4 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
15 Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. 16 Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.
17 Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. 18 For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. 19 Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. 21 He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
This morning we’re continuing a series in Philippians called Finding a Deeper Joy. In this short letter, Paul’s joy is overflowing – even though he is in prison and may lose his life. And as he writes to them, over and over, Paul encourages this small community of Philippian Christians to receive the joy of their faith in Christ. Let’s quickly retrace our steps.
In the first week of the series, we learned that Paul found joy by remembering the shared work of the gospel with the Philippians. He remembered their life together, worship and work; and it deepened his joy.
We then saw how Paul urged them to find a deeper joy by sharing the mind of Christ. He urged them to take on a mindset marked by faithfulness to God and a life given in love for others – the very opposite of a life that grasps its own privilege and guards its status.
Last week, David helped us see how Paul also urged these Philippians to find joy by pressing on toward the goal of their faith: Embrace Christ more and more deeply in their lives because the truth is they have already been embraced by Christ.
Now, today, on this All Saints’ Day, we hear this: we find joy in following Jesus by walking in the footsteps of others. Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” The Greek word he uses, that is translated imitate, has the root image of walking around. Follow me, walk the way I walk, match my steps, and you will learn to faithfully follow Jesus.
We learn to walk by watching others. Each summer, our family goes to Topsail Island, NC, with Caitlin’s parents and her extended family, and that vacation includes long walks on the beach. A few years ago, I was coming back from a walk, when my kids came running up from a long distance away. I said, how did you know it was me? I was too far away to recognize when they started running. They said, we saw you walking and could tell it was you. Well, how could you tell it was me? By your walk – we just knew it was you.
Now, it you want to make someone a little self-conscious, tell them they have a distinctive walk you can recognize from a quarter mile away. Every time I walk on the beach now, I look at my shadow and think about my gait. Not long after that, though, I recognized the same walk – the gait, the pattern – in my father. Then a little later, I noticed it in one of my kids – but I haven’t broken the news to them yet.
It is literally true that we learn how to walk by following the example of our parents, the people we see walk, whose hands we hold and whose steps we match from our earliest years. We learn to walk by imitating them at a subconscious level. This simple analogy leads us into what Paul is teaching the Philippians, and what we should remember about today’s celebration of All Saints’. We find joy in following Jesus when we walk in the footsteps of others.
The Philippian church to whom Paul wrote, and which he founded, were first Christians. Some of them came out of the Jewish synagogue, others came from various religions of that time. As a new community, they were trying to work out the meaning of this new faith. What did it mean to be a new creation in Christ? Or, as Paul was always reminding each community to whom he wrote, what did it means to be saints in Christ? To be God’s holy people? How did it change their relationships with each other, at home or at meals? How did it change their relationship to the wider culture, their habits and practices, or their relationship with the state and its demands on their lives?
The Philippians were working out this “following Jesus” thing for the first time, and they had very few good examples to go by. So, Paul says, “Imitate me.” That probably sounds a little arrogant to us, but I believe Paul was being practical. There were, apparently, some very bad examples of following Christ in their church, and Paul needed to give them a better example. So, he gave them himself. That doesn’t mean Paul was perfect. He confessed to being short-tempered, he had a hard time controlling his own behavior, and he was sometimes given to despair. From our vantage point, his attitudes around women and enslaved persons often make us cringe. Paul was not a perfect example, but saints don’t need to be perfect. Saints are persons in Christ who are growing in the love of God. Paul was a good example, a faithful example, of how they could follow Christ.
Though we are separated and different from the Philippians in many ways, we too need examples of how to follow Christ. Being a Christian describes a way of life. It is a set of behaviors and practices that reflect the love of God revealed in Jesus. In every generation, it is challenging to know what the love of God looks like in action. What does God’s love look mean in our specific lives? How does God’s love break the boundaries and overcome the separations in our lives? How does God’s love shape our dreams and heal our pain? What does God’s love look like in public? Love in public looks like justice. How do we seek God’s justice in the complicated questions of our time and society?
Following Christ is never “add water and stir.” It is always an exercise in discernment and wisdom. And we too will find deeper joy when we walk in the footsteps of others.
In a small book entitled, Luminaries: Twenty Lives that Illuminate the Christian Way, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, tells the stories of individuals – from the Apostle Paul to Oscar Romero – whose lives shed light on the path of faith for us. One person that is of particular interest to Williams is Teresa of Avila, who lived in Spain from 1515 to 1582. Like many of us today, Teresa lived at the intersection of multiple faith traditions. She came from a Jewish family at a time when people of Jewish descent were subject to systemic hostility and discrimination in Spain. She also lived at a time when the Christian Church was trying to purge all Muslim influences from Spain, an awful period known as the Inquisition. In this fraught and frightening environment, Teresa founded an order that was committed to a new style of Christian community marked by friendship and simplicity.
When she first entered monastic life, Teresa found a community that looked like the worst of her culture, ruled by power, influence, and social class. As her friendship with Christ grew, following Christ pushed her in the direction of equality and genuine friendship with others. And so she created a new kind of Christian community marked by simplicity and humility, by shared work, and quiet prayer. Teresa embraced the mind of Christ.
While she was walking the path of Christian friendship, Teresa also learned to meditate on Christ’s incarnation. She even carried a small picture of Christ to remind her of his humanity. The incarnation was everything to Teresa. She insisted that our spiritual lives must not be an effort to get out of the world, but instead to live in this world wholly centered upon God. Jesus is her model for what is means to be a Christian: a child of God, present in the world, with God at the center of all our experience. Williams writes, “Teresa was not a social campaigner or politician, but what she offered was simply another model of life together, grounded in the gift of God’s welcome and in the daily attempt to keep our own hearts open to this in silence and adoration.”
Our world is more like Teresa’s fearful and bitter environment than we wish it were. Her life shines on the path of our faithfulness. She is one whom Paul would tell us to imitate – with her genuine welcome of others, her insistence on simplicity, and her daily effort to place God’s love at the center of her life in the world.
We could name many others whose lives also shine light on our path. St. Augustine taught us how to explore the inner life with the eyes of faith. Florence Nightingale was guided by the love of God to see and name and help the very particular human suffering that others did not want to see. Recently, I have thought often of Theodore Frelinghuysen, an obscure name you may not know. Frelinghuysen was a Dutch Reformed Christian and US Senator from New Jersey during the administration of Andrew Jackson.
He is remembered for leading the opposition to the Indian Removal Act 1830, the Act that led to the Trail of Tears and the death of so many Native Americans and their way of life. As a Reformed Christian, Frelinghuysen brought his faith commitments to his public work. He believed that the government is not only accountable to voters, or to military and market forces, but that the government must also be accountable to God. In May of 1830, he argued that it would be grave injustice and tragedy to remove from their homes the people whom God, in God’s providence, had first placed in this land. Frelinghuysen knew he did not have the votes to win, and the act would eventually pass; but he concluded, after six hours of speaking, “defeat in such a cause is far above the triumphs of unrighteous power.”
Our nation is in the middle of a national election that will finish on Tuesday. We see very clearly the impulses of unrighteous power and political violence in our politics, in many instances falsely claiming the name of Christ. It’s important for us to remember good examples of following Christ in public life, examples like Frelinghuysen, and King, and others, who spoke up for the dignity of their fellow human beings as an act of faithful witness to God.
Paul writes to the Philippians, “Observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” We will find a deeper joy in Christ when we walk in the footsteps of others. Some of those examples are found on the pages of history. Many other examples are found on the pages of our own life, in parents, neighbors, and friends. They are the people who have taught us the footsteps of faith by sharing our lives. In her stewardship moment last Sunday, Elder Donna Ensley – who has been part of this congregation for many years – looked around this room and took the time to say thank you to the saints who have helped her to follow Christ. All of us today can take time to say thank you to those who have helped us follow Christ, some of whom have joined the company of the saints in light and others who share our journey today.
A saint is not a person who has died. A saint is not a person who is perfect. A saint is a person who is in Christ – a person who is growing in the love of God and letting God’s love shape their walk in the world.
You are saints in Christ. You are God’s holy people. Today, we give thanks for the saints who have walked before us and whose journey is now complete. And we recommit ourselves to walk in their footsteps as we seek a deeper joy in following Christ.
Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina