On Friday morning (3rd July 2015) in the small hours the coach of the AFL team the Adelaide Crows was (allegedly) murdered in his home in Adelaide. The response in the media (both traditional media and social media) to this event exposes something of what Australians are like, and also something about the Australian church. This is a meditation on what is exposed by this event. Primarily, the “outpouring of grief” which followed the murder exposes the weight of expectation which Australians have placed on the game of Aussie Rules football to fulfil the religious longings within them.
All people have religious longings, no matter that they may deny this. Every person is created to give glory to the creator, but has exchanged true worship for false (Rom 1:18-25). In reading the news coverage of the murder of Phil Walsh I was struck by the language used to describe what is going on. It is very religious language, language which we might expect to find referring to the church. There was mention of the impact of this event on the football community and the AFL family. The language of the New Testament is communal and familial. Believers are the household or family of God, brothers and sisters together (e.g. Rom 1:13; 7:1; John 1:12; Rom 8:16). Phil Walsh was said to be a father to the players and a mentor. The language of spiritual fathers is used of Christian leaders (1 Cor 4:15).
Phil Walsh was obsessed with football to the detriment of his family life. “Phil Walsh was a football person in every sense of the word.” His heart was single-minded in its commitment to football. This kind of single-minded devotion is better directed towards God. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27). One fan, using the club’s slogan ‘We fly as one’, wrote, “From all of us who feel the pain of loss, and human sacrifices, we live in hope, that again, someday soon, we shall all Fly as One.” This speaks of expectations of life beyond the grave. Another wrote, “You were the chosen one who was going to lead us through our next chapter.” Surely this is a very messianic expectation for a football coach. Finally, a social media campaign calling fans to “put out your scarves”, reminiscent of “put out your bats” for Phillip Hughes last year, is almost sacramental.
There is a weight to this terminology and expectation, a weight which football heroes – footballers and coaches – no matter how skilled or how successful can never bear. The longings of Australians for something beyond themselves – for the unity of a religious community, for the support of an undying extended family, for a person who will lead them to greatness, for someone who will be father and mentor, even for something eternal – can never be found in such fragile places as the person of a football coach. The man did not die because he was obsessed with football at the expense of his own family, so much as to expose the fact that the desires of Australia for religious fulfilment are firmly centred on the wrong thing. Only Jesus can bear the weight of such expectation, since only Jesus has within himself the life which the Father gives to the Son (John 5:26).
All the things mentioned in regard to the death of the football coach – family, community, fathering, single-minded devotion, the chosen one, flying as one (unity), putting out your scarf (sacraments) – are devoid of real content without the person of Jesus. Jesus makes all these things genuine. He is the Son of God around whom the whole family of God gathers as sons and daughters. Jesus is singling devoted to the glory of the Father. In him single-minded devotion becomes focused on its true object of worship. We are united in Christ. We participate in Christ in the concrete acts of the sacraments. This is all utterly satisfying because Jesus is the chosen one, the one who is truly the way, the truth and the life, the one who leads us to the Father. All our religious longings are fulfilled in him.
But it is on the cross that Jesus put to death our false religious longings. Jesus carried the weight of religious expectation by being labelled ‘King of the Jews’ (Matt 27:11), being taunted as the messiah who could not save himself by coming down from the cross (Matt 27:40). In submitting to the cross Jesus bore the brunt of the religious and political ambitions of the Jewish leaders (John 18:12-14). He bore the disappointment and triumphalism of those who desired a messiah to overtake the Romans by force (John 6:15). Instead of fulfilling these false religious expectations, he took the weight of our guilt, shame and idol worship and bore it in utter trust of his Father. Having died in utter trust, Jesus was raised again on the third day. Jesus is the one in whom all false religious longings are put to death and genuine faith is raised to life.
If the church turns again to Jesus as Lord, she will come to see her false religious longings (health, wealth, comfort etc) can never be fulfilled, only crucified. Australia will never see her religious longings fulfilled by football heroes. Australia needs to see a church which willingly puts to death its own false expectations through dying, and who knows true life is found only in Jesus. We cannot reach Australia with a substitute gospel any more effectively than a football coach, dead or alive, can fulfil the dreams of Australians.