Today I want to indulge a little show-and-tell with three of my prize t-shirts.
First: A Wilderness Trail “Trail Blazer” t-shirt.
I earned this t-shirt when I was seventeen and finished my fourth week-long hike with Wilderness Trail. I was super proud to be initiated into the “Order of the Black” and learn their secret handshake (yes, there really is one; but if you want to learn it, you’ll just have to come to Wilderness Trail).
I couldn’t wait to wear this when went I went back to school in the fall. “What’s that shirt for?” “Oh nothing – just backpacking 150 miles, that’s all.”
Next: A “2015 Co-ed Softball Champions” t-shirt.
This shirt was awarded to us at the end of a glorious season with our Andrews UMC team. Despite a rash of injuries affecting pretty much every player over the age of 35, we managed to beat teams that were younger and had heavier hitters.
Needless to say, I take a special pleasure in wearing this shirt around town.
And finally: A Duke Divinity School t-shirt.
Those who know me might think the Duke Divinity shirt was a recent purchase, since I’ve been working on my Doctor of Ministry at Duke. But I didn’t buy this shirt as a student; my mom bought it in 2003, telling me I ought to get my doctorate from Duke one day. (Side note: Duke didn’t even have a “Doctor of Ministry” program in 2003; some people just have a knack for always being right.)
A few weeks ago I sent a “final” draft of my thesis to my advisers. I don’t wear this Duke shirt very often since I’m actually not a Duke fan. But you know, if I graduate this May… maybe it’s time to put it in the rotation.
Because that’s why they make these t-shirts, right? They’re all designed to publicly display an accomplishment. They show to the world that I’ve hiked 150 miles or had a champion softball team or finished a degree. A t-shirt is a way to brag without bragging; I don’t have to say anything, I just put on one of these bad boys… and everyone knows.
Not everyone is as competitive as I am (thank goodness), but I think I’m not the only one that takes pride in certain accomplishments. Maybe you’ve got t-shirts of your own that do a little bragging. Maybe you earned one for a race you finished or a group you volunteered with. Maybe you’re hoping after tonight’s Super Bowl game you’ll be able to wear your team’s shirt with pride. Or maybe you have other things besides t-shirts that remind you of your prize accomplishment: pictures of certain people; trademark recipe cards; a gym membership; paychecks; a stylish haircut or tattoo or clothes.
What represents the stuff you’d brag about?
Whatever it is, Paul has something to say about that.
Paul is the “apostle to the Gentiles (non-Jews),” the one who wrote the correspondence we call “1 Corinthians” in the Bible. 1 Cor 9:1 names some of what would go on his bragging t-shirts
First: He’s an apostle.
Next: He has actually seen the risen Jesus.
And finally: Whatever faith the Corinthians have, they got it from Paul.
Boom! Bragging rights!
If you’re not convinced, in another letter Paul gets even more detailed: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:5-6). That list may or may not be impressive to you… but to a first-century Jew, it was kind of like having a degree from Harvard and perfect church attendance and the ideal picket-fence-2.5-kids family life and running a marathon every year.
But after that impressive list of exhibits, Paul adds this:
“Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ” (Phil 3:7).
Which we might write off as an anomaly – maybe Paul is just exaggerating to make a point? – except he says a very similar thing in 1 Cor: “If I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting” (9:16).
Why wouldn’t Paul brag on his accomplishments? Why wouldn’t he brag about preaching the gospel?
Bragging is fun – I love a little smack-talk. And it seems harmless. But we need to be careful, because after a while we can start to believe our own bragging. We can start to think that our accomplishments are what makes us who we are.
And they don’t. Something else does.
It’s like this.
Yeah, I’m proud of all the miles I’ve hiked with Wilderness Trail… but no matter how far I hike, it won’t make me strong enough to stop from ever getting weak or sick or old (that last one is rapidly approaching). And yes, I’m SUPER proud our church won a softball championship… but no matter how many notches we have in the “W” column, it won’t defeat all the evil forces in the world. And yes, I want to get some credit from spending the last year studying for and writing a 133-page thesis… but the knowledge I’ve gained isn’t enough to keep me from ever making any mistakes again.
There is one thing and one thing alone that saves me, one accomplishment that really lasts.
It’s represented by the cross.
That cross held not just the weight of a 30-something-year-old Son of God, but also the weight of the world’s sin. That cross was eventually left empty, just like the tomb when Jesus defied death and led the way into eternal life. Through the cross my body found eternal life; through the cross evil was defeated; through the cross my shortcomings were made right.
Those are the most important actions, the accomplishments that have changed my life forever. None of it was done by me – so I can’t brag as though it’s something I did. And the cross is not for me alone – it’s for all of us – so I can’t brag as though it makes me better than anyone else.
It makes it so that all those other accomplishments are like… trash.
It’s not that our hobbies, our careers, our loved ones – or whatever else we might take pride in – are bad. They just pale in comparison to the incredible and unearned accomplishments of Jesus Christ. Things like hiking or winning or earning a degree don’t define us. The gifts of forgiveness and eternal life through Christ define us.
So: what do you brag on? What t-shirts do you wear? What stuff do you take pride in?
Enjoy those things – but don’t fool yourself into thinking that they make you who you are.
As Paul said it earlier in 1 Cor: “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1:31).