Philippians 3:17 – 4:1
A recent poll showed that Michael Jordan is still the single most popular athlete in the USA. Kids still wear basketball jerseys with his number, and everyone knows what is meant by “be like Mike.” Young people aspire to Michael Jordan’s athletic prowess, but few want to “be like Mike” in his troubled personal life. For many years, homemakers have gone to K-Mart to buy Martha Stewart linens, accessories, and books. They have watched her on television and tried to emulate her vision of gracious living. This week Martha Stewart was found guilty of obstructing justice, conspiracy, and making false statements: not the verdict her fans hope for themselves.
The truth is that all our heroes have feet of clay. This makes Paul’s statement to the Philippians, “Join in imitating me” sound smug and self-congratulatory at first hearing. Who does he think he is? Sure, Paul was probably the greatest missionary of the 1st century, the writer of much of the New Testament -- but Paul was also the man who persecuted Christians before his conversion. He was the man who quarreled so sharply with his co-worker, Barnabas, that they parted company (Acts 15:39). Paul was the one who expressed the crude wish that some Judaizing teachers in Galatia would castrate themselves (Gal. 5:12). Are these things worth imitating?
Not at all, Paul would say. He accused himself of being “chief of sinners,” (1 Timothy 1:15), but in the 3rd chapter of Philippians, he is exhorting his readers to imitate him in specific ways and for specific reasons.
Paul was in prison for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ when he wrote this letter. His once-prized Jewish pedigree, Roman citizenship, education, and religious zeal were of no use to him now. Paul wrote that he counted all his credentials as loss for the sake of Christ. He was willing to forfeit all things in order to gain Christ and be found in him, to have a righteousness not his own but imputed through faith in Christ. He was continually striving for perfection (which should be as completion or fullness), and considered his commonwealth to be heaven. He was humble in acknowledging he had not yet attained all these. This is what Paul wants his readers to emulate.
In Kathryn Hulme’s novel, The Nun’s Story, she described an old sister in the order who was referred to as “A Living Rule.” She was thus called because the community believed that if the written rule of their order was ever lost or destroyed, they could recapture its essence by observing this particular nun. She was worthy of imitating. What about us? Many of the people we meet each day have never read the Bible. How will they learn about Jesus, or what it means to live in Christian faith? Let us strive, as Paul did, to be worthy of imitation, so that the world may see the Lord whose name we confess.