Quincy Carter killed last Saturday night. He fired off six touchdown strikes without a single interception, pilling up points as he led his team to a 62-27 triumph and pushed their perfect record to 5-and-0. His performance earned a twenty-five percent bonus slapped a’ la mode atop his regular salary.
Only a few small problems blemish the perfect complexion of this triumph: Carter was playing for the Bossier-Shreveport Battle Wings of the AF2 football league, the minor league outfit of a sideshow sport; they defeated the Corpus Christi Sharks before two thousand fans; his bonus was fifty bucks.
Quincy Carter once deployed his formidable skills for the Dallas Cowboys, playing for big bucks and big fame before sixty-five thousand spectators. He led America’s Team to their only ten-win season in the post-Troy Aikman era. He threw twenty-nine strikes into the paydirt and marched his squad nearly six thousand yards in total offense.
Then Qunicy Carter started falling. A failed dope test did him in at Dallas. He jumped to the Jets and lasted one year. The Montreal Alouettes signed him, then cut him after a month. To use one of Ernest Hemingway’s metaphors, being cut from the CFL is, for a former big-timer, like being eighty-sixed out of a leper colony. Now he actually hopes to upgrade to the major leagues of arena football in a climb he hopes culminates with a backup slot in the big show.
We call what happend to Quincy Carter a “fall from grace;” we are wrong. Grace isn’t something you can fall out of; it is something you have to fall into.
Carter’s story is compelling as a cautionary tale. “There but for the grace of God,” we might murmur in a moment of pious pity. “Don’t do drugs,” we tell your kids. “Look what happened to him.” In essence, it becomes for us the poignant story of what should not happen to us, what must not happen to us, what will not at all costs ever happen to us.
That’s what I thought when I read Carter’s story in the local newspaper last Saturday. Then I went to church on Sunday. There I took a one-two punch from my Sunday school teacher and my pastor. My Sunday school teacher, Kathleen Rodman, is a tiny little woman in the later years of life. You might not think she could pack much of a punch, but you would be reckoning without her formidable mind and heart. I once read a comment by an Episcopal layperson who didn’t think much of the Bible teachers of her evangelical childhood. “I don’t know,” she mused, “how we can expect most amateur teachers to get around simplistic Bible story retelling in order to emphasize the fullness and connectedness of the ongoing biblical story of God’s dealing with mankind.” Clearly, she never met Kathleen. Kathleen is the classic example of a Baptist layperson who has absorbed the Bible both with her head and with her heart, who has taken it in at the ears and fed it back with her hands and feet. I’d gladly hand her my seminary diploma if she needed a tissue: she’d probably sneeze more theology onto it than I ever got out of it.
The day’s lesson came from Philippians 2, the great kenotic emptying passage. As Kathleen taught, I thought of Quincy Carter and realized that his story and Jesus’ story describe the same trajectory: the downward plummet from the highest pinnacle, the dizzying drop from the top to the pits, thirty-two feet per second per second in the terminal velocity from glory to shame.
”Of course,” you object, “there was a difference.” And of course you are right: Quincy Carter is guiltless and Jesus is guilty. Quincy Carter engineered his own demise by putting a toke of marijuana above a dream career. Jesus engineered his own demise by putting Quincy Carter above equality with the Father. When Jesus hung on the cross, he died guilty of every joint that Quincy Carter smoked. If Quincy Carter avails himself of the saving blood, he stands innocent of even inhaling.
I suddenly saw that I’ve been living the wrong story! Quincy Carter is not a detour sign on the career path; he is a merge sign which sends me off the superslab of secular thinking straight into the potholed goat track that leads to eternal life.
I staggered out of Sunday school and down the hall to the worship service. Kathleen set me up with the jab; Grover finished me off with the straight right.
His current sermon series concerns the five languages of love as outlined by Gary Chapman. Yesterday’s special was “touch.” Not content to dish up a few harmless bromides about hugging your wife more often, Grover pushed me relentlessly into a corner and whacked me over the nose with the wet newspaper of Genesis 2. He pointed out that the word for God “forming” Adam comes from the pottery trade. It means to mold, sculpt, shape. He then spoke of the intimacy of the concept of God “breathing” life into Adam’s nostrils. I shuddered at two uncomfortable images.
Image 1: “formed.” I took pottery in college because I figured there would be no homework. There wasn’t, but I soon ran into something worse: muddy hands. I don’t like goo on my fingers. I was a conscientous objector to finger painting in kindergarten. I quickly discovered, however, that when a potter works a lump of clay on the wheel, he must keep it slick and slippery, right on the grey borderland between solid and liquid. You end up slimed to the elbows in something that would make a good catfish condo on the stagnant bottom of a backwater stream.
Image 2: “breathed.” CPR. I saw Spiderman 3 last night. At one point in the plot, the hero’s buddy lies near death. Spidey heroically whams on the guy’s chest in classic CPR fashion but I found myself praying he would forego mouth-to-mouth. Ask any guy; I’d rather one of my pals just let me go gently into that good night. Michelangelo got it all wrong, that famous painting of Adam’s finger meeting God halfway at the moment of animation. Adam lay prostrate like a fat guy who faints halfway up a hillside on a hot day as God administered the kiss of life.
And here was Grover giving me a God who stooped so low as to mire himself to his almighty elbows with the ooze of my essence, then mouth-to-mouthed me until I started sucking wind. Then Grover administered the coup de amazing grace: “In Genesis, God made a body. In the gospel, he became one.” My soul staggered at the thought: God no longer just dirtying his hands with me; God enshrining himself in the same six or so feet of dirt. Blood and saliva and bad breath and acne – Jesus not just dressed up in this as a costume, but fully enfleshed while fully God.
The body of Jesus hangs on Calvary unable to pass a urine test without coming up positive for weed. The very blood that falls from his wounded hands would reveal the presence of AIDS. If they inked his hands they would find those whirls on every crime scene ever dusted for fingerprints. CSI Jerusalem: Jesus did it.
Quincy Carter didn’t fall as fast as Jesus: he only started from the top of the human heap; Jesus jumped from the throne of glory. Quincy Carter didn’t fall as far as Jesus: the af2 broke his fall whereas Jesus didn’t hit solid ground until he bounced off the bottom of Hell. Which means that Quincy Carter’s failure is contained in Jesus’ suffering, and his redemption is absorbed in Jesus’ resurrection. So the gist of the sermon is this: don’t, in fact, be Quincy Carter – that’s too easy. Be Jesus – that’s the call of the Christian.