More than 100 million viewers worldwide will watch the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos face off in Super Bowl 50 this Sunday in Santa Clara, CA. A few days later, millions of Catholics worldwide will fill churches on Ash Wednesday to receive the sign of the cross in ashes on their foreheads.
To some, the Super Bowl is just a game. But even games can teach us valuable spiritual lessons if we pay close enough attention.
Here are four characteristics shared by athletes and disciples:
No man gets to the Super Bowl alone—he has a dedicated team of individuals who are of one like mind, working together, and pursuing the same goal. Individual effort matters, but even quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Cam Newton must have receivers who can catch their passes. Every player has a place and every man is important to the success of the team.
The same is true in the church. In 1 Corinthians 12:9, Paul explains how just as “a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ.” We come together to be one body in Christ and we are most effective when we work together just as God always intended.
Every pastor needs a team of people around him to support his mission. Every ministry leader, volunteer, staff member, mother, father, and person in the pews contribute to the success of the parish. Every disciple has his or her place in God’s kingdom and God works through each of them.
Every successful NFL team needs a coach to develop strategies and plays to win on Sunday. That strategy is then communicated to everyone on the team. In addition to the coach, there are leaders on the field who execute the coach’s strategies and are responsible for “rallying the troops” to be their very best and achieve victory.
Parishes have similar levels of leadership. Every Sunday, the pastor shares the word of God and how the lessons of the Gospel can be applied in our everyday lives. Deacons, ministry leaders, and other leaders continue to drive that message home to parishioners throughout the week and “rally the troops” for Jesus.
As disciples, we are each called to be leaders right where we are, sharing the word of God and carrying out the mission of the church. We are also called to make disciples for Christ, teaching them how to recognize the voice of God and to follow him.
Many NFL players have been playing the game since they were children, spending countless hours reviewing plays, exercising, practicing, and playing the game they love. This requires time away from their families, countless long days and nights, and puts a physical toll on their bodies that can last a lifetime.
Discipleship always comes with a cost. When Jesus called the first disciples, he asked many of them to walk away from their lives and follow him and he often asks us to do the same. Many left behind jobs and families, and all but one of the Apostles lost their life for the cost of Christ.
Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew 16:24 that anyone who wishes to follow him “must deny himself, [and] take up his cross.” No sacrifice is too big and this is a war against our human nature. But it is a war in which God himself fights for us.
The words “disciple” and “discipline” share the same root and both refer to teaching, suffering, and correction in pursuit of perfection. Pro football players spend their entire lives training their bodies and minds to achieve athletic perfection.
Disciples spend their entire spiritual lives training their body, mind, and spirit to conform to the will of God. This is a daily practice that should encompass every area of our lives with the goal of our outer actions reflecting the inner change made in us through Christ.
We pursue holiness at all costs in hopes of one day receiving eternal life in Heaven—a far greater prize than any Super Bowl ring.