Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 13, 2022
Philippians 3:17-4:1 Commentary
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson Paul calls his Philippian audience to “join with others in following” his “example” (17). To 21st century ears, however, such an invitation sounds like nails scraping an old-fashioned chalkboard. Its apparent arrogance doesn’t just, after all, hurt our ears. Such a bold call to imitation also no longer fits into a culture in which all truth but one’s own is questionable.
So what can Philippians 3’s proclaimers do with verse 17’s apparent arrogance? We might begin by remembering that while imitation may be “the sincerest form of flattery,” it carries with it baggage. Those who want others to imitate our behavior or speech pattern must be prepared for the kind of scrutiny with which few people are naturally comfortable.
I remember the time I walked through Calvin University’s halls with my dad. One of my dad’s colleagues who’d known me virtually my whole life joined us after following us for a time. He smiled and told us, “I’d never noticed how the two of you even walk in a similar way. You both lean just ever so slightly to your right.”
I’d known that I deliberately imitated some of my dad’s mannerisms, speech patterns and even worldview. Yet I’d never realized that I also walked like my dad. My dad never told me to follow his example in the way I walked. I just did it. Yet while I deeply admired my dad, I may have subsequently tried to walk just a bit more upright.
Paul doesn’t summon his readers to join others in following his example of how to physically walk. But might we deduce that Philippians 3 is a kind of summons to God’s people to imitate the apostle’s walk with and before the Lord and our neighbors?
While Paul invitation to his readers’ imitation of him may sound vain to us, we need to remember that, as the New Testament scholar Elizabeth Shiveley points out (“Commentary on Philippians 3:17-4:1,” Working Preacher, February 24, 2013), he also freely admits that he’s deeply flawed. Earlier in Philippians 3 the apostle offers examples of how he once trusted in himself to satisfy God’s righteous requirements. In Philippians 3’s first 6 six verses, he offers himself as a negative example of how to walk with and before the Lord.
However, those who proclaim this Sunday’s Lesson shouldn’t just note the negative example that Paul says his life offers his readers. We also note the negative example people who live “as enemies of the cross of Christ” (18). In his fine February 21, 2016, Sermon Commentary on this text, Scott Hoezee suggests that those enemies thought of what Christ did on the cross as somehow incomplete. Christ’s cross’ enemies assumed that Christians needed to add something to Christ’s work for it to fully save us.
However, Paul insists that’s a model that leads not to life, but destruction. After all, the counterfeit god Christ’s cross’ enemies is not the living God of heaven and earth, but gluttony. Their glory is not God’s work in Christ, but their shame. It’s a lousy example for anyone to follow.
Yet Christ’s cross’s enemies’ god, glory and behavior is a picture of humanity by nature, as well as much of 21st century culture. While few of our contemporaries would identify Christ’s cross’s enemies’ orientation as “works righteousness,” we certainly have our own standards for morality and human acceptability.
Western culture’s more materially affluent locales sometimes elevate food, its preparation and consumption to near divine status. It’s also one that has, at least arguably, lost any concept of shame – except for that which we try to lavish on those with whom we disagree.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson summons its readers to imitate a different role model. “Join with others in following my example,” Paul writes his brothers and sisters, “and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you” (17). In other words, he invites Philippi’s Christians to imitate both him and others who imitate him.
But as Elizabeth Shively goes on to write, “Paul himself is not the archetype.” In fact, the apostle models his life on Christ’s. So he’s basically saying in verse 17, “Join with others in following Christ’s example, and take note of the pattern he gave you.”
That commitment to Christ as archetype may explain the paucity of Paul’s description of what about him his readers should imitate. The apostle offers the negative example of some of his own former disobedience. But there’s little within this pericope about his positive modelling.
Paul does say, in verse 20, that Christians’ citizenship is in heaven. It may be a veiled invitation to follow his example of offering our primary loyalty not to any temporary national kingdom, but to God’s everlasting kingdom.
In verse 20 Paul may be, further, inviting Philippi’s Christians to follow his example of awaiting the second coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ, from the heavenly realm. We can endure suffering and trauma the way he did because we await the Christ who will transform our lowly bodies into bodies that are like his glorious, resurrected body.
What’s more, Paul may be summoning his readers to follow his example of standing “firm in the Lord” (4:1). He is, after all, a beleaguered apostle who is under attack from nearly all sides. Yet rather than being “blown around” by those heavy gales, he is standing firm in his commitment God’s saving grace and sovereign purposes.
Yet since Paul imitates Jesus Christ, in this Lenten season proclaimers want to summon our hearers to follow his example of imitating our Lord and Savior. We can’t, of course, imitate him in saving the world. There is, after all, only one Savior. Yet as Christians journey through Lent with Jesus toward his betrayal, abandonment, trial, torture, and death, the Spirit empowers us to imitate his response to unjust suffering.
On this Sunday the RCL invites proclaimers to reflect on Luke 9:31-35. So even those who focus on Philippians’ Epistolary Lesson might ask themselves what words and actions of Jesus’ are exemplary there. In fact, it might even offer an opportunity to pair Philippians 3 with at least a reading of this Sunday’s Gospel Lesson from Luke 9:31-35.
After all, Jesus is far, far more than the exemplary historical figure to which people are always tempted to shrink him. He is the world’s Savior and Lord. Yet much of what he does is a model for his friends. Some of what God did in and through Jesus, God can and does do, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in and through Jesus’ adopted siblings.
When some religious leaders warn Jesus to avoid Jerusalem and its murderous Herod, Jesus remains determined to go where his prophetic work leads him. “Go tell that fox,” he tells the Pharisees in Luke 9:32-33, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day …”
There is in that persistence an exemplary courage. Jesus shows a determination to do God’s will, no matter its personal cost to him. It’s the kind of determination that the Holy Spirit longs to both plant deep and cultivate in Jesus’ followers.
Yet in the second part of this Sunday’s Gospel Lesson, Jesus also displays exemplary grief for those who reject him. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you,” he mourns in verse 34, “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”
Such grief over the fate of one’s enemies is highly unnatural. It’s tempting to either merely criticize them or write them off as beyond the reach of God’s grace. Those who would follow Paul’s example of following Jesus’ example lament all rejection of Jesus. We also prayerfully express our longing for Jesus’ enemies to, by God’s grace at work through the Holy Spirit, join us under the protective “wings” of the God who so deeply loves God’s people.
There is far more along Christians’ Lenten journey to discover about Jesus Christ as our model. But Luke 13 is probably more than enough for this Sunday. After all, in the light of its Gospel Lesson, Philippians 3’s Epistolary Lesson serves as, among other things, a call to confession. It prompts Jesus’ adopted siblings, including gospel proclaimers, to admit that we haven’t done a good job of imitating Paul, much less his model, Jesus Christ.
The stakes of such failure are immense. After all, at least some people are taking note of how gospel proclaimers act, talk and even think. Some of them are even following our example. Whether we like or not, Christian leaders are role models for some Christians.
That’s part of the reason why those who would proclaim life must also remind our hearers and ourselves that the Lord Jesus Christ whose coming we await is not just our Example. He is also our Savior. Thanks be to God!
In his book, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West, Stephen Ambrose writes about Thomas Jefferson’s ambiguous relationship with slavery. While the United States’ second president who owned slaves, he worried about what example those who owned slaves were setting for their children.
Jefferson, writes Ambrose had slaves, but “no man knew better than Jefferson the price Virginia paid for slavery, most of all in what the system did to young [white] men. In Notes on the State of Virginia, he wrote: ‘The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and the most degrading submissions on the other.
‘Our children see this and learn to imitate it . . . If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave [whipping was generally accompanied by shouting and cursing and rage, all of it aiding the whipper in thinking that the slave deserved whatever he was getting], it should always be a sufficient motive that his children are present.
‘But generally it is not sufficient. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.’
“Jefferson,” Ambrose drolly concludes, “knew whereof he wrote, and he knew no prodigies in this matter.”
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!