Imitators of God
Sermon: 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
The other day I had the experience that many fathers have with their kids: I watched one of my kids imitate me. Right down to the gestures and the tone of voice. It reminded me that the most powerful way to teach anybody anything is to do it yourself. This is what you see at work in the second reading for today, from Thessalonians.
Paul has been the founding pastor of this congregation at Thessalonica and has lived and worked with the people there for some time – certainly some months, perhaps even for a year or more.
The church began in this Greek city of Thessalonica through Paul’s missionary preaching, and through the baptism of converts who came to believe as a result of this preaching.
But Paul has done much more than preach. He has lived his faith. He has been Living the Word – a familiar phrase in the Ringwood congregation! And this is what has made the biggest impact.
Interestingly, like parents with their kids, pastors often leave their imprint on a congregation – particularly pastors who stay a while. Over time, the people see and watch and pick up what the pastor’s attitudes and priorities are, and they adopt and imitate them.
This is what happened with this little congregation at Thessalonica. Paul makes mention in his letter to them – written after his time with them – of two particular special qualities they have. In verses 5 and 6, he mentions their conviction and their joy as Christians. Somehow they have learned these things and are putting them into practice.
Now, where, how and by whom do you think they saw those two qualities being lived out? Who showed them joy and conviction?
Paul of course! They are imitating him. When he looks at the church in Thessalonica, he is looking in the mirror! During his time at Thessalonica, Paul shaped this church with his own values – so much so that after Paul left, they carried on in the way he had shown them. Paul’s great faith and conviction about Jesus Christ and his love for all people had rubbed off. They watched and they noticed and they imitated. In same way they had made Paul’s joy in the good news of salvation their own.
So much so in fact, that this little church had become famous not only in their own area but in surrounding territories – in Achaia and Macedonia and even beyond. Paul observes that the word of the Lord has “sounded forth” from them and made a huge impact on people near and far, so that now others were being inspired by them and had begun imitating them. Paul’s great passion and enthusiasm for telling the world about Jesus Christ had powerfully shaped them and they were now shaping the faith of others.
There’s a chain reaction here: Paul imitates Christ. The Thessalonians imitate Paul. And other Christians then imitate the Thessalonians. It is like throwing a rock into a pool – the ripple effect goes out further than we ever imagine and effects others in ways we never dreamed of.
As I look at the life of this congregation (through the eyes of Christ) I see the same thing at work. Many people have grown and learned how to live out God’s love as they see others doing it. We learn Christ through seeing and meeting Christ in each other. There are small acts of service in response to peoples’ needs, there is understanding and gentleness given to those with problems in life, there’s care and encouragement. And others watch as this happens and then imitate. It is beautiful. We help one another grow in this way.
But it’s not just inside the church that this happens. The ripples go out. As I look at families in our church, I see the powerful witness some of you parents give your kids by your own worship and service, especially the young kids who are still at home. When they see you worship and watch you sing and pray and see how this is part of your life, they are being formed in their faith.
But it is also the same with you parents of older kids that have grown up and left home and possibly left the church. Don’t under-estimate the power of your example of faith and worship and love. Never think that it is not being noticed and having an impact. It definitely is, even though you may see no visible response to it now. What they see in your life is worth more than anything you say to your kids.
This is fundamentally what “Child in Our Hands” is about – it’s what your kids see in you.
There is of course an important role for teaching and instructing people in the Scriptures and the doctrines of the faith (Paul certainly did that at Thessalonica too), however the most powerful teaching was his example. What people see us do, what attitudes we display, what values we show. As Paul says, when this is happening, when the Holy Spirit is using us to lead and shape one another in God’s love, we often have no need to say a lot about it because our lives speak louder than words.
One things lots of people in the church do not understand is that this is the mission of the church at work. The church works not through programs or buildings or spectacular attractional events or dynamic pastors – but through you – yes you, imperfect you, sometimes struggling you – because you are, by God’s grace, Christ’s child, his disciple.
As we live in this relationship with Christ each day, as a mother, a father, a child, an employer, an employee, a friend, a marriage partner and in all your roles, relationships and vocations in life, Christ is holding up your life before others so that in you, they may see him:
- In the way you might practice forgiveness;
- In the way you might show compassion and understanding;
- In the way you act and treat others with integrity instead of self-interest;
- In the way perhaps that you do not judge others in their problems but listen to them.
Things that you might not even be aware of doing yourself, but are things you do because they are just part of who you are in Christ, and it comes out of you.
Some of you might know the story of Malcolm Muggeridge – a journalist and sceptic, who rejected the Christian faith. He was full of cynicism and ridicule about the Church and criticised it at every opportunity. As part of an article he was researching he visited one of the Hospices in India run by Mother Theresa (long before she became famous). He met her and interviewed her, and a life long friendship began.
When he, a couple of years later was converted and became a Christian, he said that meeting Mother Theresa was the great turning point in his life. Why? Because of her example of Christian love and compassion. It was what she lived more than what she said. He had no arguments against that. He had no way of attacking it. He saw God’s power quietly at work in this woman. As he put it, in her eyes, he met Jesus Christ for the first time.
In turn, Malcolm Muggeridge has influenced an enormous number of people towards Christ through his repentance and faith in Christ, and the way he has shared this in his writing and his books over the years. It’s that ripple effect again.
When we live in daily relationship with God the Father, through Jesus Christ, others see, and are powerfully impacted. This powerful though very quiet dynamic is God’s way of bringing his Kingdom in the world, through you. Amen