Second Sunday in Lent (March 4, 2007)
“Imitation” (Philippians 3:17-4:1)
It’s been said that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” In other words, when you model your behavior after someone, you are giving them a genuine compliment, whether you consciously meant to or not.
It’s not uncommon to see young people imitating sports stars. A little leaguer steps up to the plate, but first he has to raise his bat and tug on his sleeve like Ichiro. Or, you may have seen kids getting off the school bus in your neighborhood, and wondering to yourself, “What’s with the baggy pants, the swagger, and the caps cocked at such odd angles on their heads?” Well, they are imitating the rap musicians they listen to. When I was in high school and college, it wasn’t rap musicians we imitated...it was what we called the “hair bands”...the rock bands with big hair, tight-fitting sleeveless shirts, and parachute pants with zippers all over. Why do young people do this? I suppose it’s all part of discovering who they are, trying to develop an identity and style of their own, not to mention the fact that “everyone else is doing it”...to which my father and yours always answered, “If everyone jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge would you do it?”
Do we adults engage in this kind of imitative behavior? I suppose we do when we’re not sure what to do in a given situation. Sort of like the time when Calvin Coolidge was president, and he invited some people from his hometown to have dinner at the White House. Since they did not know how to behave at such an occasion, they thought the best policy would be to simply do what the President did. The time came for serving coffee. The President poured his coffee into a saucer. As soon as the home folk saw it, they did the same. The next step for the President was to pour some milk and add a little sugar to the coffee in the saucer. The home folks did the same. They thought for sure that the next step would be for the President to take the saucer with the coffee and begin sipping it. But the President didn’t do so. He leaned over, placed the saucer on the floor and called the cat.
More often than not, I don’t think adults are all that interested in imitating others. We’re usually a little more set in our ways. There are not a lot of folks we truly idolize. Maybe we’ve become a bit jaded. We know that there are not a lot of real “heroes” out there...and of those who are “heroes,” we know that they have their sinful failings, too, just like you and me. Or maybe we’ve finally gotten to the point where we are rather comfortable in our skin. We’ve come to the point where we know who we are...take it or leave it. But then again, there may very well be a part of each one of us that still compares ourself to certain people and says, “I wish I could be more like her...or like him.”
There is a type of imitation that’s not all that bad. A good Lenten discipline would be to begin doing as Paul says in today’s Epistle reading: “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” Imitate Paul. Keep your eyes on others who imitate Paul and his fellow pastors. And Paul can say this, because of what he wrote in the letter to the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:1)
Imitating the Wrong People
Problems arise when we look at the wrong models. Paul warns against following the example of those who walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Now, that may seem obvious. However, some who are enemies of the cross of Christ may at first glance appear to be godly.
Who are these enemies? Paul could be referring to the Judaizers...the ones in those days who said that you had to keep the Old Testament ceremonial regulations first before you could be considered a Christian. Who are the Judaizers of today? They are those within the church who are legalistic...those who say that you have to live according to a certain set of standards before you can be considered a “good” Christian, or any sort of a Christian, for that matter.
The apostle could also be referring to those within the church who thought that once you are forgiven, that now you can go off and do anything you want to. It’s all about “freedom in Christ.” In addition, some of them may have thought that the body isn’t important, anyway. It’s the spirit that’s important. What you do with your body does not matter. It’s all about what you believe in your heart. Are there people who think like this today? There sure are. It may not be as crass as those who say, “The body doesn’t matter...only the spirit.” Nevertheless, there are Christians whose lives on Sunday morning are a lot different than their lives on Monday morning. There are church-going people who don’t really appear to understand that after repentance comes remodeled behavior.
These people may put on a good show of godliness. They may have even deceived themselves into believing that they are correct. But St. Paul makes it clear what their god is. It’s their belly. They are only interested in satisfying their stomach or their pocketbook. They glory in their shame. They are proud of what they should be ashamed of. Their minds are set on earthly things, although their lives have a thin veneer of religiosity. Paul warned the Philippians about these folks with tears in his eyes. Do we have the same compassion for those who are enemies of the cross of Christ? Do we shed tears, either real or proverbial, over those today whose “end is destruction”...that is to say, hell?
Imitating the Right People
We can, because we are citizens of heaven. We are pilgrims here on earth. But we have another home. And because we are citizens of heaven, we can imitate Paul. We can imitate others who have gone before us and whose Christian life we admire. And above all, we can imitate Christ. But keep in mind...although imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery... imitating Paul, or the saints, or even Christ, will not earn your citizenship in heaven.
Take, for example, your US citizenship. How do you gain your citizenship? Citizenship is something granted you. You don’t earn it. If you are born here, you are a US citizen. For those who are not born here, it’s granted to you from the government. Afterwards, you have all the rights and privileges of being a citizen...you can vote, you are represented and protected in other countries by the US embassy, you have all the rights contained in the Bill of Rights given to you: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to a speedy and public trial by a jury of your peers, and so forth.
In a similar way, you are a citizen of heaven by your spiritual birth...when you were born again in the waters of baptism...when you were born again through water and the Word and began to trust in Christ as your Savior. As a citizen of heaven, you have all the rights and privileges of being a citizen of heaven: forgiveness, freedom from the fear of death and condemnation because of your sins, peace of mind and heart knowing you have a Savior, everlasting life, and so forth. And when our Savior returns, he will “transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” That is your birthright as a citizen of heaven.
Imitation will not earn our heavenly citizenship. But Paul describes how we are to imitate him earlier in the chapter from which our reading comes. There he writes, “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” (Php. 3:7-9) Therefore, if you are going to imitate Paul, imitate him in the way that nothing else mattered to him except knowing Christ Jesus as Lord. Imitate him in the way that he knew that no one has any righteousness of their own. Imitate him in the way that he believed that righteousness is a gift from God and is received by faith in Christ.
For your sake, our Lord Jesus suffered the loss off all things...humbling himself by leaving his throne in heaven...humbling himself to be born of a virgin...humbling himself by living under God’s holy and righteous law...humbling himself to brutally die a criminal’s death, with the sins of the world laid upon him. For your sake, Jesus suffered rejection from his own people. And so he cried out in compassion over those who rejected him, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Luke 13:34)
The blood of your Savior covers you like a hen’s wings covers her babies. You are tenderly cared for. You are forgiven. You are protected from the evil one. Covered in Christ’s forgiving blood and filled with the Holy Spirit, you can imitate Christ’s humility...not puffing yourself up over against others, but offering yourself as a living sacrifice on behalf of others. And you can also imitate Christ’s compassion for those who have strayed from Christ or have rejected Christ, and reach out to them in love.