“Walk as fellow-imitators!” Philippians 3:17-4:1

Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.

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Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ!

Today for our meditation we have these verses from Paul’s letter to Christians in Philippi. Do you know what this letter is famous for? For its joyful tone. It is sometimes called Paul’s “joyful letter”. For Paul repeats it again and again, – “be glad and rejoice, I say to you again, rejoice, rejoice in the Lord”.

Reading such joyful a message it is hard to imagine that Paul is writing this letter from – do you know where he was writing it from? – from prison. That’s right. This is what true faith gives us, overflowing joy and “peace of God that surpasses all our understanding”.

Paul was imprisoned, but even in prison he rejoiced for having opportunities to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, reaching to those in imperial guard and even to the household of the emperor himself.

However, in those verses which we read today, Paul’s concern is Christian living. How shall we live that our lives would honor and praise our Father and would be worthy of the Gospel that we have received?

This will be the focus of our today’s meditations. How shall we live? Our today’s reading begins so characteristically for Paul with “brothers”, thus reminding us about our new identity and status in Christ.

That in our baptism we are all made members of God’s family. We all have received this new identity – sons and daughters of God the Father. We all have been elevated to the highest status that there exists.

“Brothers…” and then Paul writes something that in English would sound like: “Brothers, become fellow-imitators with me!” Fellow-imitators… This is an interesting way of speaking about our Christian life.

We all live in a society. Since childhood we learn things by imitating. We all do. The question is – who do we imitate? Whose example shapes how we lead our lives? Paul is inviting Christians in Philippi and also us to become fellow-imitators of him, as Paul himself is imitator of Christ.

Think about this – have you been conscious about imitating the great apostle Paul, as he imitates Jesus? Have you thought – how can I live out my identity as a child of God trying to become more and more Christ-like?

I remember that when Jesus called me to follow Him, that was actually one of the things that excited me a lot. Responding to His call. Following Jesus. Taking on this mission to be Jesus’ disciple. Changing my life. Reorienting it.

Trying to deny myself and my selfish and sinful desires. Fighting against them, using all the tools available, and especially – private confession with my pastor, when I was dealing with those sins that just wouldn’t go away.

Exciting times. Following Jesus… But time went and I can see that I have become complacent. “It is okay as it is, why to worry too much, we all are sinners, God forgives anyway…” But where is the passion?

Where is the power of the Holy Spirit that turns our lives upside down and drives us to change the world for Jesus, to lay down our lives so that only others can learn about this great God, and His love for them?

What is your story? How passionate are you in imitating Christ? Or imitating those Christians whose faith and passion shines like sun in this bleak and indifferent world? Do we even like such Christians?

Or do we consider them too extreme? Fundamentalists… that’s too much. And then we silence our consciences so that we don’t need to change anything in our comfortable lives. Or even worse. We misuse our own beautiful Lutheran theology to justify our complacency.

You can hear people saying that we are the church of the Gospel, we are not the church of the Law, – so there is no place among us for exhortations, or church discipline, or deliberate imitation of Christ. That’s all Law, and we have nothing to do with it.

Thus is created this spineless and cowardly caricature of Christianity where the Church is afraid to expect anything from anyone, where Christians don’t have any responsibilities to lead holy and pure lives and where to expect anyone to live as Christian is offensive, and where the new 1st commandment states – “you shall not offend anyone!”

Why don’t more people follow Christ? Maybe because we actually don’t teach and don’t encourage it? Maybe because we are afraid to expect it even from our own members. What if they get offended? Now I have heard it already from a few people loosely associated with our congregations that the main thing is to believe that there is a god and that he forgives… that’s it. Then you are okay.

It is no wonder that Western churches are dying, our own LCA including. How can such weak and empty and formless Christianity be attractive to anyone? There is no new life, no excitement, no walking with Jesus, just – continue to be slave of your sins, for God loves everyone and accepts everyone. What is the point? But we just need to take a quick look at Paul’s letters, and we see totally different picture, full of life and action, commitment and courage.

They are saturated with exhortation, which are addressed to all Christians, which we are supposed to take seriously and to expect from one another. Take this letter to Philippians. The Holy Spirit is speaking through Paul to us.

“Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ …  standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents.” (Phi 1:27-28)

“Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life.” (Phi 2:14-16)

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me– practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Phi 4:8-9)

And back to our today’s text: “And keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” Here we can see that Paul is by no means elevating himself, he points to all the saints that try to imitate Christ.

Become fellow-imitators! Meaning, do it together. Walk together. Help one another to grow in Christ. Share God’s wisdom with one another. Encourage one another. Support one another. Keep one another accountable.

Learn to understand God’s design for our lives, His commandments, and strive to live accordingly. Learn to understand how to live in all our callings, in family, at work, in congregation and strive to do it faithfully. By God’s grace.

Be intentional about it. Be passionate about it. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to confess what you believe, speak the truth. For what we have is the Good News to the world. Be proud to be follower of Jesus even if it costs you dearly.

Rejoice with the apostles and countless brothers and sisters around the world, if you are counted worthy to suffer [and bear] dishonor for the name [of Jesus]. (Act 5:41) For this is what it means to be fellow-imitator of Christ.

I have been blessed to see many examples of Christian humility, love, passion, wisdom, grace, courage, and even not knowing about it many of you have inspired me with you example as fellow-imitators of Christ. And I am grateful for this experience and the gift that the community of saints is for each of us.

But then Paul goes on lamenting those who identify as Christian but are not. “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.”

Dear pastor Paul speaks about such people in tears. Not because he rejoices that now he can bash them, but because his Christian heart hurts for them as well. This was true in the first century and it is true now as well – there are many who claim that they are Christians, but act as enemies of Jesus and His Church. You see, Christian is not an identity that anyone can claim for themselves.

It is a precious gift of God, bought by the blood of Jesus, and true Christians value and cherish this gift more than anything, and as Paul wrote earlier, we should “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”. Not with complacency and arrogant indifference.

We need to pay attention to what Paul says next. And this is scary. “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”

Their end is destruction… Destruction, not salvation. We can see this strange phenomenon around. People say that they believe one thing – that they are Christians – but act as if they believed something totally different.

Many say they are Christians, but what they really care is their belly. Just don’t you dare to tell them that, for all hell will brake lose. “Are you saying that I am not a Christians only because I don’t read the Bible, don’t worship and don’t know what Christianity is about… how do you dare?” Their mind is set on earthly things…

And, sure, we all live is this world, we need to deal with earthly things. We all need to deal with our daily problems. Health issues and financial pressures, problems in family, raising up children in the world that challenges us more than ever before. No one is spared from that.

So the question is – how can we still be joyful fellow-imitators of Jesus and of Paul? How can we set our minds on things that are above? Paul gives us his answer. He points us to the main source of our peace and joy, and it doesn’t come from this world, not from earthly things.

“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”

This is where our hope and peace and joy come from. From the place that we call our true home. From the place where our heart belongs. From the Kingdom whose citizens we are. From Lord Jesus Christ, our Savior, who is coming soon.

Who comes to transform our lowly and sin ridden bodies to be like His glorious body. Think about this, – we will be like Jesus in His glorified body. We will be like Him. And we will see Him as He is. This is what awaits us.

We recently reflected on the event of transfiguration. Remember, how good it was in the presence of glorified Jesus, that Peter and John and James forgot about everything so that only they could stay there a bit longer. This is what our God has prepared for us.

And at least a few of you have been graced by our God to experience what His presence is like. Out of this world… unsurpassed in its intensity of pure love and goodness… something that changes everything is the blink of an eye and transfers us from this realm of darkness into the Kingdom of God’s Son.

“Therefore [because your gracious Father has prepared all of this for you], my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.”

Therefore stand firm in the Lord, dear brothers and sisters, remain in His word, remain in His family, enjoy and cherish the support of one another, walk together as fellow-imitators and strive to do your best to become Christ-like.

Live as who you already are, as Christians, as fellow-heirs with Jesus, as members of the divine family, so that one day we can see Paul the apostle in the company of all God’s saints and thank him personally for all his encouraging words.

Amen.

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