The imitation of Christ

This is the text of a sermon for the nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scriptures it references are 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 and Matthew 22:15-33.

A little boy was visiting his grandma. He asked thoughtfully, “Grandma, do you know how you and God are alike?”
She mentally polished her halo while she asked, “No, how are we alike?
“You’re both old.”

Well. In our epistle reading today, Paul praised the Thessalonions for having been imitators of the Lord. And it’s a neat concept, a useful one for our own reflections, this idea of imitating the Lord. But just like the little boy with his grandma, it’s an idea which is prone to getting tangled up in our misconceptions, or our pious fantasies about what the Lord is like, and what imitating the Lord might mean. It’s also – let’s face it – a very big umbrella; how do you define what it is to imitate the Lord? It’s not easily reducible to neat formulae, or a simple list of rules. It’s more complicated than that.

So I take on the topic acknowledging up front that I can only pick up one little bit this morning and reflect on that with you; and that I cannot possibly do justice to the whole topic here. It will take each of us a lifetime to unpack the full implications for us of what it means to imitate the Lord.

So let me start here. In that absolute classic 15th-century work, Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, he says – in passing, almost as a throw-away line – “Do not seek too much freedom.” It made me pause, when I came across it; because freedom is so very much a virtue of our times. Is it even possible, contemporary culture might well ask, to have too much freedom? Should we not all be as free as possible? Isn’t that a measure of our worth and dignity as human beings, that we recognize personal and political autonomy as basic human rights? So what was Thomas on about, and did he have anything valuable to say to that sort of thinking?

I came to the conclusion, in thinking about this, that there are perhaps two kinds of freedom with which we ought to be concerned. One is the freedom to be who we are; to be able to be open, honest, transparent and participate in our communities with absolute integrity. This is the kind of freedom which Jesus showed us so well; he knew who he was, and he didn’t change the way he presented it to please the scribes, the Pharisees, the crowds or even his own disciples. Of this sort of freedom, I don’t think we can have too much.

Taking up this freedom means recognizing that each of us is precisely whom God has created us to be; that we have each been given gifts for the building up of this community, and that each of us are called to make a contribution to the life of the church and the world. None of that – who we are, what gifts we have, what contribution we each make – is anything that we ever need to apologise for. It’s why, when I was asked recently by someone outside the church about how I deal with people who have a problem with women in ministry, my response was to say, well, I understand their position, but they just have to suck it up, because I’m here, and this is who I am. And I’m not going to apologise for that.

But there is another kind of freedom. The freedom to do just whatever we please. We see that taken to an extreme, perhaps, in the cliché about generation Y that they don’t RSVP to invitations or make concrete plans in case something better comes up in the interim. Not wanting to be tied down, but always open to the best offer in the moment. And so you get youth-oriented churches, for example, who send out SMS reminders of church services hours beforehand in an attempt to boost attendance.

I’m happy to say that I don’t think we need to resort to that just yet. But this sort of freedom is very different to the freedom to be who you are. Its opposite is not oppression; it is commitment. And when we think about it, it becomes obvious that a balanced human life needs some of this sort of freedom, but also can indeed have too much of it; the person who does not commit at all is likely to be a dilettante student, an unreliable employee, an unsatisfactory romantic partner, and… I wonder, what sort of Christian?

Jesus, from the moment of his baptism right through to his death by crucifixion, set us an example of unwavering commitment. And we heard it, in a way, in his teaching in today’s gospel reading as well; “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God, the things that are God’s.” It’s a question worth pausing and taking seriously; what do we think we rightly owe God?

Let me be clear; this isn’t me trying to guilt trip people into doing more, being here more, or otherwise trying to offer some sort of proof of personal piety. But I’m suggesting that Christian commitment ought to make a difference. It ought to impact on our priorities. It ought to open us up to the question, “What would God have me do?” or, if that’s too abstract, to consider how the mission of God, and the values we can identify as consistent messages through Scripture, relate to the choices we have to make.

Be imitators of the Lord, and one day, what you have in common with God won’t be just that you’re both old – though that might happen too – but also that you are known as people able and ready to teach and nurture others; to recognize and respond to the needs of those around you; to identify and stand against injustice. You’ll be identifiable as people whose moral imagination has been shaped by the example of Christ, and who has learned the wisdom of giving to God, what is God’s; and like the Thessalonians, your reputation as people of faith will be a credit to you.

The Lord be with you.

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