In 2018 an estimated 111 million people watched the Super Bowl. That is about 1/3 of all Americans. In our media-fragmented age, in our cord-cutting age, in our on-demand age, rarely do that many people watch the same thing at the same time. For those outside of North America, the Super Bowl is the championship game of the National Football League, an American professional football association. It is a major cultural event. It seems likely that, if the influence of the league and the game continue to grow, the day after the Super Bowl will become a national holiday to allow Americans to clean up and recover from their celebration. All the grocery ads this week were focused on selling goods to those preparing for Super Bowl watch parties. Never ones to miss out on an opportunity to appropriate the culture, some evangelical churches have begun hosting Super Bowl watch parties—though it is unclear just what good news such church-sponsored events announce.
Perhaps you have never considered the phrase, “Super Bowl”? In American football, a bowl game is an American football game played at the end of the season. In college football it is a reward for having at least a mediocre season (winning 6 games). They are typically played in warm climates and the players are given tours and gifts for participating. In the NFL, the Super Bowl is the only “bowl” game and it is for the championship. It is super in the old-fashioned sense of the word, inasmuch as it signals that this game is beyond, above all other football games. For many Americans, Sundays are now only significant because on them in the Autumn and for part of Winter, professional football games are played. For many Americans, after the Super Bowl, Sundays become relatively empty. Some begin to look forward to the baseball season, others begin watching college basketball. This is the new, late-modern liturgical calendar: Super Bowl, March Madness, NBA Playoffs, World Series, College Football Playoffs.
The New Testament was written in a similarly pagan environment, where the calendar was shaped by sporting events and the pagan pantheon (the gods). The Lord Jesus changed all that, however, in the early part of what we now know as the first century AD (Anno Domini, in the Year of the Lord). Luke writes:
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee… (Luke 24:1–6; ESV).
Jesus had spent much of Friday on a cross and all of Saturday in a tomb. Luke tells us that he was raised on the next day, which Luke calls “the first day of the week.” We call it Sunday but the Apostle John called it “the Lord’s Day” (Rev 1:10). John used the same modifier as the Apostle Paul in used in 1 Corinthians 11:20 to speak of “the Lord’s Supper.” The Supper is the Lord’s and, in the same way, this day is the Lord’s. He claimed it by virtue of his resurrection.
Luke notes that the Apostolic Church met on the “first day of the week.” He writes,
On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight (Acts 20:7)
This “breaking of bread” is the Lord’s Supper. On that day Christians gathered for public worship. They collected offerings to support other Christians who were in need (1 Cor 16:2). We may confirm this from the practice of the Christians in the earliest years of the second century, where records are clear that Christians gathered for worship early on Sunday morning and again on Sunday evening.1
The Christians were notable in the first and second centuries not for how much they conformed to the culture nor for their cleverness in appropriating the circus as a means of evangelism but for their relative distinction from the surrounding pagan culture. The early Christian treatise to Diognetus (c. AD 150)l says that the Christians spoke the same language and wore the same clothes but their lifestyle distinguished them from the pagans. Specifically he wrote that the Christians did not practice infanticide and wife-swapping.
The Christians were known by the pagans for their devotion for gathering together twice on the Lord’s Day. In AD 112, the pagan governor Piny the Younger received letters of complaint from pagans about the Christians, who were hated because they did not participate in the pagan religious rituals, and the pagan games.2 They did not buy meat to sacrifice to the gods, and they did not worship Caesar as a god. Pliny the Younger, arrested two Christian women and tortured them until they revealed what the Christians did during their worship services. Pliny recorded their testimony and sent it to the Emperor Trajan. He acknowledged that Christians were no threat to the empire and were otherwise quite law-abiding.
In our time, however, in a misguided and even desperate attempt to remain “relevant” (as they say), many evangelicals have done what the Ancient Christians refused to do: synthesize the pagan circus (the Super Bowl) with Christianity by replacing the evening service with Super Bowl watch parties. One congregation, ostensibly for evangelistic purposes, is putting on a spectacular show with Christian celebrities and production worthy of the Super Bowl itself.
Typically, however, many Christians will simply skip the evening Lord’s Day service to watch the game with their friends. Perhaps they dedicate the entire day to the Super Bowl? Most tragically of, however, many Christians no longer have an evening service to attend. Many congregations have simply given up the second service. Initially this move was to facilitate “small groups” but, over time, those give way to “family time.”
As the annual Super Bowl hype is upon us once again Christians ought to remember the announcement of the angels: “He is not here, but has risen.” That happened on a Sunday, the first day of the week, which he claimed by his royal authority as his own. It is not the NFL’s. By his resurrection, our Lord re-ordered the calendar. Christians no longer observe the old Jewish Sabbath, which belonged to the types and shadows. We observe the Christian Sabbath, the Lord’s Day, to commune with our risen Lord as his people, to hear the gospel, and to receive the holy sacraments. On it we rest, worship, and do works of mercy for our brothers and sisters in the Lord. We have no time for the Super Bowl. Our Lord Jesus is super above, beyond, transcendent over every cultural event no matter how popular or compelling it might seem at the moment.
On the Last Day our Lord Jesus will return and all such cultural events shall become like dust in the wind. Everything that our culture told us was so very important will be wiped away in the judgment and the establishment of the New Heavens and the New Earth. Then we will be face to face with our Lord, who was raised on the first day of the week, the day he claimed as his own, the Lord’s Day,
1. For more on this see the relevant chapters in Recovering the Reformed Confession
2. Even the pagan philosopher Seneca condemned attending the circus, where gladiators did battle with animals and each other.
Very VERY good indeed sir. Never in the history of non-Roman Christianity has the visible church so flagrantly and passionately loved the world and the things therein.
I would however argue that the influence of the pagan entertainment industry at large, (movies, television and music) dwarfs that of just the world of sports alone.
And yes you are quite correct. (to the other guy on the agradio page) Separation, at least for the most part, from the cultural obsessions around them, far from being some legalistic hyper-fundamentalist fixation, absolutely IS the legacy of the reformation.
Just about everybody today ignores the fact that the same towering giants of the faith who wrote Chapter XX section II of the confession, also wrote section III, as well as the larger catechism 91 through the ten commandments.
Ahem, on the same order of correctly labeling Fakebook, Goolag and Dwitter, I think it’s called the Stupor Bowl.
Or as a guy with a prison camp phd. once said “in the Soviet Union, sports act as the opium of the people”.
But Marx didn’t have ESPN on cable back in his day, so he must be right about drug abuse and religion.
I refer to Facebook as Fraudbook or Farcebook.