Margins between Victory and Defeat

I am pleased that England have reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup; given the youth of the side, this represents an achievement. Naturally, national hysteria declaring that “it’s coming home” is beginning to set in. There were at least whispers following the 6-1 victory over Panama, but with England’s triumph in a penalty shoot-out over Colombia, these whispers are turning into clamours. And, perhaps not unreasonably so: with the elimination of so many “favourites”, England’s side of the draw is now weaker than it might otherwise have been; and in winning the penalty shoot-out, the players and management will have had past wounds healed and confidence boosted.

In many sports, the margins between victory and defeat are often tiny. This can be especially true of football. I still justify calling it the “beautiful game” because it can be so unpredictable; games can turn on a knife edge, and this makes for fabulous entertainment … and an emotional rollercoaster!

Consider England’s progress so far in the tournament. Overall, I think they deserve to be in the quarter-finals, but things could have been very different. In the first game against Tunisia, we had perhaps resigned ourselves to England making another mediocre start to a World Cup. You could practically hear the knives being sharpened for Southgate, until suddenly Harry Kane scored the second goal in stoppage-time and all the talk was about how excellent England had been that evening.

Conversely, against Colombia, we felt that England had won: Danny Murphy was talking about a “deserved victory” ahead of time – and then Colombia nicked an equaliser. What margins! Colombia moved the ball forward slightly from the free-kick in their own half, Pickford made an unbelievable finger-tip save, but from the resulting corner, the ball was just an inch too high for Trippier to head off the line. It looked like Colombia would win in extra-time; England were on the ropes, but they settled themselves to force the penalty shoot-out. Again, how different could this have been, had the fourth Colombian penalty been an inch lower, and had Pickford not made the fabulous save from the fifth penalty? Margins, such margins.

Another sporting spectacle, the 105th Tour de France begins on Saturday, and the favourites for the yellow jersey, Team Sky, have become famous for their philosophy of marginal gains. Some of their strategies have drawn suspicion and criticism, and I am not sufficiently scientifically-minded or qualified to address them – but the principle is important: by aggregating various marginal gains (e.g., specially designed elliptical chainrings, cycling suits, stages planned and prepared for down to the finest detail), this will result in a significant gain: results.

It seems that England used marginal gains principles in preparing for the penalty shoot-out: frequent practice at the end of sessions; notes on Colombian penalty-takers on Pickford’s water bottle; and experts brought in to prepare the players tactically and even more importantly, psychologically. No doubt these small margins, in addition to a manager who had experienced the heartbreak of penalty shoot-out defeat, aided England and gave them a better chance of success. Yet, it still could have been very different, had the margins been slightly altered. Victory could easily have been defeat; joy could have become grief.

All of this has made me think about the margins between victory and defeat from a theological perspective. There is no clearer place we see this than at the Cross, as recorded in all four of the gospels in the Bible. I have heard a few excellent talks over the years about how the Cross, which seemed to be a great defeat for Jesus and His followers, was in fact a great victory: His hour of glory.

All four gospels record the moments that Jesus died and talk about his final breath. The wording is slightly different in each case, but interestingly in all four gospels, the notion of pneuma, which we generally translate as “spirit” or “breath”, is present.

In Matthew 28:50, it says: “he yielded his spirit”;[1] in Mark 15:37: “he breathed out”;[2] in Luke 23:46, Jesus quotes Psalm 31:5: “Into your hands, I entrust my spirit”[3] and in saying that, again, “he breathed out”;[4] and finally, in John 19:30, similarly to Matthew, “he gave up his spirit”.[5]

I believe this shows two main things. Firstly, and more briefly: Jesus, fully divine and fully human, indeed dies. Death is not trivial: it is a terrible thing. The disciples’ initial reactions of grief show that they thought this was the end for Jesus: the defeat from which there was no return; they thought that the full-time whistle had blown.

Secondly, and in more detail: in all this language of breathing and spirit, there is perhaps already a foreshadowing of future hope. While Jesus indeed dies, other parts of the New Testament record that the Spirit brought Him to life, he descended to hell and defeated the powers of darkness (cf. 1 Peter 3:18-19). Then, after three days, all the gospel accounts record that the resurrected Jesus appeared to many of His followers again. So, when Jesus breathes his last, it is only a temporary defeat: the victory comes with his resurrection, as Jesus had promised throughout his ministry. From our perspective, we need not see a margin between victory and defeat; the result is assured.

I wonder when the gospel writers use all this language of breathing and spirit in talking about Jesus’ final breath, whether this is also intended to remind us of Jesus’ promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit, when the disciples’ grief would turn to joy (John 16:20), once he had been raised and ascended to the Father. While the crucifixion was not the time when the Holy Spirit came (this happened at Pentecost, once Jesus has ascended to the Father), for us today, the presence of the Holy Spirit is the reminder of the great result that Jesus has defeated death. This will be seen even more fully when he returns: described by one theologian as the “final victory of God”.[6]

I would love it if England were to win the World Cup. They stand a genuine chance of doing so; but the margins between victory and defeat, as we have seen already in this tournament, are so fine. Anything could happen, which makes it all very exciting. England and, particularly, Gareth Southgate are doing a great job in controlling what they can control, but they can’t control everything. Their results are unassured, in contrast I believe, to the great victory that Jesus Christ has already won over death. Currently, we are in stoppage-time, where with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can make some significant moves, but not such that the overall result of Jesus’ victory is affected.

Heaven is Jesus’ home, so it would not make sense to say He’s coming home, but we are told He is coming back. Are we ready?

[1] Greek: ἀφῆκεν τὸ πνεῦμα

[2] ἐξέπνευσεν

[3] εἰς χεῖράς σου παρατίθεμαι τὸ πνεῦμά μου

[4] ἐξέπνευσεν

[5] παρέδωκεν τὸ πνεῦμα: NB. Here, King James Version says: “he gave up the ghost”, from where we get our expression.

[6] Michael Lloyd in his Café Theology of which I am a great fan (see previous blog).

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