Game changers

Anthony Towey

One of the more popular phrases that is used of people, events or ideas that make a difference is that someone or thing is a ‘game changer’. Originating in sporting environs, it has tended to refer to such things as a decisive play, an astute substitution, a disastrous refereeing decision, a lamentable mistake, but can equally be adduced to an individual, someone who changes not just the course of a given contest but the way the game itself is understood.

As someone who is very interested in sport, there is obviously a temptation here to regale the reader with examples from my lifetime such as Johann Cruyff (football), Jonah Lomu (rugby), Garfield Sobers (cricket), Tiger Woods (golf), Muhammed Ali (boxing), Michael Jordan (basketball…but I will resist. After all, sport is in one sense a trivial thing, a theatre of striving for wreaths that will wither when the crown of life is on offer. Furthermore, while St John Paul II is reputed to have said ‘of all the unimportant things, football is the most important’ and while Camus claimed he gained all his key insights from playing as a goalkeeper, even sporting fanatics have to concede that games are at best a delightful distraction from the need to make ends meet, never mind the need to meet one’s end.

Moreover, if we consider the tremendous festivals of Ascension and Pentecost at the apex of this Pastoral Review cycle we soon begin to realise that what is at play in this phase of the liturgical year are life-changing mysteries. That the Ascension is essential is more than an alliterative truth. The parting depicted by the Lucan account in Acts is after the transformative period of 40 days has elapsed. Just as the Flood for the Earth, the Desert for Israel and the Wilderness for Jesus led to a new world, a promised land, a kingdom proclaimed, so the Ascension is a parting with promise – less a question of whether things will be different from now on, things are different from now on. The parallel in Matthew includes the Great Commission to share the Good News to the ends of the earth but the paradoxical parting from the apostles includes an Ascension assurance that the Lord will be with them until the end of the age (Mt. 28.20).

Luke, of course, soon follows up the story of Ascension with Pentecost, the day when Babel is undone and the world can finally understand that the One language of Creation is the One Word of its Maker. The unseen Spirit becomes manifest in changed hearts, changed minds, changed lives. The extent to which the apostles have to embrace difference is manifest from the b of the bang – or perhaps the b of the baptisms as thousands of converts joined them in that first experience of the Spirit (Acts 2.41). It is clear from Acts that things didn’t always happen in what might be regarded as the right order (Acts 19.2), but the connecting principle endorsed by the Fourth Gospel is that it is better for the Saviour to go – being apart to be part of his saving work – to receive the Spirit, to forgive, to witness, to do greater things (Jn. 14.12).

Of course Lent is more traditionally seen as a time of change as we contest our selfishness but Ascension and Pentecost should provoke, if anything, an even greater hunger for transformation and radical change. For a start, Ascension prevents us ever being comfortable again with the tendency we all have to ‘outsource’ our Christianity. It is wonderful, important, powerful and edifying to share prayer intentions as a member of the Communion of Saints should always do. Moreover, the ascension of Christ to the right hand of God precisely symbolises the supreme power of Jesus as intercessor (Acts 2.31 and 7.55). But Ascension reminds us that until we are in heaven it is our task to be heaven on earth as individuals and as Church – no outsourcing!

The Spirit too – as Consoler, Advocate and Guide – is our strength. St Paul implies that special charisms, particular modes of service and specific energies all come from the Spirit at work among the faithful (1 Cor. 12.4-11). Our religion is not mere vacuous vapourings, the Spirit is the life-changer and that means, as John Wimber famously pointed out, ‘everyone gets to play.’

Which is where we came in. A decisive intervention – the Word made Flesh, an astute substitution – not us but him, a disastrous decision – not him but Barabbas, a lamentable mistake – a cross for a King. But risen, restored, and to the ends of the earth adored. The game has changed – have we?