If any of you remember Christmas Eve, I used to sermon to remind you that you are all losers; that Jesus was born a loser for losers like you. I even had the congregation raise their hands if they could self-identify as a loser, which some did quickly and some did meekly and some just stared blankly at a pastor who would dare call me a loser. Yet my assertion remains that in the Christmas story Jesus appears on the scene as a loser in stable with no room at the inn. He goes on to be a very talented loser, doing wonderful things like healing the sick and walking on water but at the same time hanging out with the low-class sinners, the lepers, the tax collectors and the prostitutes. He says loser things like blessed are the poor and woe to you who are rich.
But today of all days we might think that Jesus is definitely a winner. He has risen from the dead. The tomb is empty. This is a day when we sing of victory. This is a day when we sing of joy. We talk about the destruction of sin, death and evil. We speak of Jesus as a conqueror who sets us free. Today of all days we have to proclaim Jesus as a winner.
I won’t argue with that idea, but what I will do is suggest that in the resurrection Jesus transforms the meaning of winning and losing. Sometimes I think that American Christianity over-emphasizes the resurrection. I’m not saying it is unimportant. It’s why we worship on Sunday. It’s why we remember Jesus as Son of God rather than tragic teacher gone before his time. It’s why we proclaim ourselves a resurrection people.
But if most of our focus is on the resurrection, without encountering the cross and tomb, we will think that Christ’s victory looks like all the other victories we talk about, be they sports victories or military victories or the hard-won victory of finding a free parking space in Boston. You or your team works very hard and with luck and skill, they win. That is what victory looks like and what we often think about when we speak of winning.
Now imagine another scenario. The New England Patriots take the field against the Green Bay Packers. (I say the Green Bay Packers because my grandmother lived in Appleton, Wisconsin and at one point had season tickets). The Patriots play the worst game you have ever seen. Brady drops the ball again and again. The line can’t stop the blitz. At various points you have to walk out of the room because Green Bay keeps scoring and scoring. Tears come to your eyes as you hear the words, once again, “And it is a first down for Green Bay.” The Patriots have been clearly trounced and utterly defeated. There will be no parades in Boston. There will be no confetti. Countless bowls of guacamole sit warming in countless living rooms throughout the Bay State. Countless slices of cheese pizza grow cold in countless boxes, appetites pulled away into the vacuum of loss. You go to bed and sleep fitfully, pursued alternately by the Green Bay defense and a mob wearing cheese hats.
The next day you open up the newspaper and the headline reads, Patriots win 0-84. The sportscasters are talking about the Patriot victory. But this makes no sense to you because you clearly saw them get destroyed and no one is saying that they scored any points, got any touchdowns, made any great plays. They just keep saying that they won. It slowly starts to dawn on you that something has changed about the nature of the game itself.
The resurrection is like that but even greater. In my football image suddenly the winners are losers and losers are winners. Jesus does use that kind of language in the gospels when he points to the difference of the priorities of our world and the priorities of the kingdom of God, “The last will be first and the first will be last.” Yet I think the resurrection points to something more fantastic. The women at the tomb realized the moment the men in dazzling clothes spoke them saying, “Why do you look for the living among the dead.” What Jesus does in the resurrection is he pulls us out of a game where there need to be winners and losers, where we seek to define ourselves as winners as opposed to losers. There is no longer holier than thou; there is no longer more blessed than thou. As Paul talks about it later there is no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. There is no longer Ivy League or State school or GED. There is no longer Cambridge or Southie. All of the distinctions that both defined us but also limited us are gone. There is no longer winner or loser but simply children who have been made alive in Christ.
Now you still get to have a heritage and you still get to be a gender, but those aspects of being human no longer define you at a fundamental level. You still can be successful; you can still make great blunders, but success and failure no longer define who you are. You don’t have to win because all the winning that ever needs to happen already happened on the cross and at the tomb. You don’t have to succeed because all the success you ever need has already been granted through this good news.
What we are celebrating today is the great freedom that is found when you realize that you don’t have to win the game of life because it has already been won. You are guaranteed not to lose no matter what you try, no matter how you have succeeded or failed in the past or how you will succeed or fail in the future. You get to play for fun. You get to play for the simple joy of playing and trying to play well.
For most of this year, I have been preaching on discipleship. We have talked about hope and compassion. We talked about growth in faith and generosity. And sometimes people get leery about discipleship because it sounds like we are talking about works and being saved by what we do. But you can be the worst disciple ever and still know that you have won the game. Living as disciples is really God saying, “The game can be more fun. Be generous. It’s joyful. Be compassionate. It’s good. It makes the game better for everybody. Be grateful. It’s fun.” When Jesus died on the cross a whole bunch of shoulds and oughts and musts died with him and in their place is freedom to explore, to experiment, to love, to have fun. It is the freedom to be open to the world and open with one another. It is the freedom to look for God’s presence in all places, in all of our lives and all of our relationships.
Now some people might say that this message is foolishness when there is all this terrible stuff happening in the world, that this message is just another escapist fantasy, to which I would say it is not, rather it is an escapist reality. As I have said before, the promise of the resurrection does not mean that no bad things will ever happen to you again. It means you can’t lose even when bad things happen. The things we fear cannot take away the victory of the cross and empty tomb. We aren’t playing that game anymore. We are free, even when bad things happen, we are free.
So I say the good news of this day of resurrection is that you are no longer losers (but you aren’t winners either). No, you have been set free from the boundaries of the game itself. You are not winners; you are not losers; you are simply children of God made alive in Christ. Go and live in the light of this resurrection. Go have fun in this beautiful world. If you want to honor this promise, this gift of life, go have fun. Go and love someone. Go and pay attention to the sea breeze. Go and take notice of God’s good creation. Go and show kindness to a stranger. Go and feed someone. Don’t play the game to win; play the game for joy. Because the tomb was empty, you have been set free to play . Go out in the light of the resurrection and have fun. Alleluia. Amen.