Are You an Impersonator or an Imitator

September 27, 2020

Philippians 2:1-13

Impersonation is an active part of the entertainment industry. Travel to Las Vegas and you can watch countless shows starring Elvis, Cher, and the Rat Pack just to name a few. There are tribute bands that do their best to impersonate the Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, and countless others. We laugh at comedians that have a knack for impressions, Robin Williams and Jim Carrey coming to mind for myself. The late-night talk shows and Saturday Night Live are known for their sketches with impersonators of political figures.

These can all be fun to watch, especially when we know that they are not the real deal and often it is being done in jest. There is a difference between impersonating and imitating. When they are on stage, an impersonator genuinely wants you to believe that they are who they are not. They put a lot of work into their act and take great pains to attempt to perfect it. An imitator, on the other hand, strives to live up to the challenge of reflecting the person they are looking up to.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians this morning encourages us to be imitators of Christ. The Message translation begins:

If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— 2 then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. 3 Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. 4 Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
5 Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. 6 He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. 7 Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! 8 Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion.
Philippians 2:1-8

It is this Christ that Paul lifts up for the people in Philippi as the metric for them to live by. It is the goal for them to strive for. It is a call for them to bring their community closer together and mend wounds and heal any separations that has occured. This is a tall order and Christians have not always been the best at imitating Christ. When we fail to follow and imitate Christ, we offer false impressions to those around us.

The celebrated pacifist Mohandas Gandhi is reported to have said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” He made this observation in the midst of his struggle for justice for a people in the face of the occupation of his native India.[1] Comments like these can often be divisive and cause us to take up sides. We can get defensive when something speaks so closely to our heart and names the truth, or at least a part of it. We start to make excuses when we do not want to own up to the truth that we know in our hearts.

Those Christians that Gandhi speaks of are the ones that are impersonating more than they are imitating. Remember, an impersonator tries their hardest to make people believe they are someone that they are not. There is no sign of humbleness in the impersonator. Yet, it is a life of humbleness that Christ calls us, as we encounter our siblings. We are not to tower over anyone and lift ourselves as greater than thou. It is Christ that calls us to love one another and be an imitation of that good news for all to see.

The imitation does not come easily. At times it can require sacrifice and suffering. To be obedient to Christ and our lives as Christians could even lead to death. It is that same good news that reminds us that death is not the end and we be born into new life. For in our baptisms, we die to our old selves and are washed clean as we recognize our part in the Christian community. We are not always going to get the imitation right. We are going to stumble and fall, and Jesus is well aware of the temptations that enter our lives on a daily basis.

There is a word that Archbishop Desmond Tutu is known for when imitating Christ and learning to love each one of our siblings. This word is, Ubuntu. In Ubuntu, we learn to acknowledge that “I am, because we are.” We do not and cannot accomplish anything on our own. We do it in community. We support one another and learn to live with one another. Yes, Jesus wants us to agree on everything as well, and this can be a challenge that we will work on until the Reign of God comes fully to us. It is in ubuntu that we recognize one another’s humanity and that we learn to walk and work alongside one another.

To follow the philosophy of ubuntu draws us much closer to an imitation of Christ. An imitation that lifts up the good news for all to witness. It is this imitation that transforms our hearts and minds and calls us into living as one with not only Christ, who is with us and in us, but also with our siblings that we walk alongside every day. How are you going to be an imitation of Christ this week?

[1] Gilberto Collazo, commentary on Philippians 2:1-13, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4.

By Alex Steward

I am a husband, father, and pastor within the ELCA. I did not grow up in the church and thus come at this pastoring thing with an unique perspective.

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