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The Second Sunday in Lent
February 21, 2016
The Epistle: Philippians 3:17-4:1
Sermon: "Two Questions"
The Very Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
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Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
Lent is a season, like no other, for self-examination. It’s a time for looking into our motives, and actions, and whether our personal faith is still strong in root and flowering in our lives. It is a time like no other for such things, because it is a season, and not just a momentary thought, or a reflective day. It is a season for reflective thought.
Something I’ve always found helpful in getting my own season of reflection started is to ask two questions. Both have to do with the imitation of others; the patterns of my life that copy the patterns of others, and those patterns in my life that are worth being copied by others.
I believe that these two questions reveal something inherent to our humanity; how we’re wired to live, because we hold far more in common than we are different. You and I are inherently imitators of the world around us.
Consider this: imitation is how we learn to be human at every level. We learn to speak by imitating our parents. We learn to walk by watching our older siblings. Later in life we create our own “unique” identity by imitating our teenage friends in school and following our particular clique in college. Finally, we seek out certain people in our professions to be our mentors, and we pattern our own style after theirs. And, of course, whether we’ll admit to it or not, we imitate our spouse.
Many of the things we conform to are helpful and necessary. But, others can have negative ramifications. Our work ethic, our attitude toward spouse and kids, and even our church attendance are things we pick up from others. Then again, some really not-good things such as a destructive habit, or a heart of discontent and cruelty, can come from conformity to someone around us.
We become what we choose to imitate. Each of us is a complicated mosaic of influences resembling many people in our past and present. We conform to the image of others, and others, right now, are conforming to us.
The words of the Apostle Paul from our Epistle reading to the Philippians this morning, speaks to this. Here, Paul gives a loving but firm command. “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (Philippians 3:17, ESV). What Paul is telling the Philippians, and us, is simply this: “You’re going to copy. You’re going to mimic someone’s steps and mirror someone’s movements when it comes to learning this Christian life. So, since you’re going to imitate somebody, imitate me. Follow me as I follow Jesus.”
Paul goes even further. He tells us that whenever we see people upholding the confession of the gospel he has handed down and exhibiting the Christ-focused, people-loving style of faith and life that he has modeled, we should keep our eyes locked on that person. Why? So that, as a child learns how to live by absorbing every move of his or her parents, we might absorb how to live the Christian life. Imitation is key to the Christian life.
So, back to those two questions I mentioned that help me. The first is this: who are you and I imitating? From whom are we learning what it means to live as a follower of Jesus? Is it a spouse? Do we have a Christian friend or a colleague whose faith is demonstrably more experienced and mature? Are we soaking up the shared wisdom of faithful friends? Are we following the pattern of a faith-filled parent?
Here’s the second question. Who is imitating us? If we have children or grandchildren, this one is easy to answer. But our sphere of influence extends beyond the home. Who in our lives knows that we’re Christian and, thereby, their understanding of Christ and the Faith is founded on our words, our actions and our attitude? Who is learning from us? That’s a question with which to wrestle.
The bottom line is who are you and I following? We are following someone, even if unconsciously. Likewise, someone is following you and me, whatever our example may be. As we consider these two questions, here’s something important to ponder: Scripture tells us that as we imitate the likes of Paul, as we learn from the faith and life of our brothers and sisters in the Faith, the end result isn’t a bunch of little Christian clones who all look just like each other, but a community of people who resemble Christ. Jesus is not only our Savior in that the depth of his love demonstrated on the cross draws us into relationship with God, but, in his living and breathing, in his walking and talking, in his healing and loving, he is also our example. Jesus demonstrates for the world what it means to be fully human; to be completely right with God, and to be fully empowered by compassion for the world. Jesus shows how to live at one with God, with each other, and completely in-step with the rhythms of life in our created world.
What we’re really talking about here, is salvation. Please hear me on this! We Episcopalians, when we’re asked about our salvation by others, tend to be terrible in our answers to this. You see, salvation is a two-pronged process. First: each of us, by our trust in Christ’s love for us, has been put right with God. That is, our faith alone is enough to put us in God’s grace. Think of that; your life and mine is already justified before God. All our sins are forgiven already; that’s past, present, and future. Sure, we still need to confess them, so that we can turn away from them and become the people God intends. But, because we have already been forgiven, we can approach the throne of grace with confidence, knowing that God will receive us and give us help to amend our ways in time of need. That’s what Christ’s sacrifice of love on the Cross has done for us. You are God’s own, sealed by the Spirit, and that is a done-deal for all time. That, all by itself, saves you and me from eternal death. That is God’s gift to us, and once accepted God will not revoke it. You and I can, should we choose to, with the most Hard-Rock Baptist, truthfully say, “I have been saved!” Because we have! That’s not arrogance on our part, by the way, that’s acknowledgement of what God’s gift of grace has done.
Here’s why this understanding is so important: as a consequence of our salvation being a done-deal, we do our good works for God entirely out of gratitude to God, and compassion for others. We’re not doing it to get God’s favor, or get into Heaven. We don’t have to; that’s all already ours because of Jesus love. As I’ve said before, we don’t serve in order to buy the stairway to Heaven, because there is none. We don’t pile up good works to balance the ledger books of Heaven, because there are none. Heaven is already ours! We serve, now, only to praise God for God’s great love, and to spread that love to others.
Now, the reason we Episcopalians tend not to be so declarative about our salvation as some is this: we understand that there is a continuing part to our salvation; a part that saves us from ourselves in this life. It is called the “Cure of the Soul”. In this other part, we are empowered by the Spirit to embark on a lifelong journey of being “conformed to the image” of Jesus. That is, you and I, slowly but surely, start acting like him, loving like him and resembling him. This “curing of the soul” is the part that grows us into our salvation; that saves us here and now from imitating all that’s un-Christ-like and wrong with the world. By imitating one another as we each are faithful in imitating Jesus, we begin to resemble and reflect him; actually become like him. As I’ve pointed out many times, the big, ten-dollar theological word for this transformation by example, this cure of our souls, is sanctification; literally, the process of becoming holy.
So, let me suggest something here. Next time you’re asked if you’ve been saved, Go ahead and say, “Yes!” But, here’s a really good Episcopalian addendum: add, “And, I am being saved!” Whoever is asking may not completely understand that response, but, at least you’ll have the benefit of being theologically correct.
We human beings are creatures of conformity; we are inherent imitators. The question is not if our lives will resemble someone else’s, but whose life ours will resemble. Take this season of Lent and assess what’s in front of you, and what’s following behind you. Whose footsteps are you in today? Who is walking in yours? Ask those two questions, then look to our Savior and example, Jesus Christ! Follow him! And those who follow you will find their way to him too.