The NFL's "Holy Day"
Well, it’s Super Bowl week. On Sunday the two best rated NFL teams — the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Kansas City Chiefs — will face off. Adding to the excitement of what is already promising to be a big game is the helmet-to-helmet matchup of the greatest quarterback of all time with the greatest current quarterback: Tom Brady versus Patrick Mahomes. It will probably be an amazing game.
The NFL has set aside one day a week to be the main event. It's Sunday. And the NFL is intentional about playing games on Sundays. Why? Professional football began in 1920 with the American Professional Football Association (APFA). During that time college football was already massively popular — even more than professional football. However, college football was played on Saturdays. The APFA knew that they couldn’t compete with its popularity and so they looked for a different time. Sunday was wide open.
One of the reasons Sundays were available was because of blue laws — “Sunday laws.” These were laws that restricted or banned activities on Sundays. Even in the United States the Supreme Court has often upheld blue laws which help contribute to the free exercise of religion. In fact, it's still illegal in several states to sell cars on Sunday. A prohibition traced back to the blue laws.
In the early twentieth century professional sports began to crack through the blue laws. This first happened with baseball and led to cities like Chicago, St. Louis, and Cincinnati legalizing Sunday baseball. This was advantageous for sports. Because Sunday was a day people typically had off of work, baseball was able to maximize attendance and profit and often played doubleheaders. Sunday also proved a good for professional football for the same reason.
In 1939 NBC broadcast the first NFL game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Brooklyn Dodgers. Initially, the NFL didn't do well on television and even ranked behind the Canadian Football League in the 1950s. But the NFL got smart and figured out how to use television broadcasting to their advantage and in the 1960s they would surpass the popularity of Major League Baseball. In 1961 Congress passed the Sports Broadcasting Act. Basically, the law banned the NFL from being able to broadcast games during the fall on Fridays and Saturdays — or at least from the second Friday of September until the second Saturday of December. This was in order to protect high school and college games as one was played on Friday and the other Saturday.
The NFL has brilliantly orchestrated their rise and influence in becoming the broadcasting titan they are today. Professional football is at the center of national attention for seventeen weeks every year. In the words of one journalist “Football is the new American religion." It's an institutionalized system complete with its gods, temples and shrines, devoted followers, cult-like traditions and ceremonies, laws and ordinances, and even its own holy day – Sunday.
That’s unfortunate. It's unfortunate because for many Christians Sunday is viewed as a unique day of the week. Since creation, God has specified that one day a week is to be set apart from the others – it is to be a day of worship and rest. In the Old Testament that was the seventh day of the week, the Sabbath.
With the resurrection of Jesus Christ – who is the Lord of the Sabbath – a new pattern was set. It was on the first day of the week that Jesus rose from the grave (John 20:1), met with Mary, and gathered with his disciples in the evening to speak peace to them (John 20:19). A week later it was again the first day of the week when Jesus met with Thomas who missed his first apperance (John 20:26). It became the day the Apostles recognized for the public meeting of the church and ministry to one another (see e.g. Acts 20:7 and 1 Corinthians 16:1-2). The Apostle John even gives it the designation we still use today calling it "the Lord's Day" (Revelation 1:10).
I know that even among Bible-believing Christians there’s differences about how best to keep the Lord’s Day. I get it. But I also hope that in the least we could all agree that on that day God doesn't have compete for our heart and time. The Apostle Paul said that a married man is anxious about wordly things (see 1 Corinthians 7:33). If I can borrow that idea here, busy people are anxious about wordly things – work, school, bills, family gatherings, hobbies, entertainment, and recreation.
God, in his kindness, has told us to fill six days a week with all of that, and more! But he’s asked for one day. He’s commanded one day where those other things, good as they are on those six days, take a back seat to things of first importance. He's asked us to remember a day where we might be free from the anxieties of our daily lives. On the Lord’s Day — the very day that bears Jesus’ name — he shouldn’t have to compete for our attention and time. He shouldn't have a divided people. Whatever else happens on Sunday, this should be especially true of our being present in public worship – whether that’s once on a Sunday, or twice for AM and PM worship.
But many Christians find themselves divided during the NFL season and especially on “Super Bowl Sunday.” Okay, let’s be honest if a little pessimistic. “Many” won’t feel divided on the issue. The NFL has already won with little to no resistance. Many will exchange the "holy day of the Lord" for the holy day of the NFL. Interesting isn't it? It's not a set-apart day people object to. It's not taking a break from regular activities people object to. It's not dedicating significant time to a single purpose people object to. Both the NFL and Christianity have those demands.
With some accuracy I think it’s a useful and obvious observation that the increase of activities in society on Sunday and the popularity of professional sports has had a devastating effect on churches. Personally, as a Christian and a pastor I find that tragic and I find it discouraging. No, I don’t want to guilt people to be at worship. I don't want to guilt them to give attention to Jesus. But I do wish we valued worship as worship enough that something as trivial as a football game wouldn’t even begin to compete for our time and commitment.
But that's what happens when you have two competing holy days. One must take priority over the other. If professional football is America's religion then we cannot expect anyone to be able to serve two masters very well: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24).