“I am not a role model. I’m not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models. Just because I dunk a basketball, doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” The NBA basketball player Charles Barkley spoke these words in a 1993 Nike commercial.
At the time, these words caused quite a stir. On the one hand, some people were offended by the fact that Barkley dismissed the influence that sports figures have. We are a culture that is obsessed with sports, and in our setting today professional athletes appear not only in the games themselves, but in advertising campaigns for products and for the leagues. They are featured in magazine articles, appear on talk shows, have millions of Twitter followers, and do humorous ads for ESPN. This near universal exposure sets them in front of young people all the time as examples of a successful life. They have money, glory, fame, and a beautiful wife or supermodel girl friend. Of course impressionable young people look up to them. With all the benefits of their position in life, isn’t there a responsibility to be a positive influence?
But at the same time, others thought the ad was a good one. They said that it was a needed corrective. After all, why should a person be a role model simply because he can shoot a ball through a metal hoop or hit a ball over a fence? Shouldn’t it be the job of parents to serve as role models for their own children?
Sometimes in recent years Lutherans have overreacted and said that not even Jesus should not be used as a role model. In particular this reaction has been given to the frequently seen acronym “WWJD” – which stands for “What would Jesus do?” Now insofar as the primary emphasis in the Christian faith must be on what Jesus has done for us in order to give us forgiveness and salvation, there is truth to this. But a truth pushed too far is how you end up in heresy. And the simple fact is that Scripture does hold up Jesus as a model and pattern for our life. And more than that, it even holds up individual Christians.
St. Paul provides a classic example of this in our text for today. He first points to himself as an example, and then includes other Christians as well when he writes: “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.”
We know that role models are very important in life. We learn by watching and imitating others. Children learn how to do things by watching their parents. They learn skills in this way such as how to fix things around the house, how to cook and bake, how to do a hobby, or how to hunt and fish.
This is true for the Christian life as well. It is true for other Christians around us, especially new Christians. It is true for the children in our home. We are role models for them and we are constantly teaching them. But what lesson are they learning? Are they learning that Sunday morning at the Divine Service is simply how life works, or are they learning that church must accept its place further down the pecking order as we do other things instead? Are they learning that prayer and reading of Scripture are important parts of our daily life, or are they learning that the rest of the week has nothing to do with Sunday?
In our text, Paul is very clear that the Philippians are to imitate him and other Christians in their midst who follow the pattern of Paul. He does this because there is another example out there. He says in our text, “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”
Paul is probably describing people who called themselves “church.” By their manner of life they showed themselves in fact to be enemies of the cross because they were living in ways that were the exact opposite of what Christ’s cross means for us. The apostle is crystal clear that the outcome of this would be eternal destruction. Such people had their own satisfaction as their god. They gloried in things that God’s word declares to be shameful. They had their attention focused on earthly things – by which Paul means that they oriented their life toward a sinful, fallen existence that is ruled by the devil.
The same thing is true today, and it true whether you talk about the church or the world, because often they look the same. Our culture says that “I” come first. It focuses on acquiring more money and all the bells and whistles of “the good life.” It says that sex is something to be used however we want to produce pleasure. And all of this is something that we find very, very seductive.
In contrast to this, Paul holds himself up as a model to be imitated. And he has just explained what should be imitated earlier in this chapter. The apostle has warned the Philippians about those in the Church who are saying that they need to be circumcised and to start doing parts of the Torah in order to be righteous before God. He rebuts this by declaring, “For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more.”
Paul goes on to say that if our confidence was about the status we have on our own, he could trump everyone. After all, he was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
But Paul had come to understand that everything he did on his own was poisoned by sin. It was filled with pride. It was never really good in God’s eyes because it was never perfect. And instead, Paul had found something even better – he had found Someone even better. He said, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish.”
Paul says that in Jesus Christ who died on the cross and rose from the dead he had found the salvation – the treasure – that made everything else pale in comparison. The apostle says that he willingly counts everything else as nothing – as loss – because of Christ. In fact Paul uses a crass term in Greek that really demands a crass word in English. He writes, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as crap.”
Paul says he places Christ at the center of his life. And he does this, “in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” Because of baptism you are in Christ. Through faith in Christ you receive the righteousness that will allow you to stand before God on the day of judgment and receive eternal life with him.
Because this is what Christ means for us now, Paul goes on to say that he seeks “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
Now did you hear what I just said? Paul talks about knowing the power of Christ’s resurrection and attaining to the resurrection of the dead. But he also says that he shares in Christ’s sufferings, becoming like him in his death. The call to follow Christ is a call to die. It is a call to die to sin. It is a call to share in Christ’s sufferings as we follow him in the narrow way that rejects the world. It is a call to share in Christ’s sufferings as we experience the world’s rejection of Christ. For some Christians around the world today, it is a call to martyrdom.
That’s not the way we are used to thinking about the faith. That’s our fault. And God is in the process of teaching us this truth. I spent three days last week in Canada with Lutheran pastors there. It is a cultural setting that is probably at least fifteen years further down the road that the United States is currently travelling. It is a world where the majority of people have no use for the Church. It is a world were from the very earliest grades the belief that homosexuality is normal and good is actively taught in school, and the mere suggestion that this is not correct lands both teachers and students in real trouble.
Things are hard for Christians here. They are going to get much harder. And of course they were even more difficult for the very first Christians to whom Paul was writing. So what could help Christians to reject the way that is opposed to the cross; that leads to destruction; that glories in shame, and that sets minds on earthly things of a sinful world? The apostle reminds the Philippians about who they are – the status they have. And he points them to what this will mean for them.
Paul writes, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” He says that the Philippians’ citizenship was in heaven. Why should the Christians keep their focus on the things of God instead of the fallen world? It was because they had the status of belonging to God.
Philippi was a Roman colony. Those who lived in a Roman colony were Roman citizens – they had the status, all of the rights and privileges of someone who lived in Rome. That didn’t mean they belonged in Rome or that Rome was their home – after all, their home was Philippi! But they had a status and rights that most people in the Empire did not.
Paul says that because of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, you have a unique status – a status that guarantees your future. You have received the Holy Spirit through the water and Word of Holy Baptism. You have been reborn and are a new creation in Christ. You have been joined to the saving death of Jesus. Jesus died. But then he rose from the dead and forty days later he ascended into heaven as he was exalted by God to his right hand.
For now we only see and touch the risen Lord as he is present in, with and under bread and wine. For now we only hear him through the word of Scripture and through the voice of our pastor speaking Holy Absolution and preaching. But your citizenship in heaven – your status now as God’s child – means you having something big coming your way and therefore you have hope. You have a hope with resurrection power. Paul says that “we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”
The Spirit who has given us new spiritual life is the same One who raised Jesus from the dead and transformed his human body so that it can never die again. Jesus will do the same thing for us through his Spirit on the Last Day. The Spirit provides the power that already now enables us to follow Christ’s way as those who enjoy the heavenly status of children of God. And because we have this status now, we find encouragement in the certainty that Jesus will return to raise and transform us to be like Him.