Sunday sermon on the Epistle reading 1 Corinthians 4:9-16
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I would like to unpack Saint Paul’s last sentence in today’s Epistle reading, “I urge you – imitate me, like I imitate Christ.” Why does Saint Paul urge Corinthian Christians, to whom he addressed this letter, and by extension us, to imitate him? And what is there to imitate?
Christian life is not just a life, it is a lifestyle. There is a certain manner to Christian life – ways of behavior. Christians always stood out in a society, and we should still be standing out today. What distinguishes Christians from the rest of the crowd is not just that we go to church on Sundays. A lot of people do many weird things on a Sunday morning. It’s not the jewelry around our necks. It’s easy to be outdone in that also.
Christians have always stood out because of what they do, how they act, and how they carry themselves. That, first and foremost, is evident in our love and care for each other, and those around us. We are outwardly focused. It’s just what we do.
But how do we learn these Christian manners? We learn them like we learn any other behavior in our life – by imitation. Our whole life is an imitation of someone. And we begin imitating very early, basically as soon as we are born, maybe even earlier.
Recently I was listening to an interview with one voice coach who works with everyone from the Wall Street businesspeople, to famous Hollywood actors, to musicians. He said that babies learn to imitate their mother’s voice. Why? Because they want to survive, they want to eat, so they “coo” and they “ahh” in the same voice as the mother.
And this continues as the child continues to grow. We imitate our parents in more than just voice, we imitate their actions, the way they sit, stand, or even go up or down the stairs. We also imitate other people we look up to, like a favorite uncle or aunt, the cool kid in the class, or a celebrity. Our whole life is one big imitation; it’s just what we do.
So, how many of us would be comfortable saying, “Imitate me in proper Christian lifestyle?” Especially to our children… Maybe that’s why our churches are packed with young adults and teenagers, who see and imitate our Christian lifestyle. To be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t be able to tell my own children to imitate me. Right now, it’s more like, “Learn from my mistakes,” rather than, “Imitate me, like I imitate Christ.”
In what respect, then, did Paul expect Christians in Corinth to imitate him? He wasn’t perfect, even though we call him a saint. He admitted himself that he was the chief of sinners, the worst of them all (1 Timothy 1:15). And yet, when he urged them to imitate him, he wasn’t pulling some sort of a pious act. He meant what he said, “Imitate me, like I imitate Christ.”
Paul sometimes speaks about things he had to endure as an apostle; and we get some of those in today’s reading. His style of living was very much in contrast to the style preferred by the Corinthians. They were rather new converts to Christianity from paganism, and still lived in a worldly lifestyle.
Let me give you a little background to what the city of Corinth looked like in the middle of the first century, and what its worldly lifestyle meant. Corinth was one of the major trading ports in the Roman Empire, which meant there was a lot of money, and where there is money there will be huge population. There were also a number of pagan temples.
So the worldly lifestyle of the Corinthians included power (concentrated on money) and good times (based in the pagan temples). The temples especially were surrounded by the sacrifices to and worship of the idols, which always included complete sexual immorality.
Not unlike our present worldly lifestyle. We may not be sacrificing bulls at the altar of some pagan idol, but we are sacrificing money, time, along with mental and physical health to a celebrity, an athlete, or a politician. I mean, we even call them idols, we idolize them, we sacrifice to them (God forbid we worship them). And the current popular culture is full of sexual immorality and promiscuity.
Our times compare very favorably to the first century Corinth. In fact, this base and immoral behavior has been constant throughout human existence. Christian way of life challenged and changed that. That’s why what Jesus taught, what Paul urged, what the Christians stood for the last 2,000 years is as relevant today as it has ever been. Christian Corinthians tried to add a “Jesus” label to their lifestyle of power and good times. They were not ready to give up things that brought them pleasure.
Again, is it any different today? Have Christians today given up power and good times, or have we slapped a “Jesus” sticker on all that we do and said, “See, it’s Christian now”?
Corinthians thought of themselves as wise, strong, and distinguished. In comparison to them Paul is conscious of being foolish, weak, and subject to contempt. And this is the difference between the standards of the world and the standards of the Gospel.
And that’s why we imitate Saint Paul, that’s why we try to imitate the many different saints, that’s why all of them imitated Christ. All the power and the good times of the worldly lifestyle may bring some pleasure, but in the end they are pointless. Christian lifestyle may not be as exciting, I mean, we do have to pray, fast, give away our money in charity, go to church, humble ourselves…Hard stuff, it’s not easy. But it’s usually the hard stuff that gives meaning to life, not the easy and the good.
Now, how do we imitate Saint Paul? He actually gives three very good examples, “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly.”
An essential element to the Christian life and lifestyle is – do not return evil for evil, do not bear grudges; meaning, love your enemies, bless those who curse you. When we bless and pray for those who revile us, something happens to us, God’s grace heals our heart. This is a very potent stuff. A few weeks ago in my sermon on Saint Paul’s words, “Bless and do not curse,” I mentioned a simple prayer that I use when irritated or angered by someone – “Remember, O Lord, so-and-so (always pray for them by name), bless them with Your heavenly blessings, and forgive me for judging and hating them.”
It’s not magic, it won’t make you the most loving person in the world, but short prayers like this, when said consciously, re-orient us on Christ and remind us that we are in need of God’s grace as much as anyone else.
Another common element from Saint Paul’s three examples of imitation is patience. Patience is not an option in the life of the Gospel. Patience is not just one of the virtues, it is the way we become identified with Christ because He was patient, and He redeemed us through His patience.
This patience is not related to being stuck in traffic or to a person we can’t stand. It’s related to persecution, to deliberate malice, to slander. This is the patience of the saints that overthrows empires, and even immoral popular cultures.
This is what we imitate in Saint Paul, in other apostles, in the saints, and in each other. We can and should be worthy examples of imitation for each other. This is an outline of what it means to belong to Jesus Christ, to be dedicated to the Gospel lifestyle.
To our Lord Jesus Christ, Who gave us a more perfect way of life, together with His Father and the Holy Spirit, we give glory, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.
This sermon is based on a sermon by Fr Patrick Reardon, "The Apostolic Model"
PS: After delivering the sermon, during the rest of the Liturgy, a few thoughts came to mind regarding my words of telling my children, "Learn from my mistakes," rather than, "Imitate me, like I imitate Christ" because at this point this is the reality.
This led me to add these further points at the end of the service:
- As parents, as role models, as adults we need to be realistic with ourselves. We all make mistakes. It's nothing unexpected. We can learn to avoid mistakes, but we still make them. Therefore, we need to realize and acknowledge this fact. And whenever we do make a mistake, we have to make sure that our children (or whoever looks up to us) know that it was a mistake. They will imitate us, sometimes even without thinking about it. So it's essential that we realize our own mistakes and acknowledge them before others. Talk to your children about your mistakes, so that they will not repeat or imitate them.
- No matter how old we are - newborn infants or 90-year-olds, we have to have good role models. Not just any role models, but those who live Gospel lifestyle and are worthy of imitation. These people should not be on TV, it's better if it's someone we actually know. Have good, Christian role models. Learn from them. And become good, Christian role model yourself.