a part of it!

Rather, we are in relationship with Christ.  And that relationship means loving others through service.  We are a body characterized by serving God and one another, by putting others’ needs before our own—whether the “others” are members or visitors.

We are all one in Christ.  Let us therefore strive to love Christ through serving one another.  This is radical hospitality.


*               I am grateful to Roger Gench for pointing out “The Changing Room” in connection to the passage from 1 Corinthians.

+               Published Feb. 3, 2008.


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