Grace Presbyterian Church
October 18, 2020, Pentecost 20A (recorded)
Who Do We Imitate?
One of the more talked-about and provocative books released on the subject of Christianity this year addresses the increasingly evident presence of what is commonly called “toxic masculinity” in many quarters of the church in the United States over the course of the past century. The book, by Kristin Kobes Du Mez of Calvin University in Michigan, traces this development as far back as the fascination with “muscular Christianity” of the early twentieth century, but particularly observes the post-WWII rise of a strain of thought in the church that claims particular privileges for men within Christianity.
This is hardly new in the church’s history. In this case, however, the results are terribly present with us today: a heavy degree of politization of church leaders; encouragement of aggressive or even potentially violent aspects of stereotypically “male” behavior; encouragement of behaviors among male church leaders that deny roles of leadership to pretty much anybody other than white males; justification or excusing of abusive or illegal behavior by those leaders; and reduction of women to roles of subservience to men. Along the way the book also notes occasional “role models” of this hypermasculine model of Christian manhood – oddly enough, not always men who practice any sort of Christianity. While Oliver North, he of the Iran-Contra scandal, or William Wallace, the Scottish warrior played by Mel Gibson in the movie Braveheart, turn up as well, the most prominent such figure cited by those studied in the book is the one who turns up in the book’s title alongside our actual Messiah: Jesus and John Wayne.
It is impossible to avoid drawing a sharp contrast here with a theme to which Paul alluded in the letter to the Philippians and which he states overtly here in the greeting of his first letter to the church at Thessalonica.
Somewhat like the church at Philippi, the Thessalonian community was still largely on good terms with Paul, and vice versa. We read in Acts 17 that Paul had a rough time on his visit to Thessalonica and had to be slipped out of town under cover of darkness. From that account we also learn that while a few members of the local synagogue heard and received the gospel, the number of “Greeks” (the city was located in Macedonia) who did so was apparently a good bit larger. As a result, the numbers in the Thessalonian community skewed far more towards Gentile converts, unlike other churches Paul founded in which the balance between Greek and Jewish believers was more even.
One thing this means is that many of the Thessalonians had in fact been literal worshipers of idols, to which Paul alludes in verse 9. He also notes in verse 6 that they had suffered attacks by others in the community, noted in Acts 17 when Paul’s host in the city, a man named Jason, had seen his home attacked and had been dragged with some others before the city authorities on false charges. Their faithfulness, both as new converts and in the face of outside agitation, had apparently built a reputation and endeared them to Paul particularly. The result is this particularly effusive greeting from Paul, along with his co-workers Silvanus and Timothy.
But back on the subject of idols for a moment. As noted a few moments ago, Thessalonica was in the region of Macedonia. Alert followers of ancient history might recognize that name: it was the home of no less a historical figure than Alexander the Great, who had taken his father Philip’s already substantial empire and expanded it as far as the Greek world could see. Even decades after his death, and even under the rule of Rome, Alexander’s fame and glorification still remained strong in his homeland, so to speak. Folks living in Macedonia had plenty of alternate role models, beyond the mere idols of wood or stone that were scattered throughout the cities.
It is against this backdrop that we read Paul’s greeting to the Thessalonians. Even for the standard letter greeting style of this period it is an effusively warm greeting, fulsome in its praise for the church at Thessalonica and giving a glowing report of its reputation not only with Paul and his co-workers, but among other churches of the region as observed in verses 8-9.
What is it that so exhilarates Paul about the Thessalonians? It is most succinctly described in verses 5-6: the gospel came among them not just in word, but “in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction,” and the Thessalonians “became imitators of us (Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy) and of the Lord.”
You know what? On the surface, to us moderns, this might not look all that impressive. What does it even mean to say that the message of the gospel came among them in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction? From the twenty-first century that sounds like religious platitudes more than anything else. And frankly, from our perspective in history talk about anything being “in the Holy Spirit” can frankly sound suspicious, polluted by decades of false preachers and con artists for which such talk is a way to bamboozle the easily fooled and to play folks for suckers.
And becoming imitators of Paul and his colleagues? We don’t know much about Silvanus and Timothy, but we’re painfully aware of Paul’s imperfections, both from his letters and from the accounts of his missionary journeys in Acts. There we see a man who, for all his successes, was extremely short-tempered, not quick to forgive (as demonstrated in the split with Barnabas over bringing John Mark back into the work in Acts 15), and just maybe given to whining a little bit about his difficulties on occasion.
The only thing that works here is that, for all their imperfections, the example that Paul and Silvanus and Timothy had set among the Thessalonians led them towards the imitation of the Lord.
Here is a point where we need to hold two seemingly contradictory truths in our heads and hearts:
- There is no one worthy of imitation for the Christian other than Jesus Christ.
- Our example will be observed and imitated, for good or bad.
Any parent can tell you about the latter phenomenon – being caught in, say, a slip of the tongue that gets endlessly copied by your child? There is but a small example of what happens when others, perhaps especially Christians still in formation, see us and strive to use us as an example. The other possibility, of course, is that our example might be seen as wanting and that those who see us might be dissuaded from the faith by our bad example.
But the former point is the one that sticks. There is really no other model for us to imitate besides the Jesus who is revealed to us in the gospels. Not Moses – ask that Egyptian who was murdered by him. Certainly not David – ask Bathsheba, or even more her husband Uriah the Hittite, left for dead by the army at David’s order. And no, not Paul. Not even John Wayne. If we’re going to claim to be followers of Christ, we must be imitators of Christ. And if you’re read the gospels, you know that’s a risky thing to do. Jesus made trouble. Jesus didn’t always play nice with the authorities. And Jesus paid the price for it.
And yet, being imitators of Jesus is about the only way we’re going to present the kind of example that caused Paul to gush so warmly about the Thessalonians. It’s about the only thing that will make folks stop and pay attention, and maybe draw them to Christ. It is all we can do.
And yes, it is our call.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #644, Give Thanks, O Christian People; #300, We Are One in the Spirit
 Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne. Published 2020 Liveright Publishing Corp, a division of W.W. Norton.
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