Who's Example Do We Follow; What Does It Look Like To Be A Christian?

Text: Philippians 3:17-21

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

The Apostle Paul tells the Christians in Philippi to imitate him.  He says that he wants them to follow his example.  

Today, some 2,000 years later, the same words apply to you and me.  We, too, should imitate the Apostle Paul.  

But what are we to imitate?  What example should we follow?  What does it look like?  What does it sound like?  

Over the last several hundred years, well-intentioned Christians have had many different recipes of what a Christian should look like, talk like, and act like.  

For example, in one custom (let’s call it the Quiet Mice), Christians are supposed to be super pious, quiet, and meek. The women are supposed to be softly devoted to the kitchen, and the men are supposed to speak with a holy and effeminate whisper in their voice, while the children are seen but never heard. 

In another custom (let’s call this one the Glory Fanatics), Christians are supposed to be very energetic and emotional.  Both the men and the women are supposed to be extremely positive, full of spirituality, and talk with Christian slogans while hyper-spiritualizing every single situation and circumstance in life. 

And who can forget the Sermon Scribes?  This custom is where Christians are supposed to be armed with a notebook and pen to record everything they learn so that they can ensure that they walk the ‘straight and narrow.’  For the Sermon Scribes, every “T” must be crossed, and every “I” must be dotted.    

And then there are the Coffee Hour Socialites.  These people excel at small talk while they effortlessly navigate through every conversation, small group, and social church event.  They connect with everyone with ease.  Friendship and fellowship are the name of their game.  

And last but certainly not least, there are the Potluck Prodigies.  These are the ones that turn every potluck into a culinary event.  They are masters and commanders of volunteering to get things done. 

Now, let’s be perfectly clear: we could certainly name a bunch more, but we cannot for the sake of time.  Nonetheless, with these examples, we must be perfectly clear that there is nothing wrong with these customs.  In fact, many of these customs fit a number of us right here in this church.  So, what’s the point then?  The point is that often, these various groups will try to convince people in the church to follow their example and custom.  In other words, to be a Christian, what must a person look like, talk like, and act like?  Obviously, according to the Quiet Mice, Christians are supposed to imitate them by being docile, meek, effeminate, and quiet.  However, for the Glory Fanatics, Christians should follow their example of being positive, spiritually charged, and on fire for Jesus.  But then the Sermon Scribes come along and say, “No way, Christians are to follow our example of being academic scribes who walk the straight and narrow path!”  The Coffee Hour Socialites roll their eyes and say that Christians should imitate them by strengthening relationships and building lasting friends.  And then the Potluck Prodigies say, “Enough games and heady knowledge; you need to follow our example as we whip the church into shape.” 

Dear friends, again, these customs are perfectly fine; however, they become problematic when Christians are encouraged to follow them – as if these various customs encapsulate what it means to be a Christian.  That is to say, when the Apostle Paul tells the Christians in Philippi to imitate him, he is not telling the Christians to become Quiet Mice, Glory Fanatics, or Sermon Scribes.  The example that Paul is leaving with the Christians to imitate is not to be a Coffee Hour Socialite or a Potluck Prodigy.  He is not placing himself before Christians so that we may watch him diligently to learn how to look, talk, and act specifically.  

Tragically, over the years, I have seen way too many pastors take on the personality, mannerisms, and idiosyncrasies of a favorite professor, thinking that they are following an example of what they believe a pastor should look like, talk like, and act like.  And parishioners?  They, too, will often copy the mannerisms, personalities, and idiosyncrasies of a pastor, popular church speaker, or author, thinking that they are looking like, talking like, and acting like a Christian.

So, what does all of this mean?  What is Paul saying to the Christians in Philippi and us today?  What does it mean to follow the example of the Apostle Paul?  In a word, suffering.  

Dear friends, the Apostle Paul bids you and me to follow his example of suffering.  Now, keep in mind that he is not talking about suffering through not getting a promotion at work, suffering due to health struggles, or suffering due to mental health problems.  While all of these are indeed forms of suffering, they are not the kind of suffering that Paul is talking about.  

The kind of suffering that the Apostle Paul has in mind is the kind of cheerful sacrifice of anything and everything to have Christ.  In other words, when the Apostle Paul learned to know Christ, everything else was lowered to its proper place.  And as all this other stuff was lowered to its proper place, well… Paul suffered.  

Let’s be very honest with ourselves.  We live in a day and time when a great deal of people are willing and wanting to be Christians - unless there is suffering.  They want to wear a crown of glory but not a crown of thorns.  They want to wear a robe of splendor but not a scarlet robe of mockery. They want a smooth decorative cross but not a cross with slivers.  They want glory and triumph but not suffering.  They want a cross-less Jesus without blood and suffering.  They want the excitement of Easter Sunday without the darkness of Good Friday.  

Let’s be a bit blunter – we want a version of Christianity that is convenient.  Something that does not cut into school sports, hunting, camping, work, or sleeping in on Sundays because if it did, well… that would cause us to suffer.  Furthermore, we want a version of Christianity that does not collide with the morals of our friends, the outlook of our neighbors, and the convictions of our extended family because if it did, well… that would cause us to suffer.  Deep down, because of this wretched sinful nature, we want a cheap Jesus and a thin-flimsy Christianity that we can toss in the trash or bend to our will to avoid suffering.  

You need to know that I don’t like preaching this sermon right now because it makes me uncomfortable.  I am sure that you don’t like hearing it either.  However, regardless of our feelings, the fact still remains that there is no halfway house between the cross of Christ and the world.  Paul is quite clear that belonging to Jesus will result in suffering.  

Let’s make this really clear and easy to understand.  Since Jesus Christ defeated sin, death, and the devil and since Jesus snatched you from darkness unto light, we belong to Jesus.  And since you and I belong to Jesus, you and I are at war with the devil, which will cause us suffering when he attacks.  Furthermore, since you and I belong to Jesus and His Word, we are at war with the ideologies of the world, which will cause us often not to go with the flow, resulting in possible suffering at the hands of the world.  And finally, since you and I belong to Jesus and His grace, we are at war with our sinful old Adam.  Yes, hear this loud and clear; you will suffer every single day as you repent of sins, remember your baptisms, and cling to the promises of God as the damn sinful nature drowns and dies.  

Baptized Saints, either Christ rose from the grave, or He is still dead in the tomb.  If He is still dead in the tomb, then none of this church stuff matters.  We are just wasting our time if He is still dead in the tomb.  However, if Christ has risen from the grave, everything changes.  You see, that is what Paul is getting at.  When the resurrected Jesus Christ ambushed Paul on the Damascus road, Paul’s world blew up. Everything that he stretched for, pursued, and valued – all of it – was put on the same level as horse manure and dog dung compared to the surpassing richness of Jesus. Everything that he thought was so important in life, fell away compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ and Christ knowing him.  

Baptized Saints, listen up.  We belong to a real Christ - who really lived, really died, really rose, and really ascended for you and me.  And so, because the world, sin, and the devil hate Jesus and because we belong to Jesus, we will suffer.  But you know what?  That is o.k. because we will suffer just like Paul and all the other saints who suffered before us.  We are not alone in our suffering because we have Jesus and are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have suffered before us.  We will be o.k. because you and I are citizens of the Kingdom of God.  We will be o.k. through the suffering because the Lord Jesus Christ will soon take us home to Himself, where He will transform our earthly bodies into glorious bodies like His own.  

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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