Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy, insists the Fourth Commandment. Does that mean we should only read the Bible on Sundays, spend as much time as possible in church, and never, ever watch a football match, let alone run a marathon on the Lord’s Day?
As a rebellious Presbyterian preacher’s kid growing up in the Seventies in the heart of the North Antrim Bible Belt, voicing support for Sunday sport was akin to burning in hell. The only book to be read on God’s Holy Day was the Bible, so sneak peaks at the then top football magazine known as Shoot! was a huge ‘no, no.’
Sunday soccer was unheard of in the 1970s, and only the World Cup final was traditionally played on the Sabbath. I remember early July 1974 as if it was yesterday – West Germany was meeting Holland in the World Cup final and the match was being screened live on what is now known as terrestrial television.
But it was a Sunday and I had avidly followed the progress of both countries to the final. But in our Presbyterian Manse, there was no TV on Sundays, so how was I to follow the game?
The situation was made much worse in that there was a major service that day in my late father’s church, Clough Presbyterian, near Ballymena – and the guest preacher was the Rev Martin Smyth, the former leader of the Orange Order and a former UUP MP for South Belfast.
But like Baldrick in Blackadder, I had devised a cunning plan! Normally, on such an important Sunday where we would have a high profile guest evangelist, my role was to help dad at the church.
But I’d spent most of Saturday evening working on the devious scheme, which swung into operation soon after lunch – I volunteered to help mum with preparing the after-church refreshments at the Manse!
They would be served in what became known as ‘the big sitting room’ in the Manse. It was where guests were treated to tea and tray bakes. We had a small black and white portable TV which I moved discreetly into the corner of the large room, well hidden behind an ornamental cushion.
By the time church service was finished, chats over and people back at the Manse, the match would be over and the trophy presented – unless there was an upset and extra time or penalties were needed!
While my mum was busy preparing the traditional range of Presbyterian sandwiches, I would leave the kitchen, go to the other end of the Manse, switch on the portable TV, ensure the sound was muted – and enjoy the match, keeping the large door ajar in case mum came in unexpectedly with the china cups and saucers.
The plan worked without a hitch and neither my parents nor Rev Smyth ever realised West Germany had beaten Holland 2-1 to win the World Cup.
That was 1974; there would be no need to sneak about in today’s society where even some churches show the World Cup final in large screens in the church hall. For them, such a footballing occasion would be an opportunity for evangelism.
I even recall the massive outcry from a section of Christian fundamentalist opinion when Scotland’s Glasgow Rangers staged their first Sunday match.
There was a similar debate earlier this month when the traditional Belfast marathon was staged on a Sunday for the first time in its history rather than the usual Monday Bank Holiday. There was some hue and cry from a section of the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, the denomination founded by the late Rev Ian Paisley in 1951.
For decades, the so-called ‘Free P’s were to the fore in protesting against anything which besmirched the Sabbath. The ‘Free P’s were also supported to a large extent by the pressure group known as the Lord’s Day Observance Society.
But since Paisley senior stood down as both First Minister and Moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church, and particularly since his death, the ‘Free P’s influence in theological lobbying has waned considerably.
What has become apparent is that there is now a significant gap on the evangelical theological spectrum for a new champion of Christian values in Northern Ireland. Any takers? Or are Christian clerics too afraid of any liberal backlash if they spoke out openly on socially conservative issues?
Can Christians set examples in sport by their performances in games and competitions, irrespective if they are played on a Sunday or not. If the Sabbath is to be truly treated as a day of rest, could part of that relaxation be watching or participating in sport?
Some might say that professional sports people are making a living from their chosen sport, therefore, they are working on the Sabbath. But Scripture tells us that if your ox falls into a hole on the Sabbath, you rescue it rather than leave it there.
This is a reference to the New Testament confrontation between Jesus and the notorious Pharisees about healing on the Sabbath.
In Luke’s Gospel Chapter 14 and verses 5 and 6, it states in the King James Version:
And answered them, saying, Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the sabbath day? And they could not answer him again to these things.
What about the many security forces personnel, doctors, nurses, paramedics and emergency services staff who have to work on Sundays. Imagine a situation where your home was on fire on a Sunday and when you contacted the Fire and Rescue Service, you got a pre-recorded message saying: “As it is the Sabbath, we are not working and you will have to phone back after midnight to avail of the services of a fire engine!”
Christians can also show their faith in action by not abusing their bodies with alcohol, drugs or smoking as the Bible urges us to view our bodies as temples of the Lord.
This is a reference to another New Testament text, 1st Corinthians Chapter 6 and verse 19, which states: “What? Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?” (KJV).
Many people, especially the youth, view sporting stars as heroes and heroines. If a Christian footballer, for example, was to constantly use bad language during a game, and committed fouls which earned them yellow or red cards, that could be deemed as reflecting badly on the Christian faith.
I recall again in the Seventies playing in a Boys’ Brigade soccer match in Ballymena. Although the BB is seen as a church-based organisation, that particular match was a very bad-tempered game. Most BB matches ended with a short time of prayer after the final whistle.
On this occasion, as BB officers asked all the players to bow their heads and close their eyes for the time of prayer, one lad waited until eyes were closed before yelling at the top of his voice: “Referee, why don’t you just f**k off home!”
This was followed by much yelling by BB officers of ‘Who shouted that?’ and ‘Remember this is a BB match!’
As for the Sunday marathon, could this not be a great opportunity for evangelism among the legions of supporters, some of whom may never darken a church’s door. Given the number of places of worship along the Belfast marathon route, rather than moan about not being able to get to church, could those churches in future use the marathon as an opportunity to reach out into the community.
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
Listen to religious commentator Dr John Coulter’s slot, Call Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM, as part of the ‘At The Table’ show.