When Victory is More than Wins and Losses
a sermon based on 1 John 5:1-6
by Rev. Thomas Hall
For baseball aficionados, the Yankees are
blistering hot this season. In the first few weeks of baseball theyve logged an
impressive 19-4 in the win/loss column. The Kansas City Royals are even more impressive
with a 10-0 at home record. On the other side of the standings are the gravity-laden
Detroit Tigers, record-setters in their own sort of way, who at 2-19 have yet to find
their way out of the dugout.
A couple of seasons ago, I went to the stadium to cheer the home team on-the Phillies
play the Padres. At the time they were 11-17 and sinking fast. So, perhaps they could use
a little pastoral counseling. On this day they were impressive-they hammered doubles and
singles, crossed home plate multiple times and by the third inning were up, Phillies 4,
Padres 1. But then at the top of the fifth inning the Padres who had apparently been
feverishly praying since the second inning, struck back. Padres were at bat. The bases
were loaded. Then a short bouncer to the mound. The Phillies pitcher grabbed it barehanded
and threw it to home plate for an easy out. Except he threw the ball over the head of the
catcher who then retrieved it and threw it over the third basemans head. Then
another hit into right field bounced off the fielders glove. The pitcher beaned a
batter, the ump threw the pitcher out, which brought out the Phillies manager who managed
to go three rounds with the ump. Then it was all over. Exit Phillies. Exit manager. And in
the memorable words of an angry fan behind me, it was "Seeeee Ya!"
Wins and losses. Sometimes our team wins, sometimes they lose. And so do we. One day we
look and feel like we have the winning confidence of the New York Yankees at 19-4. The
next day were the manager going out to the mound for the third time. Our lives seem
to follow this syncopated rhythm, this warp and woof, this up and down that rarely can
maintains consistent wins.
Ever notice how our culture closely parallels the sports worlds insistence on
winning at all costs? Were encouraged to be winners, to defeat the opponents. Might
makes right. Tenacity. Move up the ladder. Overcome. Exert. We still see Nixons
famous "V" flashed before the cameras in a victory that will end in humiliating
defeat. We remember the Marines slogan that connects with our human spirits when they tell
us to "be all that you can be." "Be one of the few, one of the proud."
In Tuesdays with Morrie, an old professor knows that his terminal illness-popularly
known as Lou Gehrigs disease-will soon claim his life. One day, Morrie turns to one
of his former students who has come to visit him, "The culture we have doesnt
make people feel good about themselves," he said, "and you have to be strong
enough to say if the culture doesnt work, dont buy it."
Yet too often we have bought our cultures values-that we are to win at all costs.
And though we all know that were supposed to take this advice with a grain of salt,
deep down inside we believe in victory, not defeats. In wins not losses. And we jeer our
teams-even divorce them-if they get too comfortable with losses.
Listen again to our epistle lesson: "And this is the victory that conquers the
world, our faith." The Christian life, were told is to be victorious. More wins
than losses. But instead of the Padres our opponent is, what our writer calls, "the
world." For the writer of our epistle, "the world" is not geographical;
its not the earth with climatic laws and raw materials. The world, for this writer,
isnt even anthropological-people of all nations and times. Nor is the world
cultural-a vast diversity of peoples and their values. World in the writings of our
epistle lesson is a theological word that refers us back to an ordered creation, a cosmos
that through the willful, hurtful actions of human beings has turned to chaos. The world
is a disordered place where injustice, unfaithfulness, pride, lust for power, and the
spirit that animates those who have not discovered Gods reign. God tells us to
resist this chaos, this parallel universe kind of world. Like athletes, were called
on to confront and conquer the world. But instead of the heavy bats of Sammy Sosa
were to use our faith to score.
But thats the rub. Its not always easy to overcome. How does our faith
overcome the world? Maybe were a little like the fellow who fell into a wine vat and
drowned. At the viewing a friend said to the other, "he must have died an extremely
terrible death." To which the other responded, "Oh, not at all; while he was
drowning, he excused himself to go to the rest room three times." We never seem to
pull ourselves from the influence of "the world."
But hear the Good News! God tells us two important things about this business of
winning. First we win by believing in Jesus as the Son of God. Actually, the nuance of
belief here is a continuous action rather than a static one-time event. Belief is a comma,
not a period. A process, not an once and for all experience. Faith in Jesus is a friend
that journeys with us from birth to death. Faith was never meant to be a stranger to whom
we rush during a crisis. We conquer the world by renewing our faith in Jesus the Son of
Recently I was in the archive building at Drew University. I reflected on some of the
pieces of methodistica that were on display-including the actual, though shriveled thumb
of George Whitfield! I touched the chair upon which John Wesley had stood near his
fathers grave when he preached the gospel to 10,000 miners. Still had its original
stain. I viewed the furniture from the era of the old Methodist camp meetings. Propped up
against a wall was an old wooden sign, weathered and worn smooth with large faded letters,
"Holiness Unto the Lord."
Near it was an old wooden bench, ill-shapen and rough; it once sat under a large tent
on a Methodist camp meeting ground in Ohio. I wondered how many thousands of people had
knelt at that bench seeking a renewal from God, asking God to keep them near the Cross.
Then I looked around the room. These old pieces of furniture were sitting in an air
conditioned room, tinted glass, wall-to-wall carpet, on one of the most expensive campuses
in the country. Above this room later in the even I would listen to and participate in
several of the critical issues facing the denomination today.
I couldnt help but wonder at our future. The future of Methodism. Of
Presbyterianism. Of the UCC denomination. What is the future of our sacred Christian
institutions? Have we lost something since those days of holiness unto the Lord and the
mourners benches? Have we become so caught up with issues in theology that
weve lost our center? More than twenty and thirty thousand people once drove,
walked, took trains, and rode horses to "have church" under the trees during the
summer months. Today most of those camp meetings are silent, except for a week or two out
of the year. Faith must be continuous even for a denomination. We must continue the faith,
our faith if we ever hope to conquer the world.
Secondly, our lesson suggests a new way to understand victory. Victory is not measured
by wins or losses, but by adopting an entirely fresh perspective of how we understand what
it means to "conquer the world." When the writer sat down and wrote this little
epistle, he drew heavily on the Gospel of John because he knew that his readers would be
well-acquainted with that gospel. Unfortunately, since we modern Christians are not as
familiar with that gospel, it is easy for us to miss what the writer wants us to remember
what Jesus said about conquering. Jesus said in Johns Gospel:
In the world you will face persecution.
But take courage; I have conquered the world!"
Wouldnt you think it strange that a criminal tied to the electric chair would end
his life by saying something like "I win!" Criminals sometimes gripe about the
injustice of the legal system or protest their innocence or say, "Im sorry for
those I hurt," or even "good bye." But they never say, "I win!"
Jesus is condemned. He is just about to be crucified. It looks like the world has won
again. A shut out. A no-hitter. Another losing season.
Yet Jesus says to his alarmed disciples, "Cheer up, fellows, because I have
conquered the world!" In "the world" Jesus rose above the world-in life and
especially in the way he died. He did not cave into its eroding influences. He refused in
life-and death-to give up Gods great vision of Amazing Grace and Justice. In
fulfilling Gods will he conquered the world. The world did not and will not have the
last word on life or death.
And in the end, the disciples eventually caught on. They caught the Vision and
successfully conquered the world. So did their converts in the book of Revelation.
Constantly, the writer says to Christians facing death at the hands of "the
world:" "To the one who conquers I will give permission to eat from the tree of
life that is in the paradise of God." Or "Whoever conquers will not be harmed by
the second death." Or "If you conquer, you will be clothed with white
You may be behind with two out in the ninth inning. But take heart! Be of good cheer!
Nurture your faith and love one another and draw upon the strength that Christ gives you
each day. Jesus Christ has conquered the powers of death, hell, and the grave. And he
calls us to do the same. In him God calls us to share in his Grand Slam victory over Evil
and the world that moves us beyond the win/loss column to a living or dying that
faithfully reflects Gods love for us and the world. Sweet victory! Amen.