Every baseball fan will remember the crowds shouting out: “keep your eye on the ball!” “Keep your eye on the ball!” It’s an old baseball adage that encourages the batter to remember the basics. “Keep your eye on ball!” When the ball (no bigger than a fist) is coming at you at 98 miles per hour, you can’t afford to take your eye off the ball for a split second—for a split second is all you have. If you are batting against a pitcher who is throwing that ball at 98 miles per hour, you have 0.4 of a second before the ball reaches you.
You have to keep your eye on the ball. And it’s very easy to take your eye off the ball if you are not completely and totally focused. If you’re worried about that last at bat when this pitcher struck you out, that thought will take up a good chunk of the time you have to devote to the ball. If you are upset with the umpire’s last call, that moment of upset takes time away from the signal your brain has to send to your arms to swing the bat. Too late. The ball is in the catcher’s glove and you’ve just been called out.
The apostle Paul would often use images of sport to make his point. In the spirit of old sports analogies, let’s think of the “ball” as the gospel—the gospel we are supposed to keep our eye on. Listen to what Paul said in his letter to the church at Corinth, chapter one. Paul wrote 1:14 “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 1:15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.” Now that might strike us as an odd thing to say about someone’s own ministry. Why would Paul be glad that he baptized only a couple of people at the Corinthian church? What’s his point? I think what Paul is saying can be summed up in our little adage: “Keep your eye on the ball,” that is, stay focused on the gospel.
For the people in the church at Corinth had become fixated on other things than the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. Some were saying, “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Paul.” Others said, “I belong to Chephas (that is the disciple Peter), or I belong to Christ.” And so there were divisions among the people.
Some churches baptize only by total submersion. Some churches do not. Some churches have communion 3 or 4 times a year and some only once a year; some have communion every other week and some every Sunday. Some churches take one political stance and others may take a completely different political point of view. It makes for a tapestry of complex texture, spiritual color, thought, feelings, and attitudes regarding all kinds of issues.
What Paul was saying when he said he was glad that he had baptized almost no one was that the church at Corinth needed to keep its eye on the ball, that is, the gospel—and they weren’t doing that. Baptism is important. Communion is important. But Paul’s task was to preach the gospel. The important thing, the ball, was not whether some liked Apollos or Paul or Peter better. No, the “ball” was the gospel.
There has been a great deal of focus today in our wider culture on diversity and on the differences that exist among people. And that is a good thing—a very good thing. Certainly, for too much of our history we have not focused on all the diversity there is among us. But there is also great unity! For we all are, after all, human beings—and in this we are the same. I so love and appreciate the focus that Dr. Alveda King, a niece of Martin Luther King, Jr., showed when she said on national TV that each of us bleeds the same color red. The red stripes on our national flag represent the blood that has been shed over the past 244 years of our history by men and women to defend our country. You cannot distinguish in that red color anything about the look or skin color or any other characteristic that would make one person different from another.
It is so very similar in the case of another flag, as well: the Christian Flag with a large white field covering almost the whole the flag. In the upper left corner is a smaller, square, blue field with a deep red cross in its center. The most outstanding aspect of the Christian flag is that deep red cross. The red blood of Jesus flows in the veins of all those in the body of Christ. The average Christian today is about 5 feet tall, female, and has brown skin. That is an interesting fact but not the most important one. What is most important, what binds us together as Christians is that red cross on the Christian flafg—the gospel, the good news of salvation in Jesus our Lord.
Apollos was a good man. A great Christian of his time, alongside Paul. He was learned for he had an impressive education in Greek philosophy and could stand his ground in intellectual defense of the Christian faith. In this way, he was similar to Paul. Peter, though, was unlike either Apollos or Paul. He was a fisherman. He could spend long hours on board a boat casting and re-casting his fish nets to haul in his catch of fish. He probably smelled of fish and was around fish so much that it would have been difficult probably to get all that smell out. This was the man, the rock, on which Jesus said he would build his church. Jesus would take this fisherman and make of him a fisher of human beings.
When I was in Little League I was pitcher. Good thing, too—because I couldn’t have hit a beach ball. My eyes shoot off in different directions (especially when I’m tired); I can bring them back together but it takes some effort and it gives me headaches. The fans would encourage me to keep my eye on the ball but I always wondered, “Which one?”
Good news is (pun intended, I guess) you don’t have to be a pitcher or a batter to keep your heart centered on the gospel in Christian life. By coming to church, reading the bible, praying, and singing hymns to God—and loving our neighbors, we are asking Christ Jesus to keep our focus on him and not anything else. He is certainly keeping each one of us at the center of his heart. Amen.
The writer is the pastor of St. Jacob’s Lutheran and Emmanuel Lutheran churches.