Our text is today’s Epistle: 17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (ESV)
If you read today’s text in a certain light, you might think that St. Paul is being rather brash and arrogant. Who is he to set up himself as a role model for others to follow? Brothers, join in imitating me, he says, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. This is not the only time Paul exhorts Christians to imitate him. To the church in Corinth, he writes I urge you,… be imitators of me (1 Corinthians 4:16).
What’s going on here? Well, we can be sure that Paul is not being arrogant. Rather, as we look more closely at his life, we see that the reason Paul can exhort others to imitate him is because he himself is an imitator of Christ. That’s the key. Again, to the church in Corinth Paul writes, Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Now what does it mean to imitate Christ? Paul gives us a clue when he writes in his letter to the Philippians: What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you (4:9). Imitating Christ involves putting into practice what we have learned and received and heard and seen through the teaching of the apostles.
Today there are many within the Church who like to pick and choose what they believe. They’ve been called “cafeteria Christians” because they treat the Church’s articles of doctrine as items in a cafeteria line which they can choose to take or leave. “Oh, you don’t like what the Bible says about sex and marriage and the value of human life from conception to death? Well, just leave that on the counter. You don’t feel comfortable with what the Bible says about hell and judgement and about Jesus being the only way of salvation? Well, just believe the parts you want to and leave the rest.”
But that’s not how you and I have come to believe. No, by God’s grace, we cling to the apostolic Word, the Word of God, in all its truth and purity, accepting as true even the parts that are ridiculed and rejected by the world today. We submit to the authority of the Bible, not insofar as it contains the Word of God—as cafeteria Christians do—but because the Bible IS the Word of God.
Yes, imitating Christ has to do with how we handle the Word of God. We are to learn and receive and hear and see the apostolic teaching with great humility, submitting to it as the very Word of God. And by God’s grace, that is exactly what you and I do as we live out our lives as baptized children of God. In Holy Baptism, God has made us holy learners who are continually putting into practice what we receive and hear and see in the apostolic teaching, the Word of God.
Perhaps my calling you a holy learner has brought to mind memories of confirmation. But don’t think of holy learning as something you did only in the past. Yes, it does include the past but it also includes your present and your future. In other words, holy learning includes the whole of your life in Christ, from all that God has done through your parents and your pastors to bring you to the baptismal font and to pass on the holy faith to you, to all that God is doing right now through Word and Sacrament to keep you in the one true faith to life everlasting. Passing on the faith and keeping the faith are both of vital importance, for as necessary as it is for Christian parents to pass on the faith to their children, so it is necessary that Christians of all ages keep the faith, remaining faithful unto death that they may receive the crown of life.
Now we may be tempted to think of holy learning primarily in terms of gaining information. We may even remember our Sunday School and confirmation years mainly as a process of learning facts. But holy learning involves so much more than learning facts. Oh, it is good to know facts about the Bible, such as who is Isaac’s mother and so forth. But knowing Bible facts must be accompanied by faith in the Holy Triune God. And so holy learning is actually a way of life that revolves around the grace and forgiveness that is yours in Christ. Holy learning means you are continually receiving God’s grace in Christ Jesus, hearing God’s grace through the apostolic Word read and preached, and seeing God’s grace in the waters of Holy Baptism and in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. Learning. Receiving. Hearing. Seeing. They all come together as you experience God’s grace in Christ Jesus coming to you through Word and Sacrament, by which all of your sins are forgiven.
Being a holy learner has everything to do with making a true confession of Christ. And so what you believe is crucial. The world likes to downplay doctrine as something trivial, but doctrine is a matter of life and death. Listen to what our Lord says about the importance of doctrine: whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven and whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned (Matthew 10:33; Mark 16:16). Clearly what a person believes concerning Christ has eternal consequences. And so as holy learners, we wholeheartedly embrace and submit to all that the apostles have passed on to us; we confess Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God, who died on the cross in order to set us free from sin, death, and the devil. We confess the Holy Trinune God, who has made us His forgiven children through Holy Baptism. We confess that in the Lord’s Supper, we truly feast on our Lord’s body and blood for the strengthening of our faith unto life everlasting. Oh yes, it matters what one believes. By God’s grace, then, we confess the same faith confessed by the apostles of Christ.
But holy learning has to do not only with what we believe but also with how we live. And so we join in imitating St. Paul not only by holding to the same doctrine but also by striving to live God-pleasing lives. Baptized into Christ, we spend our lives learning to pray, learning to confess our sins, learning to forgive from the heart those who have sinned against us, learning to love our neighbour.
Paul warns us that there are those who once walked in Christ but who now walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. How tragic it is when a Christian persists in setting his mind on earthly things, for his heart and mind are no longer set on Christ. He becomes consumed with the cares and pleasures of this world. He ends up worshipping the god of prosperity and despising the holy things of God. He despises God’s Word, his own baptism, and the Holy Supper. He neglects to pray and to confess his sins and to forgive and love others in the name of Christ. If he does not repent, then his end will be certainly be destruction.
But thanks be to God, by God’s grace, you and I take Paul’s warning seriously, and so we do not set our minds on earthly things. Rather we come faithfully to the Divine Service to confess our sins and to be renewed in Christ in what we believe and in how we live; yes, as we learn and receive and hear and see God’s grace coming to us through Word and Sacrament, our dear Lord renews us to have a strong faith toward God and a fervent love toward one another. As we confess our sins, looking only to God’s grace in Christ Jesus our Lord, we imitate St. Paul, who confessed that he himself was the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15) and who sought a righteousness [not] of [his] own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith (Philippians 3:9). Yes, we join Paul in confessing sins and in seeking Christ’s righteousness alone.
As a baptized holy learner, your whole life is wrapped up in following Paul’s admonition to be imitators of [him], as [he is] of Christ. You imitate St. Paul in your believing and in your living. In other words, you put into practice your apostolic faith by living in accord with the apostolic Word. And so believing and living always go together, like fire and warmth. Martin Luther clearly saw this connection and referred to it in his explanation to the First Petition of the Lord’s Prayer—Hallowed be Thy name. He writes: God’s name is kept holy when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we, as the children of God, also lead holy lives according to it. Help us to do this, dear Father in heaven! For Luther and for us, teaching and confessing the apostolic word—the Word of God—in its truth and purity goes hand-in-hand with leading holy lives according to it.
And so when we pray Hallowed be Thy name, we are really asking our heavenly Father to help us join St. Paul in imitating our Lord Jesus Christ. “Dear Father in heaven, help us to teach and confess Your Word in its truth and purity and to lead holy lives according to it!” And in crying out to God for help, we are acknowledging that we, with Paul, are the chief of sinners, and that imitating Christ is not something we can succeed in doing on our own. We are admitting that our attempts to confess Christ truly and to lead holy lives fall dreadfully short of the glory of God! But as we cry out in our great need, our Lord Jesus answers us in even greater love and mercy.
To us holy learners who so often fail, our Lord speaks a gracious invitation: Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me (Matthew 11:28-29). And in that gracious invitation to learn and receive and hear and see His grace—to feast on His Holy Word and His Holy Supper—we find the strength that we need to join St. Paul in imitating Christ, the strength to confess Christ truly and to lead holy lives according to God’s Word.
What a wonderous Lord and Saviour we have! Jesus comes to us this morning to renew us in a strong faith toward Him and in fervent love toward one another. And not only does Jesus renew us and forgive us all our sins but He also gives us a promise that sustains us even to the end. In great love, He promises that our citizenship is in heaven. And so, by His grace and love and mercy, we do not set our minds on earthly things; rather, we await [from heaven] a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. Amen.