“ Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!”
Back in the ‘90s, there was a popular movement in Christian circles focused on asking the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” Do you remember that? It was often abbreviated to “WWJD?” and it was printed on all kinds of things—tee shirts, coffee mugs, bumper stickers….lots of Christian youth group members would wear the acronym printed on wristbands to help remind them to demonstrate the love of Jesus in all they would say and do.
But long before it was a catchphrase on a coffee cup, it was born of the theological concept of Imitatio Christi, “imitation of Christ”. Saint Augustine saw this as a fundamental part of the Christian life. Saint Francis of Assisi believed in the imitation of Christ in both his physical and religious life, committing to a life of simplicity and meagerness. Thomas à Kempis wrote of the commitment to withdrawing from the world and focusing on inner thoughts as a way to imitate the life of Christ. This important element of both Christian ethics and spirituality has deep roots in Scripture and in the early church. Although Paul did not use the word “imitate” specifically, we see the word “follow” again and again in the Gospels and in the biblical message. It is clear to us from the beginning that we are to follow in Jesus’ steps, living as he lived and doing as he did. But do we? Do we really live lives that “imitate Christ”?
In our passage this morning, we find Paul communicating with a group of believers that he loved—the believers at Philippi. Of all the congregations that Paul visited or exchanged letters with, this particular gathering at Phillipi was one that was particularly supportive of him—especially while he’s in prison.
We see that theme of “imitating” or “following” here again—Paul wants the believers at Phillipi to join in imitating HIM, the idea being that HE is imitating JESUS and so by THEM imitating HIM they are also doing the same. This is what Paul is talking about—being so empty of self that imitating Christ fills the believer completely. Paul isn’t saying that he has reached that point—not at all. Just that he is on the path, trusting the he (—-and all of us—-) are citizens of Heaven. I read this in a commentary as I was preparing, “Paul wants the Philippians to do more than wait for heaven or pray for personal salvation. Instead Paul urges them to live now as though heaven is shaping their lives on earth. The Roman emperor is not the source of salvation; Christ is.”
I read that sentence over a few times because it had such weight for me. To “live as though heaven is shaping my life on earth….” I wonder about the impact that this had on the people of Philippi. Remember, Philippi was a Roman colony. It was very far east of Rome—nearly 800 miles, but as it was surrounded by territories of Rome, its members were subject to Roman law and took part in Roman customs, even though they were not rightly citizens of Rome. So the people who lived there felt very much as though they were Romans, and certainly lived into that identity for all its benefit. And that worried Paul. Because he didn’t want the people of the church at Philippi falling into the trap of living the way those around them lived. He wanted them to remain fixed on their far more important identity—as children of God and citizens of heaven. He didn’t want them to imitate the wrong types of people. He wanted them to imitate HIM and other Godly people.
Imitation is the first—and most basic—-way that we learn, isn’t it? I am reminded of this anew as I see my youngest sister, Sharon, interact with her newborn daughter, Evangeline. In regular messages and videos that Sharon will send to the family, we see itty bitty Evangeline, all of nine weeks old, do her best to imitate her mother’s laugh and smile and even her syntax of speech, through her baby coos and infant chatter. From birth, babies learn to imitate the people in their lives who love and care for them, so that they can see how to become, well, big people. Every one of us learned these basic things from our caregivers, to give us a blueprint for how to be a citizen of the earth. As parents and adults, we strive to be good examples for our children and the children we know, and to ensure that they are surrounded by others who are also setting the example that we want imitated.
But I think the question for us in this Lenten season is, how are we doing that? We’ve received this invitation to imitation….and how are we living this out? Similar to our example of the “WWJD?” bracelets from earlier in our morning, many of us choose to wear the Cross as a pendant or bracelet or earrings. And, like that WWJD bracelets, that symbol is a clear message to others about whom we belong to. About where our true citizenship lies. But, when we get up in the morning and we put on that Cross pendant or other jewelry, are we doing it because we always wear it? Or are we thinking about the weight of that Cross? Are we thinking about our own commitment to and love for God? Are we thinking about the example we are to others? And the way in which our wearing of the Cross makes bold the statement, “I am a citizen of Heaven.” Are we remembering that call to imitate Christ in all we do?
For Paul, the Cross is central to the Christian story. And it is for us, too, even when we allow it unconsciously fade into the background of our Christian lives. We spend so much time thinking about the love that Jesus shared and the miracles that he performed, that I worry that sometimes we forget what the Cross calls us to do and remember. The Cross is, at one and the same time, our hope and glory and release from the bondage of sin as it is a real and tangible reminder of the burden of sacrifice, humiliation, and shame. The Cross is heavy. There are no two ways about that. Who we are and all we do—as individuals and as a society—find their meaning in that Cross. From our individual actions with our families and friends to our collective actions in how we respond to mass incarceration and immigration status and the trauma of opioid addiction, the Cross has central place. Calling us both to glory in God and challenging us to live counter-culturally as citizens of a different place. I might live here in the United States of America….but I am a citizen of heaven. And sometimes I forget that. And I need more than a WWJD bracelet or a Cross around my neck to remind me of who I am. I need someone to “imitate” who calls me and reminds me of the higher citizenship to which I lay claim.
I feel that the call to us, in this Lenten season, is to reflect on our heavenly inclusion and to seek among us those who are the most faithful to emulate. Who is your heavenly guide here on earth? Who do you see reflecting the grace and truth of Christ? Who do you see encircling others in a supportive and encouraging embrace, as would the Holy Spirit? Who do you see acting with compassion? With mercy? Without fear in the face of opposition? Who do you want to imitate? Who will bring you closer to God? Someone—sitting here with us this morning or in your life in the week ahead—is that “someone” for you. We are called and invited and given our very own modern-age Paul to help us on this journey. There is a disciple out there for you who is ready and willing to show you The Way—even though they may not even realize they are doing so for you.
We are in our own Philippi time capsule here in 2019—citizens of heaven living in the midst of the chaos that is the world around us. No matter which direction we turn, we can find lots and lots of people living lives that we should NOT imitate. Lives of greed and pride and power. Lives that look so good from the outside, that we could easily be tricked into believing that theirs are better than ours. That what we are striving for pales beside their fortunes. Yes, perhaps they have found their fortune in things of earthly worth; but those things are empty and hollow, as capricious and fleeting as the whims of those who seek only them. But ours…ours is solid and strong. And would we hold even one splinter of the splendor, we will be blessed beyond measure by the One who is calling us to lives of charge and consequence. We know the weight of the wood that is stronger than anything the world could provide.
Perhaps the best place to begin is right at the beginning…as we spoke of last week, the “beginning of the end of the beginning”. When you weigh your life by the weight of the Cross, and all that the Cross is and was, how much of it is you and how much of it is Him? We all want to live a life that is worthy of the Gospel, and we know the weight of the Cross humbles our pride, knowing that even in our imitation, we are only made right with God through the salvific act of Jesus Christ. Whatever your reminder might be—a Cross on your chest or the name of your “Paul”—your guide, your “imitation Christi”—taped to your mirror or whatever way you choose to remember your citizenship in heaven… we have been offered both a promise and a command in shouldering the weight of the Cross. What has it meant to your past? But more importantly, what will it mean to your future?