When I was at school, I had to play rugby.
I wasn’t particular interested in sports when I was at school, nor was I very good at it (I suspect those two things are linked in some way). I actually enjoy watching the game of rugby, but I really didn’t enjoy playing it at all.
For that reason, I had a guiding principle whenever I was obliged to take part in a rugby match: stay away from the ball. Most people who play in sports want to get their hands on the ball, to play a part in the game, perhaps even to score. But for me, the aim was to stay away from the ball, since that was where the action was, and therefore where running, exercise and the possibility of being tackled all lie. My mother used to laugh at the fact that I used to come home from sports with a rugby shirt as clean and pristine as it was at the start of the day.
I do now regret some of my sporting decisions at school, and would have been much better off if I had engaged with the game instead of running away from it! I wonder also whether my attitude to rugby is too often mirrored in our attitude as Christians to the life of faith.
Consider for a moment Paul’s prayer for the church leader Philemon:
I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith… (Philemon 6)
As an evangelical, that prayer seems to be encouraging Philemon in evangelism: “Be active in sharing your faith,” Paul appears to be saying, “get out there and share Jesus with your friends.”
I am sure Paul would want to encourage that, but it’s not actually what he’s praying for here. ‘Sharing’ here isn’t about evangelism, so much as ‘partnership’. It’s the same word that would have been used for someone who went into business with another, becoming partners in the work together.
What Paul is praying for is that Philemon’s faith is an active partnership, especially with other Christians. In business you can have ‘silent partners’; people who have nothing to do with the day to day running of the work, but simply reap the profits at the end of it. It is perhaps easy to think of being a Christian in those terms. I’m in it for the profits but not for the pain. I’m not interested in getting stuck in with the mess and muck of other people’s lives. I’d like to keep my rugby shirt clean and free of mud.
But Paul doesn’t see it that way. He doesn’t give any room for silent partners in the Christian faith, but active partnership. He calls each one of us to get our clothes dirty in the mess of other people’s lives. He wants our faith to be active in sharing with others. That’s not easy or always pleasant. It means we can be knocked and bruised from time to time, like those in a rugby scrum. But at the end of the day, our shirts should not look as clean as the beginning, because we have been willing to share the mess of life with others.