Part V of a VII Part Series

“There is one body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all”    –Ephesians 4:4-6          

So why am I talking about a legendary basketball coach from this sanctified desk? Well, I’m glad you asked. It’s because of what he preaches about basketball and about life: “The strength of the wolf is in the pack.” If you are older than 25–and it looks to me as if most of you are–you will remember that before Phil Jackson arrived, the Bulls could not win even with an athlete who may have been, and still is, the greatest basketball player in history and averaging 37 points a game at the time.I come with a report from the land of the New York Knicks. In metropolitan New York, they are so happy that Phil Jackson is with the Knicks once again. They are hoping that Mr. Jackson will repeat history a third time and turn a mediocre team into an NBA Champion. Phil already has 13 NBA rings, more than anyone else in history–two as a player with the Knicks, six with the Bulls; as you well know; and five more with the Lakers.

When Phil Jackson inherited the Chicago Bulls, the Bulls were known as “Michael Jordan and the Jordanaires.” Sometimes they were known as “Jesus and his Apostles.” Michael Jordan could do with a basketball what Jesus did with five loaves and two fishes or the water at the wedding of Cana–make miracles. He could do things with a basketball that nobody had ever done before, like hang in the air above the rim for about a month.

Even his teammates stood around just watching him in slack-jawed awe. The Bulls strategy back then was, “Give the ball to Jordan and get out of the way.” It was called “The Archangel Offense.” But they weren’t winning basketball games. Any respectable basketball team can play defense against one player if the other four aren’t doing anything.

And then Phil Jackson comes along and with his gentle spiritual direction–that’s the way he puts it; he describes his task as a spiritual one, not a physical one–with his spiritual direction, the Bulls went to a new level: six championships, as a team, a coherent unity. Coach Jackson taught them that selflessness and compassion were the soul of teamwork. Phil Jackson taught Michael Jordan to pass the basketball to his teammates every now and then.

As Jackson himself puts it, he turned the power of One into the power of Oneness, which couldn’t go anywhere without the contributions of bit players like Scottie Pippen and a multi-hued wack job called Dennis Rodman.

Phil Jackson was the son of two Assembly-of-God ministers, spent four years of his youth living in the basement of a church, and knew his New Testament better than he knew his Chicago Bulls playbook. Jackson eventually abandoned the stark, severe, fundamental Christianity of his youth when as a teenager he could not pass the Pentecostalist litmus test of being able to speak in tongues, and experimented with Lakota Sioux spirituality and Zen Buddhism instead, but I find myself wondering how much of St. Paul and the book of Ephesians Phil Jackson actually assimilated into his coaching philosophy.[1]

“There is one body,” says St. Paul, “and there is one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one birth.” We are all One because God is One. And Paul illustrates the Oneness of the Church with that lovely metaphor of the body. “We must GROW UP,” he says, “in every way into him who is the Head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” Every individual has his or her own role to play, no matter how small and seemingly minuscule, and if just one part is misfiring, the whole organism is sick.

St. Paul is trying to tell us that one of the habits of highly faithful churches is coherent, compassionate community. In your wide wanderings through Christendom, you may even have become familiar with the Greek New Testament word koinonia, which just means ‘common’–stuff we have together, something we hold between us. Koinonia is the fellowship of the faithful, the sympathy of the saints, the community of the congregants.

To change the metaphor, a highly faithful church is a place where God is forming a family out of strangers.[2] A highly faithful church functions as a body, where one part’s pain makes the whole body ail, or as a family, where one member’s suffering makes the whole family weep. A highly faithful church is a place where they like to be together, where they miss you if you’re not there, where they limp if you’re not doing your part, where they notice if you’re acting out like a crazy person, and where they weep if you hurt.

Have you ever thought of the church community as a horizontal, earthly manifestation of a vertical, spiritual reality? That this congregational community is the ongoing flesh-and-blood incarnation of Jesus the Christ in the world today? Paul says that the One God, who is Father to us all, is above all, and in all and through all.

Stop to consider the implications of that poetic formulation. God is in us and through us. God is in the human community. If you have trouble grasping the invisible, distant, and hidden reality of God, maybe you could grip at least the hem of that presence by participating in its earthly incarnation, the people of God in this congregation. People who cannot believe in God can at least believe sometimes in God’s people.

I love the story Harold Kushner tells about the young man who asked his father why he went to synagogue every single Sabbath even though he didn’t believe in God. The old man was loud and proud in his intense atheism, but there he was every Friday evening with the faithful at Shabbat services, and when his son asked him why he went every Sabbath, the old man replied, “Jews go to synagogue for many different reasons. My friend Garfinkel goes to synagogue to talk to God. I go to talk to Garfinkel.”[3] You could do worse. One Sabbath, you go to talk to Garfinkel, the next maybe you find yourself talking to God. Sometimes that’s the way it works. We find God through each other.

The Church is the place where God is forming a family out of strangers.[4] Someone else says that one of the church’s first tasks is to be a compensatory family for those who have none.[5] What do we do with the children and adults who had awful parents? Prominent Princeton University Sociologist Robert Wuthnow interviewed one young man who suffered an abysmal childhood. He says, “All my father ever taught me was that I didn’t want to be like him.”[6] But this young man was webbed into a local congregation, and because of that compensatory family, he turned out to be an outstanding citizen. He had heroes whose stature he tried to live into. He had people who fathered him in the absence of his own father. That’s what we can do for one another–we can parent one another into the maturity of the stature of Jesus Christ, as Paul puts it.

At my church in Greenwich, there was a family whose home had burned down to the ground. This happened 20 years before I arrived. No one was hurt but all was lost. The children in this family were all very young when this fire struck, and 30 years after it happened, their mother–my friend Linda–still gets a tear in her eye when she remembers how touched she was when members of my church threw a toy shower for the kids to replace all that they had lost. You know, everybody thinks to bring clothes and food and all the other necessities of daily existence, but who thinks about the kids and their toys? Well, the Church, of course. I thought that was a rather creative response to a difficult situation.

When a baby is born, do we bring a meal? When someone goes to the hospital, do we go too? When someone dies, are we there? When someone has a terrible story to tell us, do we stay and listen? Those are the habits of a highly faithful church.

“The power of the wolf is in the pack,” says Coach Phil. “There is one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all,” says Coach Paul. We do it together, or we can’t do it at all. The Christian Church does not feature an Archangel Offense, where all the parishioners sit back and get out of the way and watch in awe as Jo Forrest or Katie Lancaster or Sallie Smith or Linda Kingman runs around single-handedly dunking the basketball, praying the prayers, teaching the classes, visiting the sick, baptizing the babies, marrying the daughters, organizing the potluck suppers, running the meetings, listening to the broken-hearted, and generally saving the world. It’s all of us or none of us.

This is true for basketball teams, for churches, and even for nations. Exactly a month ago today, we marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day, but what happened after June 6, 1944? By the Fourth of July, 1944, there were one million Allied soldiers in France. In the month of July, the Allies retook Caen, St. Lo, and Cherbourg. By the end of August, they regained Paris and gave it back to the French. Then, in December, The Battle of the Bulge. It took them almost a year to get to Berlin.

Do you know the name Dick Winters? Dick Winters parachuted into France in the early hours of June 6, 1944, and fought his way across Europe to Berlin and stayed there until well beyond V-E Day almost a year later. For a while he was commander of Easy Company, Second Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.

Throughout the March to Berlin, Dick Winters fought with such unflinching courage that almost everybody who saw it thought he deserved the Medal of Honor, but the U. S. Military awards only one Medal of Honor per Division, and one had already been awarded in Major Winters’ Division, so Dick Winters instead was awarded the second highest U. S. Army Medal–the Distinguished Service Cross.

In 1992, Stephen Ambrose wrote a book about Dick Winters and Easy Company and called it Band of Brothers; maybe you’ve heard of it. In 2001, HBO made a mini-series out of Mr. Ambrose’s book. Perhaps because of that book and mini-series, someone decided that Major Winters embodied the courage of all those soldiers who invaded France and won it back for freedom in 1944, and today, in the little Normandy village of Sainte-Marie-du-Monte, there is a 12-foot-high bronze statue of Major Winters as a symbol of the whole massive invasion of France called Operation Overlord. Major Winters died in Campbelltown, Pennsylvania, in 2011, before the statue was unveiled.

Near the end of his life, his grandson asked him, “Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?” And Dick Winters answered, “No, son, but I served in a company of heroes.”[7]

That is almost always where heroes are made–in a company, on a team, in a community, almost never by themselves.

Thomas Lynch, the most famous undertaker in America, wonders why God is so shy. Why does God stay so invisible, so hidden, so distant, lurking around unseen behind the mysterious bread and wine, body and blood; in the opaque, sometimes inscrutable pages of scripture; in all this hocus-pocus, hide- and-seek, cloak-and-dagger ritual?

But then Mr. Lynch answers his own question. What if we find God gazing back at us in the eyes of our darling sons and daughters, in the eyes of the women we sleep with, or the timely friend with time enough to kill while he listens as we spill our guts about our latest heartbreak or sins? Are they gods enough? he asks. The lovers and children and the heart’s neighbors who turn the word to flesh and dwell with us?[8]

Are they gods enough? Probably not. But it’s a good start.


[1]From Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior (Hyperion, 1996), by Phil Jackson and Hugh Delahanty, and from “The One and Only,” by Joel Stein, Time, June 22, 1998, pp. 54-60.

[2]William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens (Nashville: Abingdon, 1985), p. 88.

[3]Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Schocken Books, 1981), 122.

[4]William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens (Nashville: Abingdon, 1985), 82-83.

[5]John Claypool, in an unpublished lecture at Princeton Theological Seminary.

[6]Robert Wuthnow, Christianity in the 21st Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 63.

[7]Richard Winters related this story in an interview for the HBO series Band of Brothers.

[8]A prose paraphrase of Thomas Lynch’s poem “A Rhetoric upon Brother Michael’s Rhetoric upon the Window,” in Still Life in Milford (New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1998), pp. 93-94.