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Setting a Good Example

San Williams

February 24, 2013
Philippines 3:17-4:1

02-24-2013 Sermon In their stirring anthem, our choir raised the question:  “Can I get a witness for my Lord?” That question spills over into my sermon today.  Who is willing to be a witness, a model, an example of Christian living?  In our reading today, Paul declares, “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.”  In this Lenten season, we try to reflect deeply on what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Well, in today’s scripture, Paul encourages us, actually pleads with us, to be a congregation worth imitating.  In short, he implores us to set a good example.

Now, if you’re like me, this plea brings with it an element of discomfort.  Most of us would shy away from being held up as models for others to emulate.  When it comes to exemplars of the Christian life, we prefer to point to models of faithful living who are more remote, perhaps Saint Francis or Mother Teresa.  But I doubt that many of us would volunteer ourselves as examples for others to imitate.   So when we hear Paul speaking about examples, mentors, or models, most us us—preachers included—probably slink down in our pew just a little.

Yet Paul had no such hesitation.  He boldly declared to the Philippians, “Follow my example!”  He offered himself and others in the congregation as models to be emulated.  Even though the thought of being an example makes us uneasy, we know that Paul is onto something.  He points to the basic truth that people learn primarily through examples.  In fact, we acknowledged the importance of modeling Christian behavior when we baptized Wyatt this morning.  We asked Wyatt’s parents to promise not only to teach their child the faith, but also to live the faith themselves.  Why?  Because we influence our children by the example we set for them.  For this same reason, during the baptism we also asked the congregation if you are willing to serve as mentors, teachers, and yes, examples, to those we baptize.  The underlying assumption here is that a person learns how to be a Christian by observing those who are living a Christian life.

In her book Christianity After Religion, Diane Butler Bass declares that learning how to be a Christian is similar to learning how to knit. The best way to become a knitter is to join a knitting circle.  By putting yourself in the company of knitters, listening to their instructions, and  observing how they hold the needles, manage the thread, select their patterns, and so forth, the novice begins to learn—through imitation and practice.  From this illustration, Bass contends that people learn how to be a Christian the same way a person learns how to knit, or skip a rope, or hit a tennis ball:  by observing people who are doing it.  This is scary, but true.

And let’s be clear:  we’re speaking of an urgent, life-or-death matter.  Look at the sense of urgency with which Paul wrote to the Philippians.  With tears in his eyes, Paul grieved over the spectacle of people in the Philippian congregation who had no vision of life beyond their appetites.  The enticements of this world were the limit of their horizon.  Because their minds were fixed on perishable, earthly things, they were headed for destruction.  It’s not that earthly things—food, sex, money, material goods—are bad in and of themselves.  Yet when we have no meaning or purpose beyond these perishable goods, then our appetites have become our gods.

If Paul believed the Philippians had their minds set on earthly things, what would he have to say about our modern consumer culture with its relentless enticements? At the very least, in this season of Lent we should look up from our iPhones, computer screens and television sets long enough to ask:  Are we living for nothing more than to be entertained?  Are we striving for nothing greater than to satisfy our own needs and wants?  Is our hope confined to this life alone?

“No,” shouts Paul.  “Our citizenship in is heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”  That may sound rather otherworldly, but Paul is speaking of something that is full of earthly significance.  Citizenship is about where you live, about the values, commitments, loyalties, and allegiance that make you who you are.  As Christians, our true homeland, our ultimate loyalty and deepest allegiance are to Christ crucified and rise, whose reign is characterized by the eternal values of compassion, forgiveness and love.  As one commentator on this passage wrote:  “Emulating Jesus requires that sacrificial love for others become the gold standard of Christian conduct.”

In his book Vision of a World Hungry, Thomas Pettepiece reflects on how our citizenship in heaven shapes our living on earth.  For himself, Pettepiece made the following commitments:

“I commit myself to lead a life of creative simplicity and to share my personal wealth with the world’s poor. I commit myself to join with others in reshaping institutions in order to bring about a more just global society in which each person has full access to the needed resources for their physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth. I commit myself to occupational accountability, and in so doing I will seek to avoid the creation of products which cause harm to others.  I affirm the gift of my body, and commit myself to its proper nourishment and physical well-being.  I commit myself to examine continually my relationship with others, and to attempt to relate honestly, morally, and lovingly to those around me. I commit myself to personal renewal through prayer, meditation and study. I commit myself to responsible participation in a community of faith.”

Of course, there is no one life style prescription that fits every Christian, but every Christian should ask the question:  how shall I live now to signal that my citizenship is in God’s Kingdom? In fact, I want to leave you with a Lenten assignment.  Take a card from the pew rack with the heading, “I commit myself…”  This week, prayerfully complete that card, and share your commitments with at least one other person.

Friends, none of this is to earn our salvation or to obtain a righteousness on our own.  We are already God’s beloved!  Now let us stand firm in the faith…and set a good example!