Imitate With All Your Heart

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There is something special about a church community. 

Yes, there are community boards and organizations, many meet in this building over the course of a month. But the church, the church is something entirely different. In the church, we depend on one another. I need you to be an effective pastor. You need one another to live into the calling G-d has placed on your life, as well as the life of this community. Without one another, we could not be the church. Without one another Mount Olivet would cease to be what it is - a community of disciples of Jesus Christ seeking to be an inclusive, life-changing community compelled by the Holy Spirit to offer Christ’s love to the world.

A life-changing community compelled by the Holy Spirit to offer Christ’s love to the world.

Doesn’t that get you excited?

Would you consider your neighborhood board life-changing? I have attended one neighborhood association meeting in my life and I found it to be quite boring, if I am being honest.

But the church, this church, Mount Olivet, all of us, regardless of our background, regardless of our political ideologies, regardless of our faith history, are committed to, having been compelled by the Holy Spirit offering Christ’s love to the world. Awesome.

“Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.”

Speaking to the Christian community in Philippi, Paul seems a bit arrogant, doesn’t he?

It seems as though he might as well have said, “Hey everyone! Look over here at me. Look how great I am!

But Paul is not being arrogant here. A chapter earlier he instructed the Philippian church to imitate the work and actions of Timothy saying:

“I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. All of them are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.  But Timothy’s worth you know, how like a son with a father he has served with me in the work of the gospel.” - Philippians 2:20-22, NRSV

Paul also instructed the Philippian church to imitate the work and actions of Epaphroditus saying:

“because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for those services that you could not give me.” - Philippians 2:30, NRSV

Not to mention directing the church in Philippi to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” and continued to elaborate on just what that means:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” - Philippians 2:5-8, NRSV

Paul is adding his name to an already established community in Christ so that the church in Philippi can see how they too can strive to imitate Christ. So much of what we do in imitating and allowing "the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” focuses on the work we do as individuals. 

What do I need to do to better my relationship with G-d?

What do I need to do to learn how to pray better?

What skills do I need?

I better find a mentor I can imitate so I can be a better follower of Jesus. Or worse, we throw our hands up and give up.

Me. I.

The problem is Paul, was not writing to a specific person in Philippi. He was not writing to a guy named Phil. Paul was writing to the entire church in Philippi - the entire Christian community. Once we see Paul’s writing as a letter to the entire community, we see by including Timothy and Epaphroditus to his list of faithful examples, held together by Christ’s own example, Paul was instructing the Christian community in Philippi to imitate Christ’s love within the entire community.

So, while it is great I can look back to Mrs. Frank, Lori, or Fleming and Will today as people I seek to imitate, first and foremost, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, the one I seek to imitate is Jesus, and that can only be done in community with people like you. People who are committed to the same - for me and for yourselves.

But what about our reading. It is addressed to an ancient church. Correct, Paul was writing to the ancient church, but his words offer guidance for us as a community. Our baptismal vows - the ones we make as the water flows off our head or confirm later in our lives and the vows you have made promising to help one another - serve to refocus the work of our community.

If we are a community of individuals focused on ourselves, we are as reformer Martin Luther put it, “curving within” ourselves. As this inward curving occurs, we run the risk of becoming inwardly focused on our own needs. We can become focused on the skills we think we need and are unable to see the need in the community we consider ourselves a part of. We become what Paul describes as “enemies of the cross,” only worried about our bottom line - what’s in it for me?

Paul wrote to a church in Philippi contending with issues of arrogance and disunity.  Arrogance and disunity are prohibitory to imitating Christ’s love as a community. Arrogance and disunity were distractions, and Paul extended grace to the Philippians by reminding them of what the love of G-d in Christ had accomplished.

Like the early church in Philippi, the church today struggles to be a community imitating Christ’s love. Like the church in Philippi, we too struggle with particular things at particular times. 

While this letter was written to a specific community, at a specific time, experiencing a specific disagreement, Paul’s words speak life to the Church today.

Paul’s words speak to the Church Universal, calling us away from our disunity and back to unity in Christ

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Paul’s words speak to the United Methodist Church. Instead of trying to legislate away a person’s calling, a calling given by G-d, look to Christ’s ministry and see Christ called the unlikely to be his followers. Jesus passed to this group of unlikelies knowledge of the Kingdom of G-d and teach them how to heal those deemed beyond G-d’s grace by the religious elite of the day. Jesus went to the margins of the community throughout his ministry, extending grace but not at the sake of holiness.

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Pauls’ words speak life to Mount Olivet. We are reminded that in all we do, everything, to everyone we engage in ministry with, we are to imitate Christ’s love. No exceptions. 

This work is not easy, and like the Philippians, we will miss the bar established by Christ. We will fall short. In our shortcomings, G-d’s grace - the love unmerited love of G-d - is still ours. That never changes.

In our shortcomings Christ is present, offering life-changing love when we fail to do so.

So whether we are engaged in acts of justice and mercy - not just speaking and marching but engaging in meaningful change in the lives of those who are experiencing persecution, exclusion, or violence, or mudding through doctrinal and theological impasses, Christ not only remains with us, but also continues to extend an invitation to Mount Olivet, and to each of us. There was no skill to be learned before this invitation was extended. No degree or piece of church legislation can change our calling. We are imitators of Christ. 

That is our calling.

Whatever the perceived distance between us and G-d is gone. The truth is through Christ’s faithfulness the promises of G-d, G-d’s covenant established with Abram is not out of our reach. Christ dwells in each of us and because Christ is in each of us, Christ is present here at Mount Olivet, in Arlington, and throughout the world. Like Abram, we have been reassured of G-d’s promise - even when we miss the mark, we are invited into the waters at our baptism and a seat at Christ’s table is always waiting for us.

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