If you have ever watched both the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics, you will notice a symbolic and significant difference between the two. Both include a parade of athletes, but a dramatic shift happens from the beginning to the end. In the opening ceremonies, athletes march with others from their country behind a representative carrying their country’s flag. Each nation is separated, segregated, distinct, with distance between them and others who entered before or after. For decades, that is how the closing ceremonies looked as well, but all that changed at the 1956 Olympics in Australia.
As Bill Chappell describes it, the 1956 Games famously teetered toward chaos rather than unity with a number of nations boycotting and others ordering their athletes not to mix with other delegations. In Europe, post-war tensions spiked as the Games began, with the Soviet Union sending tanks into Hungary. Then came the infamous “Blood in the Water” water polo match — a contest between Hungary and the Soviet Union that turned so vicious it had to be stopped.
The closing ceremony was on the verge of being canceled when a young man suggested a change. Put the flags to the side and lose the separation. Have the athletes march with no more than two athletes from the same nation walking together. The Games start with separation, but they end with a symbol of unity.
This feels like a great vision for so many sectors, not the least of which is church in our fragmented world. Every Sunday, Christians gather around the globe and people carry with them the banners of that which they hold dear. Often then, we congregate, commune, and collect in like-minded groups. We all carry in our flags. Some we wave proudly and loudly, even turning them into weapons against those who don’t agree. Others are carried more discretely, but we all have them. We start to build up our thought borders. We set up ideological boundaries. We march with those who think the same. It just feels easier that way. Safer.
But what if God’s kingdom vision is bigger? What if we don’t deny that we often enter carrying different banners, but what if the gospel vision is that we always leave, even when we disagree, under the banner of Christ, a banner that is bigger and broader, more inviting and inclusive than the church has historically made it?