Sermon for Lent 2 High Mass Sunday 21 February 2016
Readings: Genesis 15.1-12,17-18; Psalm 127; Philippians 3.17-4.1; Luke 13.31-end
“Join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us.” (Phil. 3.17)
If I were to stand here in the pulpit and say, “Be imitators of me,” you might be rather surprised. You might well say, “Who does he think he is? Isn’t he getting a bit above himself?”
It would sound rather short on the humility we expect from Christians in general and Christian ministers in particular.
In the world which Jesus and Paul knew, learning and discipleship, moral and spiritual formation, depended on learning to follow the habits and practices of those who were themselves proficient in a particular trade or skill. Knowledge was not detached from personality and practice. Being a “disciple,” a learner or pupil, was an apprenticeship in which the disciple learned not just by listening to instruction from the master but by observing how they acted and seeking to do likewise.
Those from a protestant background might also get nervous at talk of imitation in the Christian life; even imitation of Jesus. If he was just a moral example, a figure to be imitated so that we might earn our own salvation, this would seem to undermine what Paul teaches about salvation by grace alone through faith.
Yet we cannot get away from the theme of imitation in the scriptures. It is a note sounded repeatedly in Paul’s teaching:
- “I urge you then, be imitators of me.” (1 Corinthians 4: 16);
- “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1. Corinthians 11: 1);
- “…you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us…” (2 Thessalonians 3: 7).
It is Paul himself, who urges the Philippians to be imitators of him, as he himself imitates Christ Jesus. It is clear that he does not regard imitation and faith as incompatible, but one as the working out of the other. The crucial thing is the imitation of Christ.
So how are we to practice this imitation in our lives?
A few weeks ago, my wife took me to see the church of St. Andrew’s, Bethune Road in Stamford Hill. It was a Saturday morning and as many of the people who live in the parish are ultra-orthodox Jews, they were on their way to synagogue as we were on our way to church. The men wore black kaftans and huge fur hats, they spoke in Yiddish, just as their forebears would have done, in 18th century Poland or Russia.
There are some Christian communities who live in a similar fashion: Amish and Mennonite communities in parts of the United States who dress and speak as their ancestors did in the Germany they left in the 18th or 19th centuries, who exist without electricity, the internal combustion engine, zip-fasteners and other modern inventions. But this has never been the way of the majority.
We should not dismiss the lives of these distinctive communities too lightly: they have survived in hostile environments. We who live not so much with hostility as with apathy and ignorance, might have something to learn from them about taking seriously those disciplines which will enable us to maintain our Christian character and identity.
But the “Imitation of Christ,” to borrow the title of a famous late medieval book on the Christian life by Thomas a Kempis, is not a matter of trying to copy the way Jesus acted or spoke in every detail: it is not to have a beard or first century dress or sandals or speak Aramaic.
Paul sees the proper response to the daily challenges confronting Christian life, whatever they are, is to be found in imitation, in following a certain pattern. But conforming ourselves to this pattern is not slavish replication. It is rather an incarnation, a making flesh in ourselves of a living example, so that it becomes an attitude of heart and mind which issues in a life of self-giving. That the Philippians can observe in Paul, Timothy and Epaphroditus, and they, in turn, have themselves learned by following the pattern of Christ, who emptied himself (2: 5-11).
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
That hymn to the nature and work of Christ, which we will hear at mass on Palm Sunday, is the basis in Paul’s letters of his emphasis on the Christian’s imitation of the Lord. The emptying ourselves as Christ did is essential for our journey of authentic discipleship.
If Christian existence is based on the life of Christ, then we are to have a mind-set of humility, just as he did. Our pattern to emulate is this: Jesus did not regard his equality with God as something to be hoarded and clung to; he poured himself into the form of a servant, a slave. As such he experienced death on the cross. It is in this that Jesus serves as the model to imitate. Self-giving love for others is the standard of Christian conduct. Such a life may have many shapes in different generations, even within the same generation, depending on our situation in life. It will be take one form, or cluster of forms, for those who are married; another for those who are the single, for lay and ordained. Even within these broad categories, there will be a great variety and even within a single life, the form it will take may change from one stage of life to another.
“Some live as the enemies of the cross.” The cross reveals the enemies of Christ. We must be careful not to use what Paul says about making a “god of the belly,” about glorying “in shame,” and thus about “minds set on earthly things,” to think well of ourselves because we are not gluttons, because we have an untarnished reputation, because we think are not too attached to our possessions; well not until someone tries to take them away from us. We can make such self-congratulatory claims without really following in the way of the cross.
Lent calls us to repent of such self-praise and self-satisfaction. We are all given what Paul calls earthly-mindedness. We do not find our identity in Christ’s presence and future reign, through his body called the church, but rather in earthly sources: race or nationality, gender or social status, our political commitments, our families or our careers.
The cross-formed living Paul speaks about necessarily runs counter to our culture. It is the opposite of a materialistic approach to living as seen in those whose “god is their belly,” and whose “minds are set on earthly things “(3: 19). Paul warns the Philippians that if they follow this pattern, the end result will be destruction and eternal loss.
But this warning is not the last word: “our commonwealth, (our citizenship) is in heaven.” Philippi was a Roman ‘colony,’ that is it was a settlement of retired soldiers, one of a chain of such centres of Roman culture, law and life around the empire. It took its character and tone from the mother city of the empire. Its population would be proud of their Roman citizenship, as Paul was of his.
But he still points them to another city whose Lord which has a prior claim on their loyalty; one whose ways are very different from the empire which called Caesar “Lord.” Its Lord is the bearer of the cross, now glorified and eternal.
Christians are called to live as those whose citizenship is in heaven. A church is meant to be a colony of heaven, in the here and now. It is to be a community which takes its character and tone from the Lord who reigns from the cross; whose “power which enables him even to subject all things to himself,” is not that of self-imposing force but of self-giving love. It is a community of those who know that we will never completely and fully attain this pattern of life, either as individuals or as a community, but still strive toward it with determination, thankful for and encouraged by all the living examples of the pattern which surround us in the community of faith through the ages and now, the saints in the past and our fellow-believers today. Their imitation of Christ can inspire our own as he works to “change our lowly body to be like his glorious body,” and to use us as examples of that transformation’s possibility in what might seem the most unlikely of people: you and me.
And so, I can call on you to be imitators of me, in the pursuit of that call to imitate Christ, because, like Paul. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and be sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain to the resurrection of the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Philippians 3: 11-12)