BROTHERS and SISTERS, God has shown us, the apostles, as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to people. We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in dishonor. To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the filth of the world, the scum of all things, to this very day. I am not writing this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you might have ten thousand guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For in Christ Jesus I became your father through the Gospel. Therefore, I urge you – imitate me, like I imitate Christ.
How does the saying go? Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. This is not exactly what Saint Paul meant when he urged Corinthian Christians to imitate him, like he imitates Christ. We can ask two questions - why should they imitate Paul? And, how should they imitate him?
As to why, it's rather simple, Paul was their father, not physically of course, but "through the Gospel." Saint Paul was one of the apostles who spent time preaching the salvation to Corinthians in Christ Jesus. Perhaps he baptized some of them; and baptism is called second birth. As their father, he was also their teacher, and they - his disciples. In antiquity, the disciples tried to imitate the virtues of their teacher.
But why would Paul "urge" them to imitate them, if that's what the disciples were expected to do in the first place? The answer lies in what he wants them to imitate him in. He does not want them to see all the good things he does, his virtues, and copy those. That could be flattery, and it could be very dangerous. Anyone who has ever spent at least a day with another human being knows that we can be the best of fakers. In public we can be the most virtuous people, honest, hard-working, almost holy. But deep inside, or in private, we are not always like that.
Now, I am not saying that all people are like that. I bet you know, just like I do, a lot of really good and honest people, but also a fair share of lying snakes and back-stabbers who are innocent out in the open. And even the best and most honest person has a potential of turning into a monster. Things happen, things that we can't control, things that can change us at the core.
Hence, Saint Paul, in a way, is saying, "Never-mind my virtues, whatever I may have, but focus on something else." What exactly do they focus on? We are fools for the sake of Christ...we are weak...we are dishonored...hungry and thirsty...beaten and homeless...reviled...persecuted...slandered...filth and scum. Are these virtues? Not really. So what is he talking about? These things describe Paul's life that has been passing under the Cross of Christ. These are the ways of the Christians. Christian life is not easy, and not meant to be easy. Corinthians, meanwhile, were living in one of the trading centers of the empire; their life was rather pleasurable. Pointless, but pleasurable. But they are Christians now; their life has a purpose and direction - serve one another while looking to the Cross of Christ.
And Paul did provide three specific examples worthy of imitation that we can call virtues, they ways of the Christians - "when reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly." God willing, I will meditate on these more during the sermon on Sunday. But for now, they are more or less self-explanatory. Christians do not retaliate, rather they pray, exercise patience, and respond, when response is needed, in kindness.
Paul urges Christians in Corinth in the first century, and us today, to imitate him because he orients himself towards the Cross; that is, a genuine life according to the Gospel.
Yours in the Lord,