You only live once. So what? I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. Since we only live once, we try to make the most of life, treasure every moment, take nothing for granted, and the like. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there? Ah, but wait, we need to see what’s on the back of the t-shirt too. What would you expect the message on the back of Saint Paul’s t-shirt to say? I think it would read something like this: “Follow my example.”
So how many of us would walk around wearing a t-shirt boasting: Follow my example? Would you be comfortable in someone following your example? Is your example one that would encourage others to be more Christ-like?
In the word of God before us this morning, St. Paul encourages us to follow his example in our Christian living. He tells us: “Do as I say and Do as I do. Do not be focused on earthly things, but to be focused on Jesus and heavenly things.”
Paul knew that human beings are natural imitators. Imitation is all around us today too. Fashion styles, cars, home remodeling, recreational pursuits, hobbies, the list goes on and on. Yet the question for the Apostle Paul was not whether “To imitate or not to imitate?” but rather “Who to imitate?” To Paul, it is not so much about WHAT we should see in him as much as WHO we should see in him. The example is Christ; Paul’s example was Christ, and our example is Christ.
Paul knew that his message of forgiveness through Christ and his encouragements to live holy lives would all ring hollow if he was only talking the talk and not walking the walk. So Paul went out of his way to conquer those sins in his life so that they wouldn’t be a detriment to the Gospel. Was Paul perfect? No. But he lived as if he were an example he wanted other to follow.
The congregation in Philippi was new to Christianity and they were growing in faith and knowledge of Christ. A group of people called Judaizers were trying worm their way into the congregation and undermine the gospel message that Paul had brought to Philippi. Judaizers were Jew or Gentile converts to Christianity who claimed to believe in Jesus as their Savior, but they also taught that in addition to believing in Jesus it was necessary to keep certain ceremonial laws that God had given to Israel. Basically the Judaizers confused law and gospel, and Paul appealed to the Philippians to choose the right example to follow in their Christian living.
Paul said, “take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you” (Philippians 3:17). Notice what he’s doing here. He isn’t egotistically tooting his own horn, but he’s saying to the Philippians that there are a lot of other examples of good Christian people out there. He calls these kinds of people a “pattern.” Anybody teaching something other than the gospel was an enemy to be avoided because they were not living for Christ.
The things that Paul regularly does, like wrestling with God in prayer, studying the Word, and witnessing his faith, he wants them to do. The things that Paul places a high value on, like his faith, his Savior, his heavenly goal, his Christian-living, he wants them to value as well. The things Paul can’t stand, like selfishness, the pursuit of worldly pleasures, and rejection of the Word, Paul wants them to be revolted at these things just as he is.
The very thought of people who claimed to be followers of Jesus, but who lived contrary to the gospel, brought tears to Paul’s eyes. Paul writes, “For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things” (Philippians 3:18-19). Throughout the Scriptures, we are told repeatedly not to be caught up in the things of this world. The world teaches that we are to be selfish and self-centered. Just look at the commercials you see on the T.V. like the one that tell us: “You deserve a break today,” Anyone who subscribes to this way of thinking has placed his or her own desires above God. Money, possessions, and pleasure have become their god. When Paul talks about people whose “god is their stomach”, that’s his way of saying that our temptation is to live our lives according to what feels good. “Stomach” is a euphemism that stands for more than just satisfying our appetite for food. It is a reference to how easy it is to give in to the message: “If it feels good, do it.” They have made their stomach their god and their only wish is to fill their sinful appetites.
What makes these people tick is the here and now. They might give lip service to God and say that he is important to them, but their priorities and their lives tell a far different story.
Citizens of heaven live by another maxim. “If it is the right thing to do, do it, no matter how it feels.” Our consumer culture emphasizes what we don’t have, but God wants us to recognize and be content with what we do have (Philippians 4:11-13). Being content, thankful and reliant on God will help us to have peace of mind. And isn’t peace what people really want? You can have peace of mind and satisfaction that you have lived your life as God intended. That is certainly more than money can buy.
Then the Lord says, “their glory is in their shame.” In other words, instead of being embarrassed by their sins, they are proud of them, and they flaunt them! It’s so easy for the Christian to get sucked in to this way of thinking and suppose it’s all normal, because, hey, everybody does this, it’s all around us, so it must be okay. Paul sums up this sad lifestyle by saying, “their mind is on earthly things.”
No one is neutral. Either you are for Christ, or you are against Christ. There is no straddling the fence. And what is the end of those who are His enemies? Paul tells us, “Their destiny is destruction” (Philippians 3:19). Focusing on earthly things only leads to destruction. Jesus wants us to live according to his will, so the only way we can do this to be focused on Jesus and heavenly things. Focusing on Jesus and heavenly things is a major part of our Christian living. The enemies of the cross live for this world and its pleasures and sin. They are earth bound and world orientated. This is not the way Christians live in this world because the world is not our permanent home. As Paul reminds us, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20).
The people to whom Paul was writing appreciated the value of citizenship – Roman citizenship. The Philippians were so proud of their Roman citizenship that they dressed like Romans, spoke like Romans, and even built their city to look like Rome. Roman citizenship was valued because it afforded one a measure of protection and justice to which non-citizens were not entitled. Paul, however, wanted the Christians in Philippi to remember that they had something much better than Roman citizenship; they were citizens of heaven. This fact would bring them comfort because, as powerful as the Roman state was, it could not free its citizens from worry, pain, or sorrow. No government can do that. So what are the perks of being citizens of heaven? Paul explains: “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Philip. 3:20, 21).
This world ultimately is not our home. We are only visiting here. Our true home and our true citizenship are in heaven. That is what Paul is talking about in this passage of Scripture. There are certain rights and privileges that go along with this citizenship, but this citizenship also means responsibilities.
Paul calls Christians to stop doing some things and to start doing other things. Though, he is not offering an alternative to the gospel. He is not saying we could be saved by grace through faith or by just being good. That’s not what he’s doing. He is saying, having been saved by grace through faith, this is how we live. When Paul gives the appeals in this passage today, he is not telling us this is how we are saved. He is saying this is how we live, now that we are saved. This is how we live now that we have received the grace of God in the gospel.
Can others tell by your behaviour and by your words that you are not only a Canadian citizen, but a citizen of heaven?
Isn’t that how Jesus lived his life? He did what God wanted him to do. He showed us how to be a citizen of heaven while on earth. Jesus set the bar really high. And so it’s no wonder Jesus spent both quality and quantity time with his disciples. Jesus did not just tell them things – he showed them. Jesus did not simply teach with words, he taught with his life. Jesus embodied God’s truth. St. Paul, a forgiven sinner, aimed to live out his faith, and asked others to imitate him.
So how will we choose to live? Will we, as followers of Jesus, allow the world around us to shape our lives – or will we allow our lives to shape the world around us?
In my studies I came across this story of Alfred which I thought might prompt us all to really think about how we choose to live.
One morning in 1888, Alfred, the inventor of dynamite and the man who had spent his life amassing a fortune from the manufacture and sale of weapons, awoke to read his own obituary. A French newspaper erroneously published Alfred’s obituary instead of the one of his brother Ludvig who had died. The obituary condemned Alfred for his invention of dynamite. Any man would be disturbed under the circumstances, but to Alfred the shock was overwhelming because he saw himself as the world saw him—“the dynamite King and the weapon maker,” the great industrialist who had made an immense fortune from explosives. In the eyes of the public he was a merchant of death, and for that alone he would be remembered. As he read his obituary with shocking horror, he resolved to make clear to the world the true meaning and purpose of his life through the final disposition of his fortune. His last will and testament would be the expression of his life’s ideals. And the result was the most valued of prizes given to this day to those who have done most for the cause of world peace—the Nobel Peace Prize. Alfred Nobel set aside the equivalent of 250 million U.S. dollars to establish the Nobel Prizes to honor men and women for outstanding achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine and literature, and for working toward peace.
That story caught my eye because it made me wonder how it would read if my obituary suddenly appeared. And I ask you to entertain that frightful thought for a moment. What is your life known for? What will you be remembered for?
Living the Christian life and striving to be more like Christ isn’t always easy. The road is often a very rocky road. We may stumble and falter and not be quite sure how we should be living. A Godly example can be a tremendous help to us. When we collide with problems, we figure our way through, and look to and trust God. And as we wade through to the other side, our faith in a loving heavenly Father will be much stronger. Our present problems hurt, but God still loves us, and wants a closer, trusting relationship with us. It is easy to give up when things begin to fall apart. Setbacks happen. Plans and hopes can be wiped out like a landslide crushing a mountain village. Sometimes we need to step back awhile, rest, recuperate, and reassess our situation. But eventually we get up and back into the struggle of life. We may need to make adjustments and figure out a way around obstacles based on our new situation, resources, opportunities, and what we have learned from God. We find understanding, contentment, meaning, and coping strategies in this life through the example of Christ.
I would like to conclude my message today with a lesson from elephants. I came across an interesting story about a herd of African elephants. In an attempt to thin out this herd, the authorities killed off a number of the older males and moved a group of females and young bulls to another area. It was not too long after the move that white rhinos in that area were being killed, not by poachers, but by the young bulls that were trying to prove their elephant-hood. One elephant even organized a gang that began attacking tourist buses. To solve the problem, the authorities shot some of the troublemakers but then came up with a better solution. They released a few old males from another area into the troubled neighborhood. The older males immediately began to bring the young bulls into line. It would appear that the young elephants did not know how to act in their day-to-day living without the example of the older elephants to teach them. Learning by example is not restricted to just the animal kingdom. Just as the elephants needed an example to follow so that they knew how to behave in their day-to-day living, so also we need an example to follow in our day-to-day Christian living.
My purpose this morning is not to make anyone feel guilty about the ways in which our actions sometimes contradict our beliefs. Not at all. My aim is to encourage each one of us to find an example to encourage us in our faith. Let’s look to those leading a life that are an example of Christ and learn from them. Fix our eyes upon Jesus, and to be open to his Holy Spirit, so that he would transform our belief, and that he would transform our actions, so that others would indeed wish to imitate us. Let us pray that our lives be an example so others can look to us for a good example of living in Christ.
One last thing before I wrap up. In addition to YOLO, there’s another new word in the urban dictionary that I really have use for. Have you ever heard the word “songworm”? A Songworm is a song that you hear once and it replays itself over and over in your head until you are ready to pull out your hair. And then later in the day, you think you have forgotten about it and before you know it, it’s in your head again and you may even find yourself singing or humming it. The only cure to get rid of a Songworm is to catch another Songworm in your head or to sing it out loud with all your heart. As I was writing today’s message, I had the worse case of songworm ever. And I bet that after this morning, it will become a songworm for you too.
Please stand, as you are able, and sing along with all your heart to I Will Follow Him.
(PLAY YOUTUBE VIDEO: I Will Follow Him)