“Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.”
— PHILIPPIANS 3:17 (NRSV)
Is this pride we hear from Paul? No, not at all. He knows the only chance new believers had (or have) is for a solid model of gospel living. There was no choice in this circumstance but to canvass the Philippians with imploring—“If you would follow anyone, follow me; an example to all on how to live a godly life.”
It’s like the young man who decided to give up his marriage due to the wayward advice of a would-be, so-called trusted guide. This young man was swindled and so was his bride—the wife of 3 years. They probably had some sort of future had it not been for this young man’s mother’s vitriolic will. The daughter-in-law was never good enough. And finally the mother-in-law won out; much to the detriment of her son, not to mention the girl he married; once for all time, supposedly. This mother-in-law was poison by both agency and being. She was hell-bent on ensuring her son’s marriage shrivelled and died, as it received lethal dose after lethal dose of criticism and condemnation. It didn’t seem to bother her that she was killing her own flesh and blood. That’s the way it is with some mothers of sons. And fathers of daughters can be of the same over-protective, threatened and poisoned way. It’s the naïve approach that acts in ways simply to keep the peace; wisdom will rather flee with discernment.
But why would the son listen to his mother in the first place?
And who was this young man imitating? Nobody probably. He had no solid example like a biblical Paul with which to ponder with.
Grounding Our Imitation in Righteousness
This world will have us spooked against imitating anything; after all, we are supposed to be proudly original and carbon-copy of no one. Being an imitator reflects some sort of weakness to be avoided. That’s the world’s take on things.
As so often happens in the Bible, however, Paul turns this idea on its head. He says it’s actually preferable that if anyone is going to follow anyone’s example, it should be theirs, because it’s above reproach to any/most other(s).
There is great safety in love, and much to observe in people who genuinely live out their faith. Those of Paul’s contemporaries who were reliable operated their lives similarly to Paul.
Faith is always the test to see if it’s real or not. Much ‘faith’ crumbles at the edges under the tension of gargantuan pressure. Such a faith as Paul’s is quietly solid and it can sit quietly through anything, because it grounds itself in what’s true; what can be modelled by a true apostle of God.
This world poisons us against going with the crowd, but it’s uncanny how often we do just that when we go the world’s way. Yet, it’s true that no crowd goes the hard way. If we would please God, we would go with a much smaller crowd—the gospel crowd—and through our associations we would know a healthier, life-giving imitation.
© 2013 S. J. Wickham.