Sunday, February 12, 2012
Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (February 12, 2012)
“Imitating Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1)
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, or so it's been said. Either that or it can be very annoying … like that game you played as children. One person says something, then the other person says exactly the same thing. The victim demands, “Stop copying me!” Immediately, the perpetrator taunts, “Stop copying me!” On and on it goes for a short while until boredom sets in or someone gets punched in the arm.
In today's Epistle, God the Holy Spirit is teaching us through the pen of St. Paul to imitate Christ in our lives. This is not to flatter him. He has no need of that. Instead, we imitate Christ so that others may come to know Christ as their Lord and Savior.
Paul is wrapping up his discussion here about Christian liberty and recognizing how the exercise of your freedom in Christ may have a negative effect on someone and their relationship to God. The example the apostle gives is eating meat that was sacrificed to an idol. Not a big deal for us today. It was a big deal then. A Jew may be offended if you eat meat offered to an idol because he assumes you are worshiping a false god, even though you know in your conscience that an idol is nothing. It could confirm a Gentile in his false belief if he sees you eating food he knows was offered to his god. This behavior could also scandalize the members of your congregation who misunderstand your freedom in Christ. Your behavior may cause people to question the truth claims of Christianity because of your apparent participation in the worship of a god other than the one true God.
Paul's main point is that he had to give up some of his rights in order to further the preaching of the Gospel. It's in this way that Paul could say he was an imitator of Christ.
Jesus gave up his rights as God when he humbled himself and took on the limitations of human flesh. He was born in poverty. His crib was a feeding trough. His parents escaped with him to Egypt under the threat of death. He was raised in obscurity until he came forward to preach that the Kingdom of God was near in him. He got hungry. He got thirsty. He got tired and weak. He knew the importance of finding times of solitude for prayer and refreshment. Opposition to his message grew and eventually got him crucified. All but one of his disciples deserted him as his precious, innocent blood was being shed for the life of the world. Even as God in the flesh, Jesus never did anything for his own advantage. It was always for the advantage of the people he came to serve and to save. That includes you.
Forgiven and free in Christ, Paul imitated his Lord by seeking to do everything for the advantage of his neighbor. Luther later stated it like this: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none; A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Paul gave up his rights as one free in Christ but now bound in love and service to all people. Earlier in the letter, Paul wrote, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). The power of the message of the cross forgave Paul his sins … besides the sins that he had in common with all humanity, remember how Paul had once been a zealous persecutor of the church. The power of the message of the cross moved Paul to serve his neighbor with sacrificial love, even as Jesus served us with sacrificial love to the point of death on a cross. Everything he did now was to be evaluated by this standard: does it give glory to God? Paul's central concern was that those outside the Church would come to know Christ as Lord and Savior and those inside the Church would draw closer to Christ as Lord and Savior.
Paul says, “I try to please everyone in everything I do.” That sounds contradictory to what he said about doing all to the glory of God. If you're always trying to be a people-pleaser, this may lead you to do some things that are not God-honoring. It may lead you to withhold speaking the truth of God's Word to someone, either words of Law or Gospel. In fact, Paul had this to say in Galatians 1: “If I were ... trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal 1:10). St. Paul's attempts to please everyone in everything he did does not mean that he ignored God's Word. His intent was to remove any barriers to the hearing of God's Word so that people could hear about the mercy of God in Christ Jesus. It was not about seeking his own advantage, as he said. It was never about Paul. It was always about Jesus. It was about pointing people, not to Paul, but to Jesus. It was for the advantage “of many, that they may be saved.”
This self-emptying, self-sacrificial attitude of Paul mirrored what Jesus did when he became incarnate as a man and lived and died for us and for our salvation. The message of the cross was communicated in a very concrete way as Paul imitated Christ's sacrificial love in the way that he lived.
Professional impersonators imitate the voices and mannerisms of celebrities. Some of you may remember Rich Little. He was popular when I was growing up and still performs all over the country today. “The Man of a Thousand Voices,” he is called. There are also those who have devoted themselves to perfecting the voices and mannerisms of only one particular celebrity, such as Elvis Presley impersonators. They dye their hair black. They grow their sideburns out. They wear a white-sequined jumpsuit. They don a pair of gold aviator sunglasses. The ensemble is complete. They look great. Then the question is, can they sing like “The King”? Some are quite good. Some stink. The best ones, however, study every available piece of literature, photographs, and recordings of Elvis so that they can make you feel like you have gone back in time and have actually been in the presence of “The King.”
So how are you at imitating Christ? Are you a good “impersonator” of “The King of Kings”? Stop for a moment and evaluate yourself. When people look at you, do they see Jesus? When they spend time with you, do they go away feeling that they have been with one of Christ's disciples who has closely studied his life and listened to his Word? Do they recognize Jesus in you? Are you so intimately acquainted with his characteristics and qualities that someone can immediately say, “Oh, yes, that's what Jesus must be like!” Is the love and mercy of God evident in your words and actions towards others? Are you willing and able to forgive like Jesus forgives?
Far from it. I'm afraid that when we try to dress up like Jesus, the only thing people notice are our own filthy, sinful rags. When we try to act like Jesus, we probably come across as pompous hypocrites because in the next moment we spoil the act with sinful words and sinful actions. When we try to sing like Jesus, our voice ends up being off-key, we forget the lyrics of his songs, and we end up making a fool out of ourselves … an embarrassment to our Lord, an embarrassment to his Church. We have not spent enough time studying his life and his Words so that imitating Jesus is second nature to us. Our blasted first nature … the one we inherited from Adam … keeps getting in the way. It makes us appear more like impersonators of the Serpent rather than the Son of God.
But that old self of yours was put to death in Holy Baptism. Paul says in Romans 6:6, “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” Your sinful nature no longer has the upper hand in your life. God the Holy Spirit has the upper hand. God's grace and mercy is the ruling feature in your heart. Now, you can daily “put on Christ.” In Galatians 3:27, the apostle writes, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” This is a far cry from pretending to be someone you are not, like an Elvis impersonator, or like kids playing “dress up” at home. This is a reality for you, hidden though it is under cross and suffering. This is a reality for you, even though you still daily sin much and deserve nothing but punishment. Nevertheless, through water and the Word and by faith in Christ Jesus, you get to wear the righteousness and holiness of Christ and you are called a saint, a holy one, a forgiven one. Learning to imitate Christ is not just an academic exercise, like an impersonator who carefully studies the qualities and characteristics of a long-dead celebrity. The one you are called to imitate is risen and alive! He is present with you today in the Words you hear, in the body and blood you eat and drink, and he breathes his Spirit in you so that you can be an imitator of Christ.