The year was 1980. The Olympics were weeks away, but everyone knew. The US hockey team wasn’t that good. Coach Herb Brooks had chosen to go an unorthodox route to build his team, and it wasn’t paying off. Instead of loading up on the best college players in the land, he chose, instead, to fill his roster with those who he thought would make the most cohesive team, even if that meant choosing lesser-skilled players. It sounded wise; but when that team played the Soviets in a pre-Olympic exhibition game, they were crushed 10-3. And that is when everyone knew: the Olympics had not even started yet, but the US team was done. But then something strange happened when the games began. Far from being eliminated in the first round, the US team showed amazing resilience and came out of the first round winning four games and tying one (and that was against the powerhouse Swedes). Only the Soviet team escaped the first round unscathed, winning all five games they played. And that was unfortunate because that meant the US team’s first opponent in the medal round would be those undefeated Soviets. Journalists at the time described it as a David versus Goliath match-up, except this time, David didn’t even have a slingshot. Now, even if you don’t know much about hockey, you likely know what happened. Somehow these college kids came together as a team and beat the “invincible” Soviets in a game we all know as the “Miracle on Ice.” And then two days later, they beat the Fins to win gold. And they did it as a team. Now, you can be excused if you couldn’t see how Brooks’ “team first” approach worked itself out on the ice during the game, but no one would miss it during the medal ceremony. See, the Olympics have a very set way of doing things. In team sports, only the team captain was allowed on the platform while the national anthem was played. And then, once the anthem was done, the captain would step down and rejoin this team. But Mike Eruzione would have none of that. Even as our national anthem was coming to a close, Eruzione turned to his teammates and beckoned all of them to join him on the platform. The result was bedlam and wonderful and magical and moving. Looking back on it now, we can all see what Herb Brooks saw. This was a great team. Here’s my point: Jesus had a terrible team.
See, teams are made of cohesive units where everyone is moving towards one common, unifying overarching goal, but Jesus’ team had none of that. They were as different, as incohesive, as imaginable. Think about how dissimilar they were. In Jesus’ day, people usually chose one of four approaches to cultural engagement. They could withdraw into the wilderness like the Essenes. They could devote themselves to obedience to the law like the Pharisees. They could cooperate with Rome and live “Jewish lite” like the Sadducees. Or they could pick up the sword and try to reclaim their land through the use of violence like the Zealots. Let me make a contemporary analogy. Imagine the cohesion of Jesus’ team if it was comprised of some men who were rabid Tea Party members, some who were extremely liberal democrats, some who were war-hawk republicans and some who were Amish (or maybe, at least Mennonite!). If you are thinking there is no chance of cohesion in a group like this, welcome to Jesus’ world because this is a pretty apt description of who Jesus chose to build his church.
Think about it. Matthew was a tax collector who worked for Rome, who basically loved Rome (after all, Rome made him rich). That had to infuriate Simon who was a Zealot, the group who hated any and all Roman sympathizers, especially corrupt tax collectors. James and John were rich, the owners of profitable fishing business. Jesus was poor, and it is not hard to believe that one of the twelve also shared this characteristic. Philip and Andrew, for some reason, have Greek, not Hebrew names. That may indicate a division in the ranks, especially in the ethno-centric world of first century Israel. James and John were also very ambitious and had big plans for their future. That did cause a huge rift among the twelve. Matthew had little regard for the law, while many of the others at least leaned toward aligning themselves with the Pharisees as their chosen approach to life. And that would cause all sorts of “issues.” And then there were “the lesser disciples,” the ones who didn’t do that much. You have to wonder if they experienced times of jealousy here and there. For instance, Bartholomew appears on every list of disciples in the Synoptic Gospels, but that is all we know about him. How would you like to be the disciple who never did anything? But it could be worse. Nothing James the Younger did or said is recorded in the New Testament, except for the one question he asked at the Last Supper. As a result, the only thing we know about James the Younger is that he had a complete lack of understanding about who Jesus was.
Based on all of this, you might be convinced that there was little to no cohesion on Jesus’ team, but you haven’t even considered the worst of it yet. In the garden, every single disciple deserted Jesus and ran for his life. At Jesus’ trial, Peter even denies knowing Jesus or having any relationship with him. Every disciple except one is conspicuously absent when Jesus needed them the most – at his crucifixion. When told of the resurrection, Thomas doubted in the strongest terms possible and, as a result, is branded for all eternity as the doubter. And Judas, well, Judas was a thief and a traitor whose greed, frustration and anger prompted him to betray Jesus. And he did so for a paltry thirty pieces of silver. But here’s the thing: Jesus hand-picked Judas and called him to be one of his disciples. He wanted Judas to be on his team. He wanted all twelve of these men to be in his inner circle.
Think back to the Last Supper. Jesus looks around at these twelve men and calls them to love one another. It had to sound absolutely outrageous. People who are so very different at the core cannot love one another. Perhaps, they can tolerate each other. Perhaps, they can put up with one another. Perhaps, they can get along for a while, but love? Love is out of the question. Here’s the point: Jesus calls people who are radically different, people who naturally dislike each other, to love one another. And for three years, Jesus tried to get his disciples to do this, but it took his death and resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit for them actually to embrace love as their first priority. And when they did, this team began to move in unison towards one common overarching goal that unified them at the core: Jesus was the Messiah King. And this team changed the world. And as a result of their love, the church understood from its inception that loving one another was part and parcel of following Jesus. So when we look at the earliest church, we see Jews loving Gentiles (unthinkable!), the rich caring for the poor (unbelievable), slave owners showing grace and honor and compassion to their slaves (unimaginable), and slaves loving their owners as brothers and sisters in Christ (unfathomable). Men treated women with respect and honor. Power brokers became servants, and those who were marginalized and excluded were given a seat at the table. And the church became “a community of differents” (to steal Scot McKnight’s perfect expression). And Jesus’ call for us to love one another has never been repealed. It is still the first sign of being a disciple of Jesus.
Make no mistake about it: we are called to place ourselves in communities where we can rub shoulders with those who are different so that the world can see the difference Jesus makes. And in a world where exclusion and hatred and prejudice is growing stronger by the minute, we need more than ever to be a community that shows love and grace and forgiveness and compassion. We need to be a church that loves and accepts one another as well as those who live outside our church doors. And it all starts here with us every Sunday morning.
So here’s the question: what kind of team will we be? –One where it is every man for himself or one that will love and accept and care for one another no matter what the other looks or acts like? Will we be a team that is known for its selfish pursuits or for its sacrificial love? Embedded in that question is a promise: the church that truly loves one another will be a church that changes the world. Sound impossible? Absolutely. But you can believe in miracles if you believe in love.
Herb Brooks was a great coach and a quotable coach. Before the game with the Soviets, he gathered his team together and said: “You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here. This moment is yours.” Those words could easily be directed to us today. We are called to be the church of Jesus. We are hand-picked before the foundation of the world to be here. This moment can be ours. For the glory of God and for the good of his church, let us love one another. As Brooks said, “Great moments are born from great opportunities”; and this moment is ours.