The Scandal of the Gospel: God Gives the Gold to Losers
If you don’t know who Elizabeth Swaney is, please visit the googles and read up. The short story is that she’s a thirty three-year-old Californian with a direct family connection to Hungary. That’s not exactly unique, though. I have at least one family in my congregation with the same. What is unique is that she is an Olympian. It’s not just “unique,” however; it’s strange. It’s strange because she has very limited ability in her event—the halfpipe. How did this happen? How does a bright, determined, but nonetheless mediocre athlete, arrive on the world stage?
It’s a legal loophole, really. To qualify for the team, you have to finish in the top thirty at so many World Cup events. As it is, the women’s halfpipe is a pretty slim field, and so there are often fewer than thirty competitors who even show. Banking on the odds that at least a few of her competitors would take a spill, she figured she could edge some of them out simply by staying upright and not messing up too badly. No tricks. No flips. No slips. And... It worked. And so, Elizabeth Swaney, by the letter of the law, became an Olympian. All she had to do was not mess up too badly.
There's a picture of the Gospel here. It’s not a perfect analogy. Few are. But I’d like to take a gentle run with it, and see if I can just stay upright. By the letter of the Law, we can usually "get by" in the most superficial sense. Say your prayers; say them to God; go to church; don’t mouth off; don’t kill the guy down the street, etc. And if you mess up a little, just don’t mess up as much as the next guy. Try it out! Your pastor will be pleased as punch that you’re both tithing AND not living with your girlfriend. He’ll probably want to give you a medal. But apart from Christ, even our best is a sham.
I don’t think Ms. Swaney had any ill will when she set out on her quest to be an Olympian. She clearly knows her abilities and how those abilities compare with those of others. She doesn’t believe what the title of "Olympian" implies in her case. Neither do we. If you read half of what comes up on the first page of your research on this topic, you’ll see that for all our talk of rules and technicalities, we all know a sham when we see one. Again, it's not a one-for-one, but she's a picture of a Christian. She is doing her genuine best, and that looks good to a lot of people. But it's superficial, and she knows it. She knows she doesn't measure up, and still she rejoices. She rejoices in being rewarded for something she didn't really earn.
This is, by the way, why the Gospel doesn’t make sense to anyone: it’s not fair. One Man wins the gold, so to speak. One Man, Jesus, actually does what is necessary to the absolute letter of the law AND the spirit of the law—no technicalities. And then He gives His prize to a bunch of losers with no right to be in the room. It’s not a façade or a showing of good sportsmanship. It counts. It’s real. In the Kingdom of Heaven, the Elizabeth Swaneys of the world are given gold medals in an event they couldn’t even qualify for. Perhaps this ought to make us more patient when folks take offense to the Good News. It’s not fair. It’s an outrage. All we did was show up. And even that is being generous.
Pastor James Hopkins—Lutheran Church of the Way—Raynham, MA