A New Playing Field

Session Date: 
Sunday, April 23, 2017
Bible Text: 
John 20:19-31


Last Saturday Major League Baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson Day. Around the league, players, managers, even umpires wore Robinson’s retired number 42 to commemorate his career and accomplishments. April 15, 1947 was Opening Day and the day Robinson broke the Major leagues racial barrier as the first Black baseball player in the modern era. Jackie Robinson changed the playing field!

Robinson had been chosen to be first because of his outstanding athletic skills, but also for his temperament. In part he is honored for the quiet dignity with which he met the racial bigotry of that first year. Yet there is another chapter to the story of Robinson turning so often turning the other cheek in 1947. Jackie Robinson had a deep and abiding faith in Christ.

He was born in 1919 into a culture steeped in racism. From early childhood that racism drove Robinson mad. One historian says Robinson had “a reputation as a mad brawler, always ready to smash in the teeth of any white man who insulted him.” Later, at UCLA, he gained a reputation as a thug. 

Yet, it was also at UCLA that Robinson began to encounter the forces that would free him from some of his rage. One was Rachel Isum who became his wife. The other was an African-American preacher named Karl Downs, whose hard-hitting sermons taught Robinson that Christianity was not a synonym for racial submission. 

By 1945 Robinson had developed a firm conviction that God had an important purpose for his life. That purpose became clear when he was summoned to the office of Branch Rickey, General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey was determined to make history by putting the first black player on a major league team. But first Rickey made certain Robinson understood what he would face: everything from racial epithets to physical assaults to hotel clerks refusing him accommodations.

Rickey challenged Robinson, telling him he was “looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.” That phrase is now legendary. What is less well known is that Rickey, a devout Christian, handed Robinson a copy of a book by Giovanni Papini called “The Life of Christ.” And he reminded Robinson of the words of Jesus: “Resist not evil: but whosesoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

Rickey “was hitting Robinson in the heart, invoking the Methodist Christianity that they shared.”

Robinson’s struggle began as soon as he walked out onto the ball field wearing a Dodgers uniform. During his ten years with the Dodgers, he endured racist remarks, death threats, and unfair calls by umpires. But Robinson’s faith helped him keep his anger in check, Every night, he got on his knees and prayed for self-control. “Through all the frustrations,” historians noted, “his Christianity sustained him.”

Robinson retired after the 1956 season and spent the rest of his life working in the civil-rights movement. Despite personal tragedies, his diabetes and his son’s death, Robinson’s faith in Christ never wavered.

Jackie Robinson’s entry into major league baseball meant a new playing field for everyone, teams, players, fans, the country. President Truman desegregated the military the next year.

Jesus’ entry into a looked room of bewildered disciples changed their playing field as well.

The field they knew, following Jesus, learning from him, was no longer playable. He was gone. They were more afraid of reprisals from Jewish leaders, than they were heartened by Mary’s confusing news that the Lord was resurrected. Their fear would not allow them to believe her. 

Onto that confusing field, into the bewildered room, into their frightened lives, comes Jesus. Repeatedly he says, “Shalom,” “Peace.” When they recognize him, his conventional greeting has a new meaning. His words echo the words of his farewell prayer, “as the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Jesus’ presence in the upper room is changes their playing field. He is commissioning the entire faith community to continue the work God sent him to do. And just as Jesus had promised the gift of the Holy Spirit, he reinforces the Spirit’s presence going forward when he “breathes” on them. He is recalling God breathing life into Adam, the first human. He is inspiring them to move out into the new playing field and continue his ministry of making God’s love known to the world.

The playing fields of our lives change as well. The challenge of Easter is whether to stay frightened and locked in our room, or to accept the peace of Christ and the gift of the Spirit and go forth into God’s new day. Whether to stay closeted in perceived safety, or go forth as God directs, inspired by the Holy Spirit.

In June 19, 1971 the playing field shifted on Bill Mitchell. Bill was on top of the world that day. Riding a brand new motorcycle to a job he loved, gripman on a San Francisco cable car, he seemed on cloud nine. Earlier that day he had soloed in an airplane for the first time, the fulfillment of one of his fondest dreams. Twenty-eight, handsome, healthy, and popular, Bill was in his element. 

In the flash of an eye, however, Bill’s whole world changed. Rounding a corner as he neared the cable car barn, Bill collided with a laundry truck. Gas from the motorcycle poured out and ignited through the heat of the engine. Bill emerged from the accident with a broken pelvis and elbow and burns over 65 percent of his body.

Over the next six months Bill realized how much the field had shifted under his feet. There were blood transfusions, numerous surgeries, and more than a dozen skin grafts before he was released from the hospital. Walking down the street, soon after, he passed a playground where children stared at his face. “Look at the monster,” they exclaimed. Although deeply hurt by such encounters, he still had the love and compassion of friends and family members, and the grace of a good personal philosophy on life. Eventually Bill realized he did not need to be handsome to make a contribution to society. Success was in his hands if he chose to begin again.

Within a year of the accident, Bill was moving again toward the success he enjoyed earlier. He began to fly planes again. He moved to Colorado and founded a company that built wood stoves. Within no time, Bill was a millionaire with a Victorian home, his own plane, and significant real estate holdings. 

Then, in November 1975, the playing field changed on Bill Mitchell once more. Piloting a turbo-charged Cessna with four passengers onboard, Bill was forced to abort a take-off, causing the plane to drop about 75 feet like a rock back to the runway. Smoke filled the plane and fearing that he would again be burned Bill attempted to escape. Pain in his back and his inability to move his legs thwarted his efforts.

In the hospital again, Bill was informed that his thoracic vertebrae were crushed and the spinal cord was damaged beyond repair. He would spend the rest of his life as a paraplegic. Although doubt began to invade his generally optimistic mind, Bill began to focus on the cans and not the cannots of his life. He decided to follow the advice of German philosopher Goethe: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” Before his accidents there were many things Bill could do. He could spend time dwelling on what was lost or focus on what was left, the new playing field. 

Since that 1975 plane accident, Bill Mitchell has twice been elected mayor of his town, earned recognition as an environmental activist, and has run for congress. He has hosted his own television show and travels the country speaking to groups about his message of proper attitude, service, and transformation. Billi’s message is to show people that it isn’t what happens to you that is important, but how you handle life when the playing field shifts on you. 

The playing field shifted for all who follow Jesus that evening in a locked room. A dozen or so frightened followers were frozen as to what to do next. Jesus stilled their shaking nerves with the word he offers still to you and to me when the playing fields of life change around us, “Peace, I am here, in the Spirt.”

© 2017 Gordon B. Mapes III, all rights reserved