Challenging Enemies of the Cross of Christ

Heritage Presbyterian Church

2nd Sunday in Lent
March 13, 2022

Scripture – Philippians 3:17 – 4:1

Back in the late 70’s, my father took me and my two sisters to a ski lodge in the Tennessee mountains to go snow skiing.  Dad had grown up skiing in Colorado, but my sisters and I had never done it before, so we were pretty excited.  We arrived in the evening, checked into our hotel, and went to sleep early so we could start first thing in the morning.

We had to drive a short distance to actually reach the skiing part of the resort, so we found ourselves in a short line of about a dozen cars waiting at the entrance.  A guard was there who wouldn’t let anyone enter before the official starting time for skiing, but we knew we only had to wait for a few minutes.  One or two cars tried to get past him, but they were forced to turn around and go to the back of the line of cars when he refused to open the gate that was behind him.  This was all pretty frustrating, but it only lasted a few minutes…at least, that’s what we kept telling ourselves.  Then the man began waving cars to go ahead and enter, only to make them turn around again because it was not the official time!  You can imagine how angry those drivers were!  At this point, my father put our car in park, told us to “stay put” and went up to the guard to talk with him.  Although I couldn’t hear anything, it was clear Dad was giving this guard a piece of his mind.  

Suddenly, the gate was opened, cars entered, and that guard disappeared from the entrance.  Dad came back to the car, and we drove the rest of the 200 yards or so into the ski lodge’s parking lot.  When we finally got up the courage to ask Dad what he did to get the gate opened, he only said, “Sometimes you have to challenge people who are doing the wrong thing; otherwise, if they never get challenged, they might think what they are doing is okay.”

In my teen and early college years, this incident was one of the few times that Dad and I completely agree.

Challenging those who are doing the wrong thing is almost going out of style in our society.  We will often hide safely behind social media and challenge anyone and everyone who dares to stick their head up with an opinion that differs from our own.  We will support leaders who will challenge everything for us – even if we disagree with exactly how those leaders challenge others.  We cheer for those who explore the extremes in our society in order to often get just one or two things accomplished the way we want them done.

This is hardly what Paul had in mind when he wrote his famous letter to the Philippians.

In Paul’s mind – and what should also be in our minds too – are four major points that need to be identified and understood clearly if we are going to be effective about challenging the true enemies of the cross of Christ.

First: exactly who are the enemies?

In the world in which Paul lived, those early Christians were almost completely surrounded by enemies.  They had no precedents or history to reinforce their still-forming beliefs.  They had very, very few bonafied preachers – and would you believe it…most of them were illiterate!  They were forced to survive and try to build their new system of beliefs while living within an overwhelming pagan culture. Finally, their only real “textbooks” were the examples and lives of their leaders.  That’s a lot to deal with and to challenge effectively. 

So, those early Christians had enemies that were not even in the form of people at that time.  Some enemies were ideas!

What about us?  Who are these enemies that challenge the cross of Christ today?

How about those who minimize the good that churches can still do?  Even the smallest church can make a difference in with the way they decide to serve those in their community.

How about those working in churches that preach and proclaim a message focusing solely on the anger, the wrath, the punishment of Almighty God?  Yes, it does exist… yes, we cannot and should not ignore it…but that will not bring too many people to faith in the same loving and caring God that we know and trust.

How about those who constantly tell their congregations, their public audiences, and possibly even themselves that it’s all so easy?  It’s NOT easy…but it is simple.  No Christian ever, EVER has it easy.  But the simple, clear faith that many possess and proclaim is breath-taking, inspiring, and I would even say attractive to others who witness it.

Enemies existed in the days of the Philippians – and in our own day too.  Identifying them isn’t that difficult.

Second: another enemy of the cross of Christ might be those who do nothing with churches except point out all the church is doing wrong.  

In Paul’s day, the Christian church was learning how to be a church of Jesus Christ, how to share that Good News, how to live as Christ himself had told us to live, and how to believe in a man who was executed on a Roman cross – and yet rose from the dead three days later.

So, when the early church had disputes over doctrine, procedures, or theology, it was always a formative happening.  It had usually never been done before, so mistakes were made, controversies erupted, and that early fragile church was weak in its structure – but not in its faith.  As in our own day, there were always those who were ready and able to point out the problems in that early church. 

Today, I get almost physically sick when I see news stories of church leaders who have been arrested for one crime or another.  I get the same reaction when a church leader is “forced” to go before the congregation and publicly confess his or her sin.  My heart breaks when I hear of a pastor who is run off because of some scandal that almost no one knows of until news of it breaks.  Those types of things make all churches look bad!  They also inspire almost gleeful giggling by those who are enemies of the cross of Christ.

But scandals also happen in business, in politics, in the military, in schools, in any organization with more than two members.  Bad news, embarrassing news, uncomfortable news can and does happen anywhere.

Yet, somehow I think it is worse when it occurs in churches… because it weakens the church’s ability to effectively preach the Good News of Christ.  But when the only news that is ever shared from churches is only the controversial, the unusual, the weird, the criminal type of news…that is another clear enemy of the cross of Christ.  

Churches need those who can also point out the strengths of the church.  We must also know and share those things.

Next: Very difficult enemies of the cross of Christ are those who insist on perfect obedience to the rules, the Law, the forms, the whatever document it is that stands as a guide for that church; I include the Bible in that statement, unfortunately.  

In the days of Paul, the “Judaizers” as Paul called them, were constantly harping on the people to follow the Law of Moses to the letter of the Law.  This involved ritual washing of their hands before each and every meal – and it had to be done only a certain way.  This involved living under the order of more than 600 rules that are still in the book of Leviticus today…rules that govern everything from what kind of clothing to wear, to rules for food (which actually did a lot to keep God’s people safe and healthy), to rules for marriage and divorce (but only for men), to rules for how to publicly murder your rebellious teenage son who causes grief for his family, to all sorts of things.  Yes, that’s in the Bible…

Today, think of those churches who declare without hesitation that because you do certain things or believe certain things that are different from them, you are certainly going to hell.  I always wonder how they can judge others when the Bible clearly tells them not to; I wonder if they resent Chick-fil-A for not being open on Sundays, even as they publicly support them for being closed on the Sabbath; and do they also go out to dinner at a restaurant in the area after worship on Sunday when the Law clearly tells them not to?

And how about those churches that insist on telling their congregations who to vote for or against?  This galls me to my core!  To be told directly that if I support or do not support a certain candidate, I will invite God’s displeasure is to act as an enemy of the cross of Christ, in my opinion. 

I trust you; I trust my wife; I trust my children; you will all make your own choices on voting – I have no insight that is any wiser than yours.  To pretend I do is to invite trouble to our church that we just don’t need.

Finally: the worst enemies of the cross of Christ are those who judge and refuse to love as Jesus commanded us to do.  On the night of the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples: “I give you a new commandment:  Love one another, as I have loved you.”  He did not call it a suggestion, or a directive, or a really good idea; he called it a “commandment.”  In my eyes, that means we must follow it if we are to call ourselves Christians. 

Judging others is not loving others.  I think the hardest thing that Christians do is to be with others when we disagree with either what they are doing, what they are saying, or how they are living their lives.  The ministry of presence means that we are with people in their lives – where they are, not where we want them to be.  

Yes, sometimes we must tell others, “I can’t be around you if you do that; but I will always be here for you if you need me.”  Think of how this contrasts with saying, “I won’t be around you until you quit doing that.  Let me know when you have straightened yourself out, and then I’ll come back.”  

If we hold to this, then we don’t to visit anyone in prison… even though Jesus told us to.

If we hold to this, then we don’t have to see anyone who is dying from liver failure caused by alcoholism.

If we hold to this, then all those people who visited AIDS patients back in the 1980’s, when there was no cure and virtually no treatment, were wasting their time.

And in our own day and time, we don’t have to care about those Ukrainians who are fleeing from the Russian military because Ukraine is a badly corrupt country, and the Russians are Christians.

Judging and not loving makes those who do so enemies of the cross of Christ.  Challenging them to do better, to serve and save anyway, to remember the children who are never the guilty parties, to do our best and leave judgment up to the Lord is one thing Christians can always do for the world.

I will add one more detail to today’s message: 

Paul’s letter to the Philippians is almost universally understood as a letter that Paul actually wrote; some of the other letters in the Bible may have been written FOR Paul rather than BY Paul.  But the Philippians letter is legit.

It was also written in the final days of Paul’s last imprisonment, just prior to his execution.  To me, this makes Paul’s words even more meaningful.  Paul wrote those words to that church that he knew and loved; why would he tell them anything that was not the absolute truth?

Challenging enemies of the cross of Christ right up to the day he died…that was the fierce, unstoppable Apostle Paul.

And his words call to us to do the same thing today.