Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me,
and observe those who live
according to the example you have in us.
For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ;
I have often told you of them,
and now I tell you even with tears.
Their end is destruction;
their god is the belly;
and their glory is in their shame;
their minds are set on earthly things.
But our citizenship is in heaven,
and it is from there
that we are expecting a Savior,
the Lord Jesus Christ.
He will transform the body of our humiliation
that it may be conformed
to the body of his glory,
by the power that also enables him
to make all things subject to himself.
- Philippians 3:17-21
In this passage, Paul warns us about “enemies of the cross of Christ”— which suggests that he is a friend of the cross of Christ. What a weird notion! If you think about it, it’s kind of like being a “fan of the electric chair,” or a “gas-chamber enthusiast,” or a “lethal injection fancier.” Only two thousand or so years of numbing by constant exposure to Christian language could make this idea seem normal. In fact, we readers are supposed to recognize the weirdness of loving an instrument of execution. Paul understands full well what he is saying: only when our world-view has turned upside-down will we decide that a wooden pole that was used to kill those whom the worldly authorities condemn is somehow a good thing.
The way Paul describes the “enemies of the cross of Christ” shows us the “normal-side-up” point of view: normal people focus on down-to-earth matters; we get very excited about personal, private affairs that we would be embarrassed if the general public knew; and we pay an awful lot of attention to food and eating and our “gut” feelings. When Paul says that “Their end is destruction,” he means that “normal” people are living a life that is strictly temporary: the things they value are things that will rot, compost, disintegrate, decompose... and then what will be left of the people whose lives have been all about these temporary things ? “Nothing,” Paul says.
When he says that “our citizenship is in heaven,” Paul is looking at his own Roman citizenship, which was a very highly prized honor in his day, and he is saying, “Thanks anyway— I’m emigrating to a better place.”
When he discusses his “citizenship in heaven,” Paul is also looking at his identity as a pure-blooded member of the children of Israel. Earlier in Philippians 3, he gave the proud details of his pedigree, but then he said, Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
As modern-day followers of Jesus, we find it easy and pleasant to stand in church and sing sweet songs about loving The Old Rugged Cross. I rather think that old Paul would throw a fit if he were to walk in on us— because his notion of being a “friend of the cross” was all about personally enduring suffering to imitate Jesus. Paul’s rugged point-of-view was upside-down to our comfortable Christianity.
Much of what we are currently promoting for the season of Lent is designed to turn our normal, worldly point-of-view upside-down. Where we normally enjoy comfort, Lent invites us to self-denial. Where we normally spend our time, money, and effort on getting material things for ourselves, Lent invites us to spend ourselves for, and give things away to, those in need. These forty days leading up to Good Friday and Easter are intended to turn us from being “enemies of the cross of Christ” to being ready to embrace not just the mysterious and precious cross of Christ but our own self-sacrifice, our own journey through death into new life.