And athletes cannot win the prize unless they follow the rules. – 2Timothy 2: 5 (NLT) Outrage!!! The headlines blared out. Track team disqualified because of a religious gesture! The latest story making the rounds on Facebook and the news comes from Columbus Ohio where a local high school relay race team was disqualified when the anchor runner pointed to the heavens after crossing the finish line. Instead of heading to the state finals, the team heads home to contemplate what could have been. The response from well intended Christians has been predictably explosive, decrying the sad state of the world where Christians must endure this type of persecution. I get that outrage. I understand it. But in this case, as in so many other issues used to create Christian outrage towards the world, it seems we simply keep missing the big picture. First of all, let us deal with the specifics of the case in hand. The team in question was not disqualified because the runner was Christian. They were not disqualified because the runner wanted to give praise to God. They were disqualified because he broke the rules. As in most scholastic sports there is a “no celebration” rule when someone wins. In this case the rule apparently even says you are not allowed to raise your arms above your head in celebration. Now, I think this rule and all anti-celebration rules are insanely stupid on their merits but we live in a world that thinks everyone is a winner and we cannot damage the self esteem of someone by reminding them that they lost. That is a legitimate complaint. That is something that is legitimately worth debating and trying to change – on a secular level of course because none of this has anything to do with God. So let’s be clear. The competition has rules and the kid broke the rules. The governing board did what they had to do in such a case. You can say the rule is silly – I agree. You can say that the rule is unfair – I agree. You cannot however say that the child’s religion played any role whatsoever in what happened. Even in the key verse today we see the Apostle Paul reminding us that athletes cannot win the prize unless they follow the rules! Ironically, and realize with God there are no coincidences, here are the preceding verses: Endure suffering along with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. Soldiers don’t get tied up in the affairs of civilian life, for then they cannot please the officer who enlisted them. – 2Timothy 2: 3-4 (NLT) The truth is that we do not endure suffering very well in this country and we think we know what persecution is when we really do not. We do not have to hide underground to worship our God. We do not risk our very lives to profess faith in Jesus Christ. The sad truth is we are far too involved in the affairs of civilian life, which means we cannot be pleasing the officer who enlisted us – Jesus! But I want to dig deeper today. It seems things like this always come up. There is always some “offense of the week” for Christians to get themselves whipped into a frenzy about. Every December we hear about the “war on Christmas” as if Jesus Christ would care that people who do not believe in Him are refusing to celebrate a pagan holiday that is probably six months off when He was actually born. We may look at things like this and dismiss it out of mind as not a big deal but I disagree. I think there is real damage done. First of all, it creates an animosity between Christians and our target audience. The very people we claim to love with the love of Christ become branded as the enemy. It never ceases to amaze me when Christians seem so outraged and surprised that the world behaves like the world. The Bible tells us that the things of God are utter foolishness to those who are perishing. Now, there are two important pieces to consider there. First of all – what we profess is foolishness to them. They do not get it. They do not see with spiritual eyes beloved. All they see is a kid who broke the rules. Why he broke the rules is irrelevant to them. Even when they interviewed the man explaining why the decision was made he said that the athlete could have dropped to his knees in prayer – as long as it was off the field of competition. The second point though is that they are perishing! Do we forget the state of the unsaved? Even if this was a malicious act against the Christian faith – they are still perishing! We continue to value the wrong life. We continue to value the wrong things. The world is blind to the things of God: Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. – 2Corinthians 4: 4 (NLT) Yet we expect them to understand why a 17 year old should be allowed to break the rules they set up to protect players from taunting? We are supposed to love the lost with the love of Christ. Not gin up outrage because they act as someone without understanding should act. Secondly, it damages the witness of Christ. Is the new slogan WWJCO? What would Jesus complain about? What would Jesus protest? I think that He would protest the abuses within those who believe. I don’t think He would tolerate false teachers and leaven in the church but the lost? He looked upon the sick as if they needed a doctor. Do we so easily forget His teachings? “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. – Matthew 5: 43-48 (NLT) Pray for those who persecute you! They want to slap you – give them your other cheek as well. And the saddest reality is that these are not enemies! This is not even close to persecution! How much more would the witness for Christ be enhanced if the Christian response was humble and prayerful? I understand the kid is disappointed but it is a teachable moment, especially if the family are believers. Because there is a much more important race that we are in. A race that has eternal consequences. Teach that. Celebrate that. Lastly, cui bono? Who benefits from all of this? Who benefits from the controversy after the fact? From the appearance that Christians are whining again about being picked on. Christ certainly does not benefit. Even this kid does not benefit. Imagine if they overturned their decision. Would that be a victory for anyone? What lesson does the kid learn? That rules do not mean anything? No beloved. The only one who wins with stories such as this is Satan. He is a master at distracting the church. The best analogy I can think of is a blind man walks into a ditch and the devil convinces us to hate the blind man for falling. Yell at the blind man – can’t you see?!? No, they cannot see. There is only one that can remove the scales from their eyes and let them see again. His name is Jesus Christ and He has entrusted the job of testifying to His greatness to us. Let us always keep that in mind. Rev. Anthony.