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All is right with the world: the NFL has brought back their regular referees. A week ago the hallowed halls of the institution I serve were aflame because of the injustice wreaked on the Green Bay Packers by the NFL’s replacement referees. Now life has moved on.
But what did we learn from it?
I for one reflected on John Calvin and specifically Calvin’s third use of the law. (Alas, I fear I may be the only one inspired to think about Calvin. I told the distinguished Calvin scholar Dr. I. John Hesselink that I was going to write about the NFL referee imbroglio and John Calvin and he looked at me like I’d suggested we fly to Mars for the weekend.)
You remember the three uses of the law, don’t you? Use number one is to convict us of our sinfulness and need for salvation. Number two is as a deterrent to those who have no regard for rectitude and justice. In other words, contemplating the punishment may prevent someone from sin. Third is as a guide to righteous living for those in whom the Spirit already reigns.
But for all three to work, you have to believe there is a judge. You have to believe someone is watching.
Which is exactly what went wrong with the NFL. The NFL turned into a cross between the Lord of the Flies and every single day of junior high when we had a substitute teacher. The players believed no one was watching. So rather than use the rule book as a guide to righteous living, players did anything and everything they could get away with. Holding, chop blocking, head slapping, pushing, biting, tripping and every other imaginable means of giving someone the business were happening on every play.
The old joke about football is that a foreign visitor who watched the players huddle and then slam into each other told his host, “This game combines the two worst elements of American society — violence and committee meetings.” Add lawlessness to that list. This isn’t golf where players call fouls on themselves. Football without the rules was unwatchable. I longed for Dirty Harry, John Wayne, George Patton, Wyatt Earp, Rambo and Chuck Norris to arrive and clean things up. I know I’m not the only one who thought that – when the real referees returned they were given standing ovations!
You may be surprised by a standing ovation for some middle-aged guys in zebra shirts, but I was more astonished by my own craving for law and order. Here’s a true confession: although you wouldn’t know to look at me because of my youthful visage and tremendous vigor, I turned 54 the other day. I am a Baby Boomer, raised on Vietnam and Watergate. We Boomers are the generation that gave the world the song, “I fight authority, authority always wins.” I have always disliked “the man.” Even now, when I’ve come to realize I am “the man,” I still dislike him. I haven’t been attracted to the military since I got over my GI Joe doll thing when I was eleven years old. I shy away from the police. When my kids were in elementary school I had to come to grips with the fact that I was afraid of the principal, even though she was 15 years younger than me.
I’ve been generationally predisposed to having a hard time with verses like Psalm 119:97, which says, “Oh how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.” I never thought I loved God’s law. I loved God’s grace, but not the law. The law is for legalists and Pharisees and Fundamentalists.
And now, thanks to the NFL, I see clearly that the law is for me, too. Calvin knew what he was talking about.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
Amen to that. Welcome back, law and order. I’m happy to see you.