I was -1 when Northern Ireland lost to France 4-1 in the World Cup in Spain on a Sunday in 1982. For many, the world cup is still considered to be the pinnacle tournament for any player to be a part of. Millions of kids dream of getting the opportunity to play for their country in a World Cup match.
On that Sunday against France though one player, Johnny Jameson the Glentoran winger decided he didn’t want to play as he was a born again Christian. The one and only chance he had to play in a World Cup and it was gone.
For many people this is an admirable stance. To put God above football is a true testimony of a strong faith. For many others though, myself included, it is considered a waste of opportunity and a chance to experience something that very few footballers ever will.
But more seriously, it shows a lack of understanding of who God is. It is another symptom of when legalism prevents us from truly experiencing life.
It’s not surprising then, that when it was announced that Northern Ireland will play a Euro qualifier in Belfast against Finland next March on a Sunday; there were those who believe the match should be played another time.
The Sabbath has always been a hot topic in Northern Ireland, with those arguing against increased opening hours for shopping and even going back to the days of chaining up swings in parks. I wish I made that last sentence up.
I think though that if we were to go back and take a look at what the Sabbath is and why it’s important we might just be surprised at what we find.
Firstly, an obvious point often missed. When we read about the Sabbath in the Bible and we read about keeping it Holy it’s very important that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that this meant a Sunday. Or that it meant you had to dress nicely or wear a hat or not crack a smile. Anytime Jesus talks about the Sabbath or Shabbat, He is talking about the time between sunset on a Friday evening until the following Saturday evening. This is why we often consider Sunday the first day of the week because it’s not part of the Sabbath set out in the Bible.
As much as legalism focuses too much on rules, if we are to be true to Jesus we should probably think twice about playing football on a Saturday. In fact it’s possible to say that unless you play football on a Sunday you are breaking the Sabbath. But only if we take legalism seriously.
Secondly, even Jesus was condemned for doing something He shouldn’t have been doing by the Pharisees (think conservative Christians today) when He and His disciples were found to be collecting food. Something that the Israelites were not permitted to do. Jesus response? Somehow mysteriously he claimed that He Himself was the Sabbath and basically could do what he liked.
This doesn’t mean that He didn’t respect the Sabbath, in fact Jesus Himself went to the synagogue to preach. However, like many of the laws that in the eyes of the Pharisees Jesus broke, Jesus came to shine a light on the underlying message of Sabbath. His point wasn’t that Sabbath wasn’t important. It was that if we put too much emphasis on following laws for the sake of following them, we have missed the point. They weren’t arbitrary rules designed to spoil our fun. They were to help us connect with God, If then, our sheep fell into a pit we shouldn’t just leave it there to die because it was the Sabbath and rescuing her would be considered work.
The laws were designed to free us but not if we cut off our nose to spite our face.
Thirdly, the idea that we should spend the Sabbath worshipping God. Now, I don’t disagree with this but for many this is part of the problem of having our faith separated from the rest of our lives. Growing up I knew that Sundays were special. I knew that there was something about them that was different. I knew that when my mum allowed me to go and see the Manic Street Preachers on a Sunday it was a big deal. I love Church and I love spending it with other Believers.
However as my faith has grown, so has my view of God. And worship. And the idea that in fact everyday is Holy. That Church should not simply be an hour a week but the way we open ourselves to serving each other.
It’s interesting that many of those opposed to work or sport or anything outside of rest on a Sunday like to call Sunday the Lord’s Day. Like the old Sunday School song, “This is the Day the Lord has made.” But so is Monday and Tuesday and every day of the week for that matter. The idea that one day should be set aside for God lets us off the hook from having to treat everyday like it is a gift or that God is worthy of receiving worship from every part of our lives.
Which brings me to my fourth and final point. When we compartmentalize God like this we fail to see God in the places we least expect to see Him. It permeates into how we view our jobs, or how we treat those who serve us in shops or restaurants. It blinds us to the idea that God is everywhere and if we were just to open our eyes we might experience a God bigger than the one who tells us we can’t play sport on a Sunday.
Imagine you are a Christian footballer who plays at a high level. Or even just for Northern Ireland. (Why am I afraid this will offend more people than this post?) If Sundays are used to worship God, what better way to worship Him with the talents and gifts and passions He has given you, than to play football to the best of your ability.
What better way to give praise to God than on the biggest stage in the world with millions of people watching?
Because when we miss a match because of the day it is on, we miss the point.
We miss the chance to experience the life God has given us to celebrate the things we love.
And when we do that, we’ll never have anything to rest from anyway.