The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

I write this before the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup that will be played this weekend. The final eight teams are: Argentina, Australia, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa, and Wales – four from the northern hemisphere and four from the south. The big upset so far is that the host (England) has already been knocked out in the pool stage. Now it is ‘sudden death’ – win and progress, lose and you’re out. Any team on the day can win the Webb Ellis Cup but yes, there are favourites. On paper, it would be fair to say that New Zealand is favourite. However on performance so far, I know I’m biased, but I think most rugby pundits would give the nod to Australia.

As with most sports, the objective of the game is to score more points than your opponents. In rugby one prefers tries (touchdowns) to goals but of course one will take the points however they come. And while Australia has a scoring team that has been noticed internationally, it was their defence against Wales in last week’s game that has got everyone talking. Rugby is played with 15 men on the team and for about seven minutes in the second half Australia had two players ‘yellow carded’ (sent off the field for 10 minutes because of fouls). Wales were at-tacking and metres away from scoring a try. 15 men against 13 and rugby history will tell you that it is only a matter of time before the attacking team catches the opposition ‘short’ a player and scores. Rugby is a physical sport – very little padding / protection is worn – and to stop players you have to tackle again and again and again. And last week that is what Australia did far beyond the ex-pectation – and memory – of many rugby fans (like me) who after the third and fourth minute was increasingly incredulous at the determination shown by the men in ‘green and gold’. The window of the two men advantage would eventually close – could Wales break through? Again and again they tried. And again and again, Australia held the ball up when Wales had crossed the line. You felt for Wales (ok, a little) and you were stunned at the Australian performance (but with the gut wrenching feeling that Wales would finally get through). They didn’t and Australia eventually won the game. Australian supporters will long remember that moment and I think rugby aficionados will recognise it as a most sterling example of defence.

It isn’t too strange for me to make an allusion to faith and spirituality – this is a ‘blurb’ in a church bulletin after all. (If the Apostle Paul can do it … check out 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 …) The rugby game is life and we’re already on the winning side (because of Jesus and what he has done for us) but there is still a game to be had – a contest – a battle – not with whom we can see (people who rile us or hate us or persecute us or who suffer our bad behaviour) but with what is unseen – rulers, authorities, cosmic powers in this present darkness, spiritual forces of evil (Ephesians 6:12) or as we may have learnt in Confirmation ‘the devil, the world, and our sinful selves’. We live in this world not another; in our bodies, not a fantasy. The ‘game’ is the daily struggle with sin, with weakness, with rationalising God’s grace, with not putting one’s body on the line, with our lack of self control. The foes attack to get us out of the game (because we have already won in Christ) not to make us lose. Yes, we’re still going to sin but it no longer defines us for we seek forgiveness – receive it – and then make amends and try again. This description of Christian discipleship is hard to sell for people who want spirituality-lite or an easy faith but my point would be that if the defining moment of Christianity is Jesus and his cross, why do we think our path isn’t going to be in the shadow of the cross?
The mystery is that it is this life under the cross that also knows wonderful joy, peace, hope, and love!
Play on! — GS