Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
March 17, 2019
Philippians 3: 17 – 4: 1 (CEB)
Brothers and sisters, become imitators of me and watch those who live this way—you can use us as models. 18As I have told you many times and now say with deep sadness, many people live as enemies of the cross. 19Their lives end with destruction. Their god is their stomach, and they take pride in their disgrace because their thoughts focus on earthly things. 20Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ. 21He will transform our humble bodies so that they are like his glorious body, by the power that also makes him able to subject all things to himself.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord.
[Watch “Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring” Trailer]—0:00-2:11
Most of you are familiar with J.R.R. Tolkien’s great trilogy, “The Lord of the Rings.” If not, hopefully you got a bit of an idea there of what this story is all about. In the land of middle earth, there exists a ring, which gives to its owner the power to enslave the whole world. By chance, this ring lands in the hands of the “good guys,” the Fellowship of the Ring, by way of the humble and unassuming hobbit, Frodo. “The Fellowship of the Ring is a company of Nine Walkers who, with the exception of the wizard Gandalf, are fairly ordinary creatures. They are set against the Nine Riders, the wrathful wraiths and merciless slaves of the great dark Lord, Sauron.” Sauron, it turns out, had fashioned this ruling ring of absolute power in order to conquer the world with it. But the challenge is that nearly everyone assumes that the only means of resisting Sauron’s murderous determination to reclaim the ring is to use it against him—to fight fire with fire, terror with terror. In fact, anyone who even suggests otherwise is considered a complete fool.
But Gandalf the Wizard urges a different path, a more excellent way; a path of surrender rather than ultimate power. Gandalf says this to the Fellowship: “…let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy. For [Sauron] is very wise, and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice. But the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse [such power], that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of all reckoning.” Ultimately, Frodo and the Fellowship succeed in defeating the nearly omnipotent Sauron, precisely because they choose the more excellent way, a different path, the cross-like way. So it is with Paul’s summons to imitate him in following the way of the cross, the instrument of defeat that is actually the only hope of real and lasting victory. And such a victory is possible because it is a divine victory, not a human victory.
Today, on this second Sunday of Lent, we continue our journey to new life. As we consider Paul’s words to the Philippians, what we should come away with is that new life means following Christ. But even more than following Christ, we must imitate him, and most especially his sacrifice on the cross. This is the source of true life. Though it is entirely countercultural and even counterintuitive, we gain life when we set aside every worldly ambition and conceit. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Essentially, Paul lays before the Philippians and before us, a choice. “Many people,” he says, “live as enemies of the cross.” In other words, there are a lot of people who get that ring and figure, “I’ve got the power. I can enslave the whole world, and if I can do that, then I can beat Sauron, I can overcome evil.” Even the Fellowship of the Ring fought with each other about how best to deal with this power and responsibility entrusted to them, and Frodo had great difficulty resisting the temptations of the Ring. But friends, the thing is, overcoming evil with evil is not gaining life. And Christ has already overcome evil anyway, on the cross. So if we want to experience life ourselves, then the way of the cross is the only way!
You know, because of the way our world operates, because of social and cultural values, it’s so easy to just “go with the flow.” I think most of the time we don’t even realize how caught up we are in the ways of the world; in the rulers and principalities. That’s a significant part of what Paul is trying to drive home to the Philippians. They are surrounded by Romans. Philippi is like a Roman colony, and it is full of these Roman citizens who faithfully worship Caesar. Do you hear me? They worship Caesar. They are living according to worldly ways. So Paul says to the Philippian Christians, “…many people live as enemies of the cross. Their lives end with destruction.” It’s like Paul is saying to them, “look at me, look at Christ, look at the cross.” If this were a conversation and not a letter, Paul would probably cup their cheeks between his hands and say, “This is how you gain life. Not that way, not the Roman way, this way. You see me? Look at me. Imitate me.”
Let me just say here that it is important to understand that Paul does not call for the Philippian Christians to imitate him because he is egotistical, or even because he gets it right all the time. Like all of us, Paul is a human who is simply trying as faithfully as he can to live as Christ has taught. But he is also a teacher; a teacher who is trying to help other Christians learn how to be like Christ. And a lot of the time, we learn by doing, right? We do what the teacher does. But even more than that, by Paul calling the Philippians to imitate him, it gives the people a place to focus their attention. If Paul says, “Follow me on the way to the cross,” that’s one way to keep the people from focusing on and following the Romans.
So this is really important; especially as we move through Lent; especially as we journey on this path to new life. We can’t let ourselves get distracted. The “enemies of the cross,” to whom Paul refers, are those who make their own lives the focus of their attention, and the people who get carried away by the ways of the world. We have to keep our focus. The cross must be our pattern, and Christ our guide. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”
The cross points to something beyond all hope. It is a constant reminder that God is in control. The cross is symbolic of the fact that God is in the transformation business; that God will take this life and transform it into something different altogether. And here’s the thing—I don’t know about you, but if that doesn’t bring you some relief, I don’t know what will. I need some transformation in my life. I need some relief from the burdens I carry. I need something to help me keep my focus amid all the distractions and temptations of the world. I need hope. And today, Paul says it’s here, it’s right before us. Imitate him. Follow Christ. Take on the cruciform life. God never guaranteed that would be easy either. It was no simple journey for Frodo to go all the way to Mordor to destroy that awful ring. But Frodo and Samwise made that journey and because they did, life was better for everyone. Christ has gone all the way to the cross for our lives. And he says to us, to you and to me, just follow me with all of your hearts and you will experience true life! Imitating Christ is never joyless drudgery. It is living with the confident hope that we shall be like him. This is the source of life!
Carrying the ring to Mordor for destruction was both hard and completely countercultural for Frodo. Being a Christian in America is both hard and completely countercultural. Being a Christian in Philippi in Paul’s day was both hard and completely countercultural. Living a cruciform life of unconditional love and total sacrifice is antithetical to the constant calls for more money and more power. The cross is a source of shame, not a source of glory. The path to Christian glory, to true life, lies in ultimate humiliation. “But,” says Paul, “our citizenship is in heaven.” He might have said, “Our life is in Christ.” The reward of embracing the cross and imitating Christ is that we will find belonging in the only realm that really matters.