Earlier this college football season, the Appalachian State Mountaineers traveled to College Station, Texas, and beat the Texas A&M Aggies in a football game. If you’re not a follower of college football that may not seem like a big deal. Even if you are a follower of college football, you probably don’t realize how big a deal it is. Texas A&M is the largest university in the United States with over 73,000 students. By comparison, Appalachian State, tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains in Boone, North Carolina, has just over 20,000 students. Texas A&M has an $18 billion endowment; Appalachian State’s is around $133 million. Last year, Texas A&M had the highest ranked college football recruiting class in history; Appalachian State’s class was ranked 83rd.
There was absolutely no reason to believe that Appalachian State could win that football game, but, after being pejoratively labeled a “Hillbilly College” by Aggie students at a pep rally the night before, the Mountaineers rolled out of town the next day with both a 17-14 victory and a $1.5 million check signed by Texas A&M University just for playing the game.
I’m convinced that this is one of the reasons we love sports. We all hope that we live in a world where the strongest don’t always win. Deep down we long to discover that power doesn’t always work the way we expect and that “survival of the fittest” is not universally valid. Sports is one ever-present cultural reminder of that assurance. At the very core of our being, we know that if only the strongest always win, we don’t stand much of a chance.
At the very heart of the gospel is the message that when Jesus accomplished redemption for his people, he was flipping the world’s power dynamics completely upside down. When he suffered on the cross, he was rebuking the world’s understanding of power. He was demonstrating that what the world considers foolishness, namely the word of the cross, his people consider the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18). Jesus didn’t save the world by staging a military coup; he saved the world by dying on a cross.
But here’s the corollary of that belief—one that we often miss. If we are saved by the cross, we must think according the cross. We must reject the world’s dehumanizing definitions of power in favor of the way of the cross. If we really believe that the cross is the power of God, the way we operate in the world must be different, too. We must join Paul in believing God when he promises, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). We must believe the words of our Lord when he says, “But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44).
Within the World System, power comes through domination. If you want to win, you must get ahead, push your way to the front of the line, make sure you’re the best looking, the smartest, the one with the most money. The world is full of strategies to help you get there. Build your platform, leverage your relationships, and focus on your public image. In the world’s system, people are merely tools to be used. If a relationship can help you climb the ladder, latch on to it. As soon as it quits working for you, get rid of it.
You can see the World System on full display in politics. On one side, the abortion industry eliminates human life whenever it gets in the way of personal dreams. On the other side, human beings created in the image of God are loaded onto planes like cattle and sent to wealthy liberal cities for the purpose of political spectacle.
The way of Jesus refuses to treat human beings as objects, no matter what our political commitments are. The power of Jesus is displayed when, in the face of political violence and persecution, the church gathers in a member’s home and makes “earnest prayer” to God on behalf of its persecuted members (Acts 12:5). The power of Jesus is displayed when normal, Spirit-filled people sacrifice their time and resources to serve “orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27). The power of Jesus is on full display when Jesus’s followers refuse to follow the power dynamics of the World System in which human beings are merely pawns to be used and instead follow the One who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Because of the cross, we don’t fight with weapons of swords and platforms, but with the Word of God and prayer.