When a person is ordained as a priest, they make a series of vows. One of the scariest ones for me was this question: Will you do your best to pattern your life and the life of your family in accordance with the teachings of Christ, so that you may be a wholesome example to your people? The question sounds simple enough: Will you be an example to others? But the question is anything but simple. The question asks whether the priest will shape their lives so that parishioners, neighbors, and the world will understand the teachings of Christ through the priest’s life. And not only is the priest responsible, the whole family of the priest has to be an example. So when your three-year old is having a meltdown in Target, and your nerves are shot from a morning of similar tempter tantrums, and your spouse and you have argued about discipline, you and your family are supposed to be emanating Christ in Target.
Of course, the priest is not the only one who is supposed to be living a Christ-like life. When we are baptized, and every time we affirm our baptismal covenant, those promises we renew are all about living a Christ-like life. And yet, we rarely walk the walk that we talk. I think one of the most common retorts to a petulant teen by a parent has been, “Do what I say, not what I do.” We know the life we are supposed to live – even the life we want to live – and yet we fail miserably at that life everyday. One of my favorite online videos is a video for Welcome Back Sunday in the fall. The video talks about the top reasons why people do not come to church. One of those reasons is that the Church is full of hypocrites. We know the ways that we feel like hypocrites and the world knows the ways we act like hypocrites.
So, when we read our epistle lesson to the Philippians today, we may be shocked by Paul’s words. Paul, who has regularly said that followers of Christ should imitate Christ, now says, “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” Paul’s instruction to imitate him is bold. Paul does not say, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Paul says, “Do what I do.” Modern skeptics that we are, we immediately assume Paul has developed an inflated ego. We know that telling people to imitate you is the first step toward a nasty fall. Such a bold claim is setting Paul up for failure – because none of us are perfect. Paul’s words immediately remind us of the hundreds of clergy who have fallen – who have embezzled, had affairs, abused children, abused alcohol, and have failed to be faithful pastors. Surely Paul is setting up himself and the many people who are following him for failure. Why would he do such a thing?
What we lose in our jaded, skeptical, snarky twenty-first century selves is the reminder of how learning and formation have happened for centuries. Both Jesus, and Paul his disciple, “know that true moral and spiritual formation depends on tutelage under a master – learning to follow the habits and practices of one who has become proficient in a particular trade or skill. Indeed, this is the precise meaning of the word ‘disciple’: a learner or pupil.”[i] In this way, disciples are learning from someone wiser than themselves, and in fact are imitating the teacher’s teacher.[ii] So when Paul says imitate me, he does not really mean imitate Paul, but imitate Paul, who is imitating Jesus Christ. Imitate the teacher’s teacher.
What I find comforting then, is that Paul is not saying he is perfect. He is not boasting about his perfect imitation of Christ, but only encouraging others to imitate Christ as he imitates Christ. What Paul knows is that our lives are never perfect. But if we are not imitating something worth imitation, then we are already losing the battle. And so, Paul’s imitation and our imitation many years later may be rough versions of Jesus Christ, but our imitation is still rooted in that great teacher who taught so many before us.
How we imitate Paul today is a bit more complicated. We too must find our teachers who point to The Teacher. The trick is not to think too remotely. When asked who our role models are, many of us will name famous people of faith – Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mother Teresa. And those folks will give us much to ponder about our faith life. But the problem is, sometimes those people are so removed from our lives that they cannot really teach us how to live our lives as Christians. I did a book study with a group once to prepare us for a prison ministry. The book was about a woman from California in her fifties who gave up everything and moved into a prison in Tijuana as a nun to become an advocate for the men and families affected by the prison. She lived in a cell in the prison and she ministered to the guards and the prisoners alike. She transformed the place into a place of humanity. She helped everyone equally, and managed to mobilize thousands of Americans to support the desperate needs of the Mexican prison. Mother Antonia was an amazing role model that we all found incredibly inspiring. But at the end of the series, one of the group members confessed that despite the fact that she appreciated Mother Antonia, she really would have preferred to have read a book about someone a little more like herself. Mother Antonia was so dramatically different from her life that she found that instead of being inspired, she was left without a true mentor to imitate.
This is why Paul offers himself up as an example. Not because he is some stellar example of Christ, but because he is in relationship with those with whom he is talking. Paul realizes that the most powerful person to learn from is someone right in your community. “Paul is directing the gaze of the community not toward some type of individual perfection, not even toward the supreme perfection of Christ…but to the realization of Christ’s love within the community itself.”[iii]
So Paul is inviting us to do a couple of things. First, Paul is inviting to name our own teachers. One of my favorite set of teachers is a couple I know from college. When Rebecca and David were married, they bought a home in North Carolina much larger than what they would need. The house was a fixer-upper, but they had dreams. Their dream was to make the house into an intentional Christian community that also serves as a transitional house for families. So, people who are in-between jobs, a woman who is recently divorced, or really anyone the local pastor recommends is welcome to come live in their home. They have some house rules about sharing work, community meals, and weekly worship. But Rebecca, David, and their two sons are imitating Christ in this radical lifestyle. When I am really wondering how to live a Christ-like life, I look at this family and see how far I have to go.
But even Rebecca and David can be a little too removed. So sometimes I just look at those around me. I look at the spiritual disciplines of parishioners here. I look at the ways that you care for those with physical limitations. I look at the ways you tend to this property or the ways that you serve our neighbors in need. Much like Paul and his community, we are not perfect. We too struggle to understand how faith is lived right here in Plainview. Our engagement in that struggle is what points us toward Christ.
This leads us to our second invitation from Paul – to recognize the ways in which we are all teachers to others. When you leave this place every Sunday, you are not just Barbara or Bob or Paul. You are Barbara the Christian from St. Margaret’s. You are Bob who shows what being a person of faith is all about: not because you are perfect, but because you are struggling to be like Christ. That video about why people do not come to church has responses to each person’s fear or hesitancy about Church. When one person complains that the Church is full of hypocrites, the Christian honestly and humbly says, “And there’s always room for one more.” That kind of raw honesty is the kind of honesty that leads to trust, that leads to sharing, that leads to opening our doors to others. That is the kind of honesty that makes others not only want to imitate us, but also to join us. Paul invites us then to boldly proclaim, “Imitate me,” so that we can figure this journey out together. Amen.
[i] Ralph C. Wood, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 62.
[ii] Casey Thompson, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 64.
[iii] Dirk G. Lange, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 65.