Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. (Philippians 3:17- 4:1 ESV)
These days we prefer our religious leaders to be humble, to acknowledge imperfection – though we can be spared the details, to not aspire to some sort of pedestal or treat people with a ‘holier than thou’ attitude. We are all sinners after all. So after nearly 2,000 years of Christianity – and countless examples of flawed religious leaders – this presents a problem with certain passages in the Bible which don’t conform to our way of doing things. Thus our second reading today can immediately put up a wall or set our teeth on edge when Paul says, ‘join in imitating me’, ‘keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us’ because people hear it as Paul big-noting himself.
This isn’t the only time Paul says this. He told the Thessalonians (2 Thess 3:7,9) not to be lazy or idle waiting for the Day of the Lord but to imitate himself and his companions who worked – earned money – not to be a burden on the Thessalonians. Previously he had told them that they had imitated him and the Lord by receiving and believing God’s Word in much affliction (1 Thess 1:6) which continued to cause them troubles in the world and they remained faithful (1 Thess 2:14). He told the Corinthians to be imitators of him for he was their spiritual father and so like him they should seek to serve those around them even as the world treats them as scum (1 Cor 4: 10-17) because what is important is making Christ known. To the Ephesians (5:1) Paul wrote that they were to be imitators of God as beloved children which translated into walking in love in this world while being sacrificed in the world.
The writer to the Hebrews says: Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith (Hebrews 13:7 ESV). It is not easy to imitate what can’t be seen – in this case faith. Nevertheless that is one of the tasks Christians are called to do in Hebrews.
In 3 John we hear: Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God (3 John 11 ESV). The call to imitation is not necessarily about self promotion but is about practical examples, role modelling in a new situation and on most occasions doesn’t promote Paul as such but highlights the difficulty or struggles involved in following Jesus in a world that rejects him.
When Paul wrote these words of our Second Reading he was writing a ‘thank you’ letter from prison – most likely in Rome – think more house arrest in this case – to the congregation who had just sent him funds. Remember that in Philippi, Paul and Silas had been unlawfully imprisoned, and how God had opened the prison to the despair of the jailer whom Paul saved from killing himself and going to hell for Paul subsequently baptised the jailer and all his household (cf. Acts 16). Paul’s reply includes advice about how to live as Christians – remember there’s no template here – no long standing traditions – just people talking about their views of following Jesus. The Philippians seemed to have encountered two groups – the Judiasers who said that followers of Jesus had to be – that is behave – as Jews. The other group we don’t know much about but the theory is that they were interested in spiritual knowledge above all else which meant they regarded the physical world and particularly their bodies as inferior or secondary which led either to doing what they liked with it – promiscuity, gluttony, and so on – or being rather ascetic.
What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? That’s very much the Monday to Saturday question. On Sunday in worship it is Jesus who calls his people to him to serve them – to comfort and console – to challenge and correct – so that people’s faith is strengthened, assurance is given that Jesus forgives and God does love us. But then we go back home and to work and just being in God’s presence for an hour doesn’t make the pain, the bully, the struggle, the addiction, the quarrels vanish. We’re the ones who decide what we’re going to do – and we do imitate others, have role models, listen to advice and more importantly see what works in other people’s lives and then we might try them ourselves. When we hear about other people resisting temptation, faithfulness in tough times, endurance, answers to prayers we are encouraged to follow Jesus too – to imitate in our own way what we see and hear.
A lot of our living is shaped by those around us – peer pressure, culture, philosophies, media. Paul appealed to the Philippians not to follow those whose philosophy and behaviour are more like those of the fish – responding to the stimulus, getting what I want when I want it, thinking about now because who knows what the future will bring, and being blind to the hook that can snare us. That is why Paul reminds them and us to understand that our citizenship is heaven, that we are waiting to see Jesus as Saviour, and that when he appears we, too, will be in glory. Jesus has power to transform and help his people but he isn’t our genie and this simple fact forces those in a relationship with Jesus to trust him. And while we trust we learn how to behave from Jesus when he was on Earth, from Christian parents, from other Christians, from our congregation, from Christian writers, and so on. Except for Jesus, none of them are perfect. The call of Christianity is to follow Jesus and just as we learnt to walk so we learn to live in obedience to Jesus and it takes time and practice and discipline, just as it took us to walk as toddlers. We will always fall at some point, we will bump into things, we will have to pick ourselves up again as we battle our sins and what is thrown at us by the world. And the best help of all is paradoxically standing firm in the Lord – that is, being still for a time each day – and recalling that Jesus has saved us before we were born and that his love and grace and forgiveness are ours through faith – not to abuse by wilful sinning – but to use in repentance. We do not live in a vacuum. Others around us help and guide us for better or worse. We don’t see Jesus as we’d like – all we have is his Word – which points us to Jesus – and his struggles to the cross for us; his faithfulness for us. Our ears and imaginations let us ‘see’ Jesus. Our eyes see those around us and we can learn from fellow Christians how to behave.
Yes there is a danger of swollen heads and works righteousness but Christianity is lived out in our lives not just in our heads. The best way to combat the swollen heads and works righteousness is to find ways to go to the cross, to return to Jesus, to confess our sins – we don’t walk well yet spiritually – and to hear God’s mercy yet again. We are strengthen at his table and blessed at his altar. Lent is a good time to be reminded that our salvation is by Jesus alone and because of that our living – that daily practical stuff we do each day – is no longer solely about me anymore. Thus with repentant hearts we all can say ‘join in imitating me’ and discover Jesus forgives sin and helps us live to serve those around us.
- Philippians 3:17 - 4:1