Page last updated



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 they’ve 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 baseman’s head. Then another hit into right field bounced off the fielder’s 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 we’re 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 world’s insistence on winning at all costs? We’re encouraged to be winners, to defeat the opponents. Might makes right. Tenacity. Move up the ladder. Overcome. Exert. We still see Nixon’s 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 Gehrig’s 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 doesn’t make people feel good about themselves," he said, "and you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it."

Yet too often we have bought our culture’s values-that we are to win at all costs. And though we all know that we’re 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, we’re 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; it’s not the earth with climatic laws and raw materials. The world, for this writer, isn’t 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 God’s reign. God tells us to resist this chaos, this parallel universe kind of world. Like athletes, we’re called on to confront and conquer the world. But instead of the heavy bats of Sammy Sosa we’re to use our faith to score.

But that’s the rub. It’s not always easy to overcome. How does our faith overcome the world? Maybe we’re 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 God.

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 father’s 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 couldn’t 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 mourner’s benches? Have we become so caught up with issues in theology that we’ve 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 John’s Gospel:

In the world you will face persecution.
But take courage; I have conquered the world!"

Wouldn’t 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, "I’m 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 God’s great vision of Amazing Grace and Justice. In fulfilling God’s 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 robes."

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 God’s love for us and the world. Sweet victory! Amen.