I recently had the honor of sharing the sermon at Berea Mennonite Church. This is basically a transcript of that sermon.
When I started driving, I had a brown Pontiac T1000. As exciting as that name may sound on the surface, the T1000 was Pontiac’s name for what was called the “Chevette” by Chevrolet. Ours was brown, rusty, and went from 0 to 60 in something like six months. In fact, getting it to 60 was fairly rare. That said, it was my first ride, and I was glad to have it.
Until, that is, my little brother and his friend one day decided they wanted to play basketball in the driveway and my T1000 was in the way. To make room, they attempted to push it back down the driveway, one person at the wheel with the driver door open, the other pushing from the hood, until the door contacted the tree they must have forgotten was there and bent backwards. The door was totaled and I replaced it with the only junkyard replacement we could find, a red Chevette door from the same model year. That’s right, I had a brown T1000 with a red door. Let’s just say I was not the envy of all of my friends.
When I finally was ready to buy my first car, it was a black 1983 Mercury Cougar. Smooth profile. Red pinstripe. Chrome lines and hubcaps. Charcoal interior. Stand-up hood ornament. To me, it was Kit and I was Knight Rider. As an 18 year old recent high school graduate with no immediate plans for making a future for myself, it was my salvation. I instantly became a guy with a cool car. I had “made something of myself,” as it were. I loved that car. Until it began repeatedly breaking down. By the time it was time to get rid of it, I was happy to see it go. I had wanted to get bigger and better, but it brought destruction. In the end, I was happy to get smaller again.
Oftentimes we find that the things we think are worth resting our identity in, those things which will bring us prestige, honor, status, wealth, success, power, etc.; the things the world finds its value in are really…well…crap. In fact, I think the apostle Paul argued that point exactly in Philippians 3.
Early in the chapter, Paul responds to those who came to tell the Philippian Christians that they had not done everything necessary to raise their value as believers in the new religion—that since they had joined a movement sprung from Judaism, they needed to mutilate their bodies in order to attain the next level of “righteousness.” Paul was always vehemently opposed to those who would preach such a message. That said, in Paul’s world, doing religious things, displaying religious success, raised a person’s status.
In our religious world (here I refer to American Christianity, specifically evangelicalism), religious success is having a large physical plant (preferably more than one “campus”), a preacher with a title and winning smile, and a dynamic entertaining service that evokes certain emotional responses your key demographic is anxious to have. It’s having a minister whose popularity has won him political clout, someone published (regardless of the depth of the writing), using your building as an extension campus for a Christian college, and being well-respected by your denomination. It’s hosting church growth conferences where you convince other ministers that their church needs to be more like yours. At the heart of all of this is, of course, money. Having lots of money flowing in and the flashy contemporary buildings and signs demonstrates that yours is a successful ministry. It’s about getting bigger, more powerful, and more impressive. It’s about proving that your church has “made something of itself.” It’s a baptism of the trappings of worldly success and consumerism.
Paul, however, calls that out for what it is. A lie. In vs. 3 of our current chapter, he begins,
3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh—4 though I myself have reasons for such confidence.
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. 
Paul makes the point, eloquently as always, that he, if he chose, could outdo everyone when it came to the trappings of religious status. He had attained all of that. Yet, he will go on in vs. 7ff to basically state that he’s given all of that up. In fact, compared to actually following Jesus, all of that status and show is “garbage.” You should read, here, literally “excrement.” For Paul, as he states in vs. 10, sharing in the suffering of Christ so as to attain Christ’s resurrection makes all of that other stuff look like something that ought to be flushed down the toilet. Though Paul realizes in the following verses that he has not yet attained that kind of faith himself he is pressing on to become someone who follows Jesus directly to his cross.
These themes (serving God [vs. 3], Christ is our boast , no confidence in self , things of the world are worthless compared to following Christ [7-8], righteousness through faith[fullness]  and, especially, participation in Christ’s suffering with a view to the resurrection [10-11]) are common in Paul’s writings. Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians are all rife with the sense that Christianity is not about what Christ did for us so that we could be freed from punishment with little to no cost to ourselves but, instead, that Christianity is a call to follow Jesus on the way of the cross. As Romans 8 insists, we will be raised with him if indeed we share in his suffering so that we may also share in his resurrection. For Paul, Christianity means following Jesus on the way of the cross.
Which is why this is, I think, a proper paraphrase of 3:15-4:1:
15 Everyone who’s grown in Christ should think this way and if you don’t get it, eventually God will help you understand it. 16 Only, let’s live up to what we know now and not slip further into misunderstanding. 17 Follow me as I follow Christ—watch those whose lives are like Christ’s. 18 It breaks my heart that many (who claim Christ) live as enemies of the cross of Jesus (an enemy is one who denies Jesus’ cross for himself). 19 Their product (telos) is destruction, they worship consumption, and they are proud of things they ought to be ashamed of. They value worldly things (buildings, numbers, power, performance), things they can see. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven (though we are earthly people) and we eagerly await for our Savior Jesus to come back from there and, restore everything, and finish transforming our bodies to be like his. 1 Therefore, stand firm in the Lord and in the way of the cross, friends.
Recently in a conversation with a friend I love and respect profoundly, I heard a comment which I’ve heard many different people say about Paul. We were talking about Paul’s writing about slavery (which I contended and do contend is radically misunderstood by people who claim Paul was endorsing slavery). Also implied in our conversation was Paul’s writing about women and homosexuality (all important and “hot” issues in our time and all misunderstood by most readers of Paul). His comment intimated that Paul represents a departure from Jesus’ teaching on such things and that we must disregard much of what Paul says because it is in too great of tension with Jesus.
N.T. Wright has often quoted Dominic Crossan to resolve this supposed tension when he says, “If you read Paul first, you’ll get Jesus wrong. If you read Jesus first, you’ll read Paul differently.” It is often easy to think Paul departs from Jesus. Evangelicals, who frequently underemphasize the gospels and focus on Paul, tend to read a Paul who is very different from the Jesus of the gospels (forcing Jesus to “fit” with this reading). Other traditions make a habit of dismissing Paul because of the discomfort of his approach to these uncomfortable issues.
These are both fantastic mistakes. Paul, contrary to the evangelical reading, is not simply giving us the “steps of salvation,” a formula for how to get your sins erased, a handbook for church polity, or a lens to read Jesus through. He is not limiting women, defending oppressive governments, or justifying participation in war. Nor is he taking the radically liberating message of Jesus and creating an ugly religious and oppressive system of it, as many assume. Instead, what Paul was always doing was teaching his intended readers what following Jesus on the way of the cross was going to look like in their context.
Michael Gorman’s book Cruciformity is an excellent resource for understanding the “cruciform” theme of Pauline writing. In it, Gorman demonstrates that Paul’s understanding of salvation was not about getting sins erased in order to enter heaven, but that it was about how to share Jesus’ cross. For Paul, being a Christian (being saved) is about being shaped by the cross of Christ (cruciform). It assumes that Christ’s death is not mutually exclusive from his life and teaching but, instead, is the climax of his life and teaching. That all of Jesus’ life was shaped by the cross, by suffering. Therefore, salvation itself is not about escaping some punishment for some affront. It is, instead, being an active part of the Kingdom of God which Jesus lived and preached, being very different from the world in a way that the world itself will hardly understand and will think is foolish (1 Cor 1).
I think that the ministers of many churches…many…have bought into exactly the opposite of what Paul taught about following Jesus. My wife worked with one such set of ministers at a church for about 8 months. Their preacher loved to talk about going to heaven (in fact he seemed unable to articulate anything about salvation with more nuance than that), but their ministry team was obsessed with growth and success, finding ways to increase attendance, paying for their building, and producing a shinier product. Like most big churches, they saw their ministry as a service-product they were trying to market to consumers (the church-growth movement thinks of Christians as consumers buying a product rather than disciples). Their product required hundreds of people to volunteer, people whom they frequently treated with disdain. Their staff was as dysfunctional as it could be. Motivated by power and money, they manipulated and lied. They were always hiding things and putting spin on things, saying, “We’ll say it this way.” There was always a sense of suspicion and jealousy and a constant battle for “control.” It was about power. It was about maintaining a successful and shiny image, no matter who it hurt. It was about getting bigger and more successful. It was a baptism of worldly values. Its product may look, on the surface, to be good. But ultimately it leaves a trail of destruction in its wake.
This election cycle has been more discouraging than most for me, because I see so many “Christians” behaving politically, the same way through the kind of people they are supporting and the way they talk in public. They seem to have no sense of tension about war and their faith. They have no sense of tension about inhospitality and sacrificing self for their neighbor, giving of themselves. They’re ruthlessly anxious and afraid that the things they worship (wealth, security, and safety) will be taken from them and they show disdain for those who suffer unjustly in our world. They seem to me, readily willing to crucify another to save themselves.
Paul says Christianity is different from these examples. Where the world worships consumption, takes pride in things it ought to be ashamed of, and produces destruction (being impressed with getting bigger, more successful: making something of itself), the Christian is impressed with a God who, as Paul will describe in Philippians 2 “emptied himself.” In chapter 2, Paul teaches the Philippian Christians that if they really want to make him happy, they will try to be more like Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! 
Paul understood that Jesus shows us a God who, rather than getting bigger and more impressive, is actually willing to get smaller. Rather than make “something” of himself he made “nothing” of himself. Jesus is a God who, rather than sacrifice the other, would sacrifice himself out of love for the other. Paul understood that if we claim to follow this God, we must be a people who do this for one another. Because, if Jesus (who was God) could empty himself for you, then you (who are not God) can surely do it for one another (vs. 1-5).
Because of this, I’m convinced that there are many, many Christians (especially ministers) who believe that when they die they will hear the Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” but who will, instead hear, “Where is your cross?” I believe this because I see a religion that has tricked itself into thinking that this Christianity stuff is about Jesus suffering the cross so that we don’t have to. And because of that, most have a Christianity that is always about trying to escape suffering, rather than endure it. But, as Brita Miko says in her essay “Die With Me” from the wonderful book Stricken by God?, Jesus did not say “I die so that you don’t have to.” He said, “Come die with me.” Which means that the question we must ask ourselves is always, “Do I look more like the person on the cross, or do I look more like the people with the hammers and nails?” Because Christianity is about being a crucified people, a cruciform people. This means that if you’re interested in sacrificing another to save yourself…if you are interested in security and comfort more than your neighbor or even your enemy…if you are obsessed with getting bigger and more successful…you fundamentally don’t understand this faith.
This is what I perceive the Lenten season to be all about. Lent is a reminder that our lives as Christians are supposed to be emptier, not fuller. It is a reminder that we are, after all, just little people (in Tolkein’s language, we are Hobbits, not wizards). Notice in the gospels how often Jesus points to the least members of society (children and slaves) as exemplars of his Kingdom. Lent reminds us that we are supposed to be cross-carriers and, though we may struggle sometimes to understand it, we must be constantly making ourselves smaller, not bigger.
I never understood the Lenten practice of denying something to oneself for a certain period of time. Now I see it as a wonderfully intentional symbol for how we followers of Jesus empty ourselves, sharing in Jesus’ suffering and making ourselves smaller in our lives because we are looking forward to being raised with him in the end of all things. And, so, we spend lent trying to find a way to suffer until we celebrate the resurrection.
Because what we look forward to is the resurrection of all things after the end of all things. And the suffering we endure now is not worthy of being compared to that resurrection.
 The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), Php 3:3–6.
 The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament notes that the word used here was used in Greek literature this way ” Lit. σκύβαλον means 1. “dung,” “muck” both as “excrement” cf. Etym. M.: τὸ διʼ ἐντέρων ἐκδιδόμενον, cf. περίσσωμα τροφῆς καὶ σκύβαλον but that it also was used, at times, to refer to such disgusting realities as half-rotten corpses found in the water. In the New Testament, it seems to indicate the word “excrement” makes more sense in this passage. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 445.
 It is important to understand that the word translated in the NIV here, “destiny,” which implies the fate of the person who is an enemy of the cross is the Greek word telos. This, I claim, is better understood as the “end result” of the person who rejects Christ, not destiny. It is a reference to what that person actually produces, his or her “product.” So, I have paraphrased it that way here.
 The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), Php 2:6–8.