Ear­ly Chris­tians con­sid­ered the con­scious imi­ta­tion of praise­wor­thy mod­els to be of utmost impor­tance. They took the dis­ci­pline of imi­ta­tion and skill­ful­ly adapt­ed it to a life of Chris­t­ian dis­ci­ple­ship to Jesus. Desir­ing to be shaped into the image of Christ, who is him­self the image of God (Col. 1:15), and know­ing that in Christ were hid­den all the trea­sures of wis­dom and knowl­edge (Col. 2:3), appren­tices of Jesus took very seri­ous­ly the call to imi­ta­tion. Con­sid­er the apos­tle Paul’s con­stant exhor­ta­tions to imi­ta­tion — the imi­ta­tion of Christ, of God, of him­self, of oth­er faith­ful dis­ci­ples, and of the church:

  • Fol­low God’s exam­ple, there­fore, as dear­ly loved chil­dren and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave him­self up for us as a fra­grant offer­ing and sac­ri­fice to God” (Eph. 5:1 – 2). 
  • Even if you had ten thou­sand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. There­fore I urge you to imi­tate me” (1 Cor. 4:15 – 16). 
  • Join togeth­er in fol­low­ing my exam­ple, broth­ers and sis­ters, and just as you have us as a mod­el, keep your eyes on those who live as we do” (Phil. 3:17).
  • What­ev­er you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into prac­tice” (Phil. 4:9).
  • You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imi­ta­tors of us and of the Lord .… And so you became a mod­el to all the believ­ers in Mace­do­nia and Acha­ia” (1 Thess. 1:5 – 7). 
  • For you, broth­ers and sis­ters, became imi­ta­tors of God’s church­es in Judea” (1 Thess. 2:14).

In all these texts the cen­tral theme is the same: there is a pat­tern of think­ing and liv­ing that Christ’s fol­low­ers are called to imi­tate. This pat­tern is dis­played most exact­ly in Jesus him­self, but it is also dis­played in apos­tles like Paul and in faith­ful Chris­tians every­where. As we fol­low it by imi­tat­ing them, we learn to think what they thought, to live as they lived, to love what they loved. 

Who are the peo­ple you — or I — have cho­sen to imi­tate thus far in our lives? Has our imi­ta­tion of them helped us to live wise­ly and lov­ing­ly? Think of how often we imi­tate — con­scious­ly or uncon­scious­ly — actors or musi­cians. I remem­ber, for instance, how much I loved the music of Jim Mor­ri­son and the Doors in my late teens and ear­ly twen­ties. Yet the dark­er tones in Morrison’s music and behav­ior proved a hin­drance for me as I attempt­ed to move more ful­ly into Christ’s light and love. The music Jesus was singing and the music Jim sang too often clashed for me. 

Per­haps some of you have had the same expe­ri­ence with oth­er peo­ple you have delib­er­ate­ly cho­sen to imi­tate. Per­haps not. This is not the time to judge each oth­er over the choic­es we have made. It is the time to be wise and acknowl­edge the pro­found effect those we choose to imi­tate have on us. Some may be able to lis­ten for hours on end to the Doors and remain pro­tect­ed and unaf­fect­ed by the dark­er side of Morrison’s lyrics, rhythms, and actions. I found I couldn’t, so I had to leave him behind on my new jour­ney with Jesus as his appren­tice. Yet I must admit that when a Doors song begins to play on the radio, I find it vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble to turn it off! The man could sing. 

Over the past thir­ty years I have found oth­er exem­plars to imi­tate, often lead­ers of the ancient church. John Chrysos­tom, bish­op of Con­stan­tino­ple in the late fourth and ear­ly fifth cen­turies is one of them. I’d like to intro­duce you to him next week. 

PC: Wiki­me­dia Commons

This series has been adapt­ed from Steven D. Boy­er and Chris Hall’s The Mys­tery of God: The­ol­o­gy for Know­ing the Unknow­able. Hun­gry for more? Please vis­it Bak­er Aca­d­e­m­ic for more information.

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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