Us and Them…and Let’s Go Pens!

 

I am going to start this month’s blog post by making this bold assertion: People thrive in community. Okay, maybe if you think about it, it’s not that bold after all. It’s really just common sense and general observation. People like to have a sense of belonging. It feels a lot better to be in the in-crowd than to be an outcast. Some of us mix a bit more easily in social environments than others, but we naturally tend to gravitate to people with whom we have something in common. Sometimes it can be a similar hobby, like playing an instrument, or a similar activity like playing a sport or going to a concert. Other times it could be a shared interest due to a career, like sharing a workplace environment or being in a similar field. For the most part, these types of interests bring people together and allow for greater enjoyment of them because of the sense of community a person gets when participating in them with others, but there is relatively little animosity towards the people who don’t share the same interest, activity, or career path.

Then, of course, there is hockey. It is no secret that I am a HUGE Pittsburgh Penguins fan. I’m not an “it’s April, so I guess I’ll pay attention to my hometown team in the playoffs” Penguins fan. I’m an “I eat sleep and breath Penguins hockey from the NHL Draft, through free agency, to training camp, through the preseason, all the way through the 82-game regular season, right through the post-game coverage of the last game of the Stanley Cup Final” Penguins fan. If you are a sports fan (and specifically a Pittsburgh sports fan of any kind), you know the sense of kinship you have with the people who love your team like you do. It’s the type of brotherhood that prompts actions such as seeing a complete stranger in passing in the mall or grocery store in their Penguins gear, giving them a knowing nod and smile, or a quick “Let’s go Pens,” only to be met with a big, toothy grin, and a similar retort. Legendary journalist Howard Cosell once said, “When you take on Pittsburgh, you take on the whole city.” This could not be more accurate. 

However, there is somewhat of a downside to being such an avid fan of a particular team. You have to understand, sports teams have rivalries. The Penguins have a particularly bitter rivalry with the Philadelphia Flyers. While this seems harmless enough, it has prompted a pretty severe “us versus them” mentality for me.  It’s bad. It has caused me to have considerable dislike toward anything coming out of Philadelphia, especially the Flyers and their fans. If the Pens don’t win the Stanley Cup in a given year, as long as the Flyers don’t win it, the season was still no a total loss (that means no season has been a total loss for the Pens since 1975). I feel an instant twinge of animosity when I meet people who are potential Philadelphia fans. I even think twice about putting Philadelphia Cream Cheese on my bagels at breakfast (I still do it because it’s delicious, but I kind of hate myself for it). My point is, whether I’m right or wrong in disliking things from Philadelphia, my loyalty to the Penguins has clouded my judgement and has influenced my thought process.

Although having this mentality about sports teams can be fairly harmless (I don’t actually hate people from Philadelphia…that much). If we are not careful, it is easy to carry this “us and them” mentality into other areas of life, and this can be disastrous, especially for Christians. The truth is, at times, Christians have this mentality toward people who are not Christians (or, more specifically, people who are not Christians and don’t act like Christians think they should). While I don’t have the space in this blog to cover the scope of this argument, I’ll try to give you a little food for thought.

This may start out having seemingly little to do with what I just said, but bear with me, I’m going somewhere with this…

Sometimes I am dedicated to reading and studying God’s Word. Sometimes, I don’t read or study the Bible nearly as well as I should in my personal devotional time. But, at times in my life, when I was trying to make a habit of daily Scripture reading, I would often determine ahead of time how many chapters or verses I would read before I closed my Bible and got on with my day. While this sort of pacing can be beneficial in forming a habit, it can sometimes have a negative influence on our understanding of the passage. This can be especially true when reading Paul and company’s letters to various churches and people in the New Testament (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, etc... basically all the NT books between Acts and Revelation).

When the original authors of the Bible wrote it, there were no chapter numbers or verse numbers.  Those were added later as a reference tool. But, if you take the book of Romans, which was Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, for instance, it is very difficult to get a proper understanding of what he is trying to say if you read the first chapter and stop. Since this was a letter he wrote, reading it chapter by chapter would be like getting an email from someone and just reading the first paragraph, stopping, and saving the next paragraph until the next day. Because it is a letter, there may be things in the second part which make the first part clearer or complete the point the writer is making. The same goes with the first and second chapters of Romans. If you would like, take a time-out from the blog and read the first two chapters of Romans (if you want to get the basic gist of what I’m saying, you can skip to Romans 1:18 and read through at least 2:11).

If you just read the first chapter and stop, Paul seems to be illustrating how God will pour out his judgement and justice on all who reject God, and demonstrate that through their lifestyles. Paul does not pull any punches in illustrating exactly what those who reject God are participating in and the consequences of it, but we miss Paul’s point in saying this if we don’t read into the second chapter of Romans. Here he admonishes the people in the church at Rome for doing the very same things that those who reject God are doing. Paul called the Romans out for passing judgement on non-believers and taking a self-righteous stance against them, showing their unrepentant heart toward God. 

Sometimes we as Christians come off as people who only read Romans 1 and not Romans 2. We understand that people who don’t believe in or acknowledge God do things that confirm their point of view. But, because we consider ourselves to be followers of God, we get offended when other people don’t acknowledge Him. We view ourselves as being a part of God’s team, and we look at our disapproval of others’ actions as a way of showing our team loyalty. Pride and self-righteousness can cause us to lose sight of what our goal really is. Unfortunately, we often misidentify those two traits as loyalty to God or other Christians. In doing this, we demonstrate lack of understanding about our own salvation and our function as followers of Jesus Christ. Every single person who considers themselves a Christian has failed to live up to God’s perfect standard (now we’re getting into Romans 3…), so what gives us the right to view ourselves as “better” than anyone else? God extended grace through us, and we accepted that gift through faith and repentance.

While there is no doubt that God clearly says he will bring judgment on all who reject Him, whether in this life or after it, it is not our role to be self-appointed as tools of His wrath or condemnation. Our function should actually be quite the opposite. Though we should not approve of actions that are contrary to God’s standard, it does not make our calling any different. It is our job, actually our responsibility, to show anybody and everybody the love of God and the freedom which can be found through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Only God can change hearts, but it is our duty to demonstrate that fact by showing how he has changed ours by illustrating that our community of Christ-followers does not have an “us versus them” mentality. Instead we have compassion and radical kindness because we have an “us used to be them” mentality. This way we can be a Kingdom-minded community where we can all thrive by growing closer to God and closer to each other.

I still hate the Flyers, though. Let’s go Pens!