john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    1 Thessalonians 1: Imitators of Christ

    St Cuthbert's Croxteth Park - Holy Communion 19/10/2008
    (repeated later at the Good Shepherd, West Derby, Holy Communion service)

    1 Thessalonians 1.1-10, Matthew 22.15-22

    I wonder if you are an X Factor fan or a Strictly Come Dancing devotee. Millions of us watch these shows each Saturday, so whether we like them or not they are a big part of our culture.

    As you know, on The X Factor people sing songs that have been made famous by other, more established artists, and they are judged on their performance. The best contestants are the ones who clearly have the "X Factor" - that special "something" that gives them star quality.

    Strictly Come Dancing features people who are already celebrities - but not as dancers. They are paired off with professional dance partners who help them to make the grade as they compete with others in Ballroom and Latin dances.

    The contestants on both these shows are imitators - the X Factor performers imitate songs which have been sung by others; the Strictly Come Dancing competitors learn their dance moves by imitating the professionals. The most popular performers in each show are the ones who learn to imitate the best - who show that they have taken something from the great ones and learned how to sprinkle some of that greatness on their own performances.

    Now sometimes when we use the word 'imitation' we mean fake, but there's nothing fake about the people who stand up in front of millions of viewers and try to put on the very best performance they can - to sing or dance like they've never done before. They put their heart and soul into it. There's a lot of hard work involved in learning how to imitate the great ones - a lot of time and practice and energy and heartbreak behind the headlines of the people who go onto these shows.

    It's the same in sport, of course. If Match of the Day is more your thing - it is mine - then think about the young footballers who know that to be great they have to work hard to learn how to imitate the skills of the great ones who have gone before them.

    Now, I'd like to suggest to you that we are all imitators.

    From birth we learn very quickly how to behave, how to speak, how to be. And how do we learn? - we learn by imitating the other people around us. We take what is given to us by family, friends, neighbours, people at school, work, church, and we make these things our own.

    This is why as parents we might be protective of our children, so that they don't get affected by bad influences - we don't want them imitating other people's bad language or bad ways.

    This is why it is such a challenge being a teenager when the pressure is so strong to imitate the behaviour of those around us - we call it peer pressure and it's the strongest pressure there is at that -or any - age.

    And this is why we all have that moment in our young adult lives when we say something or do something and we realise that makes us look or sound like our parents - and we find ourselves saying, 'Oh no, I'm turning into my mum / I'm turning into my dad!'

    We are all imitators. And that is part of being human. Imitating others is what makes us who we are. Or at least, partly. Because as well as learning our ways by imitating the ways of those around us, we each also have an "X Factor" about us too - a special "something" that no-one else in our family has, something that makes us uniquely us. For better or for worse.

    Just as we understand that the Saturday night TV show competitors put their heart and soul and a lot of hard work into learning how to imitate the great ones, so too we understand that we have to work at being good imitators of those who are our role models.

    As children we get challenged about this - our parents spend a lot of time trying to shape our behaviour and we have to work hard sometimes to do what pleases them: 'Finish your food', 'tidy your room', 'go to bed now'... each of these instructions can be quite difficult to obey when you're young and energetic and distracted.

    In the world of work we know that it can take a lot of effort to make the grade; when we start a new job it's challenging trying to imitate those who have been doing that job for a long time, learning from them how to do it well.

    And in the family and in the community we belong to, when we're asked as adults to take on responsibilities we've never had before - being a parent, helping a sick neighbour, volunteering on a project - sometimes it's a steep learning curve trying to imitate those who have a lot more experience of doing those things.

    The art of imitation is something we Christians learn too. We learn to understand who God is by listening to others talking about God and reflecting on what that means for us, how that might shape our own understanding of God. We learn to live the Christian life by imitating those who have been doing it for longer than us, or seem to be doing it better than we are.

    It has always been this way. This morning we heard an extract from Paul's letter to the church in Thessalonica, Greece, which like today was then one of the biggest cities in the Mediterranean. That letter is the earliest piece of Christian writing still in existence, and in it Paul congratulates the believers in that young church because he had seen how well they had learned to be imitators of Christ. He wrote:
    And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.
    It is a part of growing up in the Christian faith to imitate those who have been practising the faith for longer, who we know we can learn from and who can help us to understand and grow.

    The Church takes people's development seriously; the Church wants people to grow in faith and understanding; the Church takes real joy when this happens.

    This is why in our churches we have Confirmation classes which are designed for people of all ages and backgrounds to learn what it might mean for them to be an imitator of Christ, it's why we have these sermon slots in most of our services, which if they're done well can give us all a better idea of what it means to imitate Christ in our lives.

    And more than anything else, this is why Church is something that we do together - so that we are meeting people who we can learn from, and who can learn from us, as we see the good things in each others lives and are encouraged to imitate them.

    The Church takes people's development seriously because life is a serious business. There's no need for me to detail what I mean by that, you know the challenges you face, in personal things like your relationships and in practical areas of your lives like money and work.

    My instinct is that the more we learn to imitate Christ then the more we will learn how to live in all these areas of our lives.

    In a conversation with some religious leaders who were trying to trick him into sounding like a heretic, Jesus said, 'Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and give to God the things that are God's'.

    The people listening to this would realise that all they needed to give to Caesar were their taxes, but: 'give to God the things that are God's' - surely everything is God's? If God gave us life then we owe everything in life to God, Jesus is saying, and we should share everything in life with God.

    Imitating Christ means learning to share our lives with God. That's a very challenging thing, but it also brings great joy. We need our Confirmation classes, our sermons, and most of all we need each other to help us to learn how to share our lives with God.

    The words of Paul encourage us that God has everything we need to rescue us from any difficulties ahead. Be encouraged that Christ is a living and true God. He wants to live in us, to help us blossom, fully, into the people he intended us to be. Imitating Christ is a way of adding the X Factor to our lives.