“Imitating the Imitators”
What’s the best way to learn something new? We can debate the differences of learnings styles and laud the advantages and disadvantages of lecture-based versus socratic classroom styles, the value of reading a book versus watching a filmed documentary, or the importance of hands-on learning. Learning styles notwithstanding, I think it is safe to say that we all learn best when we have someone to look at as an example; when we have someone we can imitate.
A young boy who wants to not only learn to play baseball but learn to be a pitcher may find some value in reading a book about the mechanics of throwing a ball and may pick up some helpful tips from dad about windup and followthrough, but more likely than not, regardless of the other tools and approaches that he incorporates to help him learn, there will be some star player that he fixates upon as a role model for pitching. He’ll watch him play, watch and rewatch videos of him pitching, and will practice the same wind up and followthrough.
Other children will do similar things with music, with dance, or with painting, finding a favored musician, ballerina, or artist and learning first how to imitate them. They may take lessons and learn about their developing talent through other means, but the imitation of someone who has already mastered the craft will often be the earliest and easiest way in which they begin to achieve competency and success in the task they are pursing.
The interesting thing about learning by imitation is that you need to know very little about what is going on behind the scenes, if you will, of the thing you are learning. If you are following Bob Ross as you learn how to paint happy little clouds and happy little trees, you don’t need to know why he chose what paints or brushes to achieve an adequate result, you simply need to look at him and do what he has done. There may come a time as you develop your skills that you move beyond mere imitation, at which time it becomes important to understand the inner workings of the craft and all of the reasons behind the choices an artist makes, but people can quickly and confidently enter into a new hobby or skill simply by imitating those who have gone before them.
There’s an important prerequisite to learning by imitation, though, isn’t there? You have to choose the right person to emulate. If I want to paint in the French Impressionist style, then I would be better served by mimicking the work of Monet rather than the Abstract Expressionist work of Jackson Pollock. If I want to learn how to kick a ball for the purposes of playing soccer I would be better served imitating a soccer star rather than an American Football punter. If I want to learn how to play the violin for a bluegrass band, the choice of who I imitate will be different than if I want to play violin for a symphony orchestra. The point is, we must take care in who we imitate lest we imitate the wrong thing and are drawn away or delayed from reaching our goal.
This is the point of St. Paul’s statements in our Epistle lesson today. Prior to the passage we read earlier, St. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, challenged the church to, “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” He was challenging the church not to remain stagnant in their walk with God but to strive to move forward in their walk, not being content with where they have been and the conclusions they have drawn about who God is and who they are in relationship with Him, but to continue to press forward, continue to keep learning and keep asking questions and to keep growing. However, he does not want them to press forward blindly without taking care in how they run this race of maturity in their relationship with God. Rather, he tells them imitate him and those others who live the Christian life in the way that St. Paul did, and to be watchful of those who claim to be living the Christian life and walking in relationship with God yet whose actions show them to be enemies of the cross and who seem to be proud of the shameful way they live their lives.
I would contend that our current age of technology and communication creates a new challenge for us in the church when it comes to this. We have access to so many competing perspectives and have so much information at our fingertips that it can become overwhelming. If I tell you to be imitators of those who are imitating Christ, then the question is, who is imitating Christ for me to imitate them as well?
St. Paul gives us the answer. He describes two types of people. The one type, of whom we should not imitate, are those whose, “god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” What does he mean by this? It’s those whose pursuits in life are solely and completely on earthly things. People who see money as the primary way to achieve success and happiness, those who are pragmatically willing to ally themselves with immorality and corruption in a feigned attempt to accomplish what they espouse to be an honorable goal, those who seek power and authority for the purpose of advancing their own ego.
Jesus addresses this same issue from another perspective in His statement that we, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The world advances its programs through political power plays and manipulation of the masses, through strength of arms and accrual of wealth. That is how the Kingdom of the World operates. Jesus beckons us to live as citizens of a Kingdom whose mantra is not “might makes right,” but, “blessed are the meek,” whose pursuit of justice is not fueled by vengeance and retaliation, but rather, “blessed are the merciful,” and who does not count worth or value by the size of a bank account but by understanding that, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
If we place our hope and our reliance upon those who use the mechanizations of the kingdom of the world to promote their ideologies, even if we agree with their ideology, we are soon going to find ourselves led astray. We can thank God for the freedom we have in our country to worship and to live our lives as Christians and children of God, however we do not look to our country as the hope for our future or the bastion by which the church is protected.
There are those who will try to use the church for their own selfish motivations and goals and who will set themselves up as leaders and examples for us to follow, but these are not who we are to follow; these are not who we are to imitate. Rather, St. Paul reminds us that our citizenship is in heaven. Those whom we follow and those whom we imitate should be those whose lives and actions, whose words and conversations encourage us and motivate us to live out our citizenship in the divine Kingdom, rather than those whose actions and words show that they continue to live in the mire of the Kingdom of the chaotic world around us.
This is part of our motivation for reading the New Testament, so we can learn the character of Jesus himself through the Gospel writers and so we can learn the character and teaching of the apostles as they ministered in the early church. It is so we can imitate them. This is also why we learn about the history of the church and those who through the centuries have sacrificed much and dedicated their lives in humble service to living as citizens of the divine kingdom. We imitate them because in imitating those who have provided us a good example of the character of the Kingdom of God, we can in turn adopt that character as our own.
It is helpful to understand this because it helps us to avoid the pitfall of thinking that we somehow need to have all the answers to all the technical inner workings of the Christian life and the Christian faith. Just like a young boy learning to pitch doesn’t need to know much about the mathematical formulas behind torque and momentum to copy a beloved baseball hero, just like a budding musician doesn’t need to know the finer points of frequency and harmonics to mimic the technique of a favored instrumentalist, just like a painter doesn’t need to know the physics behind light reflection and refraction or of the viscosity of the various paints on a palette to ardently follow the brush strokes of a master. In our own lives we don’t need to have the answer to every possible question of theology, we don’t need to know the technical details behind the countless questions that humanity can conceive to ask about humanity’s relationship with God and with each other, rather, we simply follow the examples and imitate the character that we can see of those who are living by the example of Jesus himself.
There is two ways in which this impacts our lives on a daily basis. The first way is in our own pursuit of godliness. Whom do we choose to follow? Whose lives do we choose to imitate? Do we look up to the bravado and brashness of those who are seeking power and glory, or do we seek to imitate those who live out the love, humility, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness of Jesus?
The second way we do that is in understanding the responsibility we have one to another, and especially to our children and to those who are new in the faith. We need to ask ourselves if our lives are worth imitating. Is my compassion worth imitating? Is my kindness worth imitating? Can someone look at the way I forgive, the way I live a righteous life, or the way that I have rejected the trappings of this chaotic world in favor of embracing my citizenship in the divine kingdom, and can they imitate me? In other words, am I someone that helps others to learn how to live as a child of God or am I someone that distracts others from following the example of Christ?
My prayer for myself and my prayer for all of us here is that we imitate Christ, and we imitate those who have proven themselves to have lived an exemplary life in His service, and in so doing, that we become those whom others can look at and imitate. We don’t need to have all the answers to “why,” we simply need to compare ourselves to our Savior and ask ourselves what we can change to look more like Him. May God give us the strength and courage to examine our own lives and the humility and grace to further embrace the image of His righteousness. Amen.