by Braham Semmler Smith
Last week in our Ministry to the Incarcerated class, someone brought in a newspaper with an article about Tony Dungy and his efforts in prison ministry. Dungy is most well known as the former head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, becoming the first African American coach to win the Superbowl. Last year, though, Dungy retired from coaching to focus on ministering to the increasing numbers of men and women who are incarcerated each year. At first glance, one might think of course these prisoners are going to be excited to meet and spend time with him. It would be a welcome distraction from a day of numbing idleness and limited decisions to make. Dungy is successful, rich, and a celebrity. Felons are our lepers, cast out from society. But then as I thought about it, maybe this is exactly what these men and women need. Not Tony Dungy the celebrity, but Tony Dungy the coach.
What does a coach do?
A coach encourages us.
A coach prepares us.
A coach helps keep us accountable.
A coach sets us up to face challenges and be successful.
These are some of the traits I remember in the coaches, mentors, and teachers I have had in my life. At least the good ones. I have also had bad coaches, but the good coaches have been the ones that have stayed with me for many years. And these are the things that Dungy is doing with these members of society who are more likely to be locked up and forgotten than rehabilitated and forgiven. He saw a group of people who were downtrodden. He saw a group in need of encouragement, preparation, and accountability so that they might be successful in their lives.
After reading about Dungy and his ministry, I began to think of Jesus in a new way while reading today’s gospel lesson. Coach. Coach Jesus, with a ball cap and whistle standing on the sidelines of our lives encouraging us, preparing us, helping us stay on task, and setting us up to be successful. We see Coach Jesus today in this story from Luke, as he comes to his team of disciples as they are all gathered, terrified and doubting. It is not just Thomas who doubts and gets a bad name, but all the disciples who are petrified by what they had just experienced, watching their Lord die a horrible death. They were not prepared for what was coming next. How could they be? When someone dies, they die. The end. But the risen Christ comes to them, sees that they are in need of love and encouragement, and offers it to them by showing his hands and feet, and just to make sure, by eating boiled fish with them. He helps keep them understand by opening their minds to the scriptures. And he prepares them to go forth and proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Coach Jesus is setting up his disciples for the challenges they will face, and for success, success that will result in the spreading of the Gospel and the formation of the Church.
Coaching is something that has gained momentum in the Church over the last couple of years. Sarah and I were able to attend a training session on Christian coaching last year with some of the pastors in the Southwest Washington Synod. Sharing some of the same ideas and properties of spiritual direction and counseling, coaching is a process which involves listening, encouragement, and accountability for leaders of the church as they look to share the good news and live out the mission of the Church. It recognizes that the role of church leaders is not to do the work alone, but to equip others to realize what God is calling them to. Christian coaches walk alongside others to help them reach their goals and potential, offering them the encouragement and accountability needed to succeed. This method of coaching that was lifted up reminds me of what Jesus is doing with his disciples in Luke, walking alongside and meeting them where they were, so that they may continue with the work Christ was calling them to.
In this way Christ is speaking to us in this gospel passage, just as he was speaking to the disciples. For a people who can be so inwardly focused, for a people who can be so distracted, for a people who look desperately for signs and proof of the risen Christ, he calls us to repentance; to turn away from our self-centeredness and inner walls, and to turn towards him. It is there and then that he comes to us with proof that he is indeed risen from the dead, and that he has much more in store for us than we could have ever imagined. Where Christ’s physical hands and feet were present for the disciples to see that he had been raised, the ministry of the hands of the countless saints here now continues to bear witness to the Lord’s living presence. Although Christ may not appear to us and eat fish in front of us, his presence is tangible in our soup kitchens, around our tables, and around this table. Our proof comes from the daily stories we hear from people witnessing to the ways Christ is at work in their lives. Christ is risen indeed for all of God’s children, present among us. And it is in this way that the risen Christ continues to be our coach, encouraging us, preparing us, and helping us stay accountable so that we may succeed in the mission and ministry of this Church.
In a week, our semester will be over. Yes, papers and projects will be finished. Grades will be turned in. But our work will not be done. We are called out into the world, to be ministers in the Church that bears Christ’s name. We are called both near and far, in many differing ways and vocations, One Church. We are Commissioned by Christ our coach, sent to spread the good news of hope and resurrection, repentance, justice, and the forgiveness of sins. As we shout our Alleluias this Easter season, and this season of the academic year, we remember:
Christ is risen, Alleluia!
Christ is calling and blessing us! Alleluia!
Christ is sending us out! Alleluia!
Luke 24: 36b-48