Even if you’re not a sports fan, you have probably heard that Florida Gulf Coast University is in the midst of an unprecedented run in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. They are the first 15-seed team in history to make it as far as the Sweet Sixteen, where they will take on the Florida Gators. (Full disclosure: I’m a graduate of the University of Florida, bleed orange and blue and fully plan to cheer the Gators to victory.)
If you’ve watched any of the Florida Gulf Coast University games this tournament, you can’t help but find yourself wrapped up in the excitement of the team. Everyone, it seems, loves an underdog. We love the improbable Cinderella story of an unsung school defying all of our expectations. As the second half wore on in the matchup between the Eagles and San Diego State University, I found a smile playing at the corner of my lips every time FGCU scored. The energy of the fans as they celebrated the victories of this unlikely team was nearly palpable, even through the television.
Perhaps what is most exciting about watching a team like Florida Gulf Coast make their way through the tournament is the way that everyone seems to cheer them on. We hear people say things like, “Even though I picked Georgetown to go to the Final Four in my bracket, I love seeing Florida Gulf Coast win.”
Jesus said, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” It seems, in fact, that this idea of the last becoming first is a distinctive feature of the Kingdom of God and that Jesus’ followers should be people who are marked by a predisposition to put the “least of these” before themselves and their own interests.
As I watch Florida Gulf Coast and the other Cinderella stories of this year’s NCAA tournament, I find myself challenged. Why does my heart beat with excitement while watching a 15-seed take down a 2-seed, but with anxiety as I stare straight ahead trying to avoid eye contact with the homeless person on the street corner? Why do I root for the improbable victory of a little-known team even if it means I slip further and further down the ranks of my bracket pool, but try to avoid thinking about the ways my buying habits affect laborers in China or farmers in South America? Maybe it's because I like cheering for the underdog in the midst of the spectacle of the NCAA tourney, when every low-seeded team has the potential for this season to be their Cinderella story. Somehow it's harder to support the cause of the underdog in the midst of the nitty-gritty reality of everyday life, when doing so would have a tangible impact on the way I live my life, not just my standing in a bracket pool.
In a way, it’s fitting that the Sweet Sixteen tournament games fall on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday this year. Jesus spent his life among the poor, the sick, the broken, the outcast - the underdogs of society. His death and resurrection demonstrate the principle of the Kingdom of God in no uncertain terms: the last shall become first and the first shall become last.
While thousands cheer on the underdogs this weekend, we celebrate that Christ has already won the ultimate victory in a manner that defied all of our expectations, by “becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” Hallelujah, He is risen!