Good morning my friends. I wonder how confident you feel in your relationship with Jesus. Confident enough to tell people to follow your example? Probably not. How many preachers have you heard telling people not to look at them as an example because they are imperfect? Does that ever come across as sounding like an excuse and not a reason? It does to me, and I have said it to my congregations more often than I can remember. It's because I did not have the perspective and understanding I have today as to what that example should be. Does this then make Paul an arrogant man for writing:
Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. (Philippians 3:17)
If any other man had written this I would say it was from a source of arrogance but with Paul it was written from a place of maturity. Paul knew who he was, the chief of sinners he said. He knew who Jesus was, the Christ, who gave up his life to save the world. More than this, he rose from the dead so that all of us could have eternal life. He also knew who he was in Jesus, a new creation, the old was gone and the new had come. Did this make him perfect ? Not in the least, even though he knew that perfection was being worked out in him every day, which is the reason he encouraged us to "work out" our salvation daily. So what is meant by his example?
Our problem is our North American attitude toward perfection. We take something like the passage of Colossians 3 and we turn it into a law without understanding what is really being said:
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. (Colossians 3:5)
These sins are obvious to us all and we should be able to control these even by our human will. There are a lot of people in this world who can control these things without the help of the Holy Spirit. It is the reason Paul says to put them to death. They really are within our control. After this he writes:
But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. (Col 3:8)
Notice the change from "put to death" to "rid yourselves". The first are behaviours that we can quickly modify ourselves but the second are roots in our lives that are hard to "put to death". These things we must rid ourselves of and for this we need help. The most effective way is to allow these roots to be choked out by newer roots:
Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Col 3:12-14)
These are the new roots that take time to grow and choke out the old roots of sin. It is a process and in such a process our imperfections will rear their ugly head. This is where we find the conflict between North American expectations of perfection compared to the reality of the Word of God. Paul said to follow his example. What example would that be?
Off the top of my head I would say it would be his example of self-sacrificing love for Jesus and his Church. I would say it would be his example of perseverance and fortitude despite the hardships. I would say it would be his example of a repentant and forgiving heart. You see, the one thing I find missing from the Church today is honesty about who we really are. Repentance and forgiveness, cornerstones of our relationship with Jesus, requires honesty with ourselves, with Jesus and with the Body. We are not honest. We are too busy keeping up appearances for the world but the world can see right through us.
It is not honest to hide our sin, yet it is also not honest to excuse our sin because of our imperfections. Things like, "I may not be perfect but I am forgiven", or "God's not finished with me yet", are true but they come across as arrogant. When we repent there should not be a "but" in our repentance. "I am sorry for what I have done but I am sure Jesus has forgiven me." Our repentance should be honest, "I have sinned against my God and you. I know what I have done is not acceptable and I have caused pain to you and my Lord. My spirit grieves the harm I have caused. I throw myself on your mercy and ask your forgiveness." This should be a natural thing to do. From this, forgiveness flows easily because the sin is exposed and the healing can begin. This is part of the "work out your salvation daily".
We should be aware of our imperfections, our weaknesses and we should deal with them openly and honestly. We require the Spirit to use the support and forgiveness of our brothers and sisters to bring about change in us. Paul wrote:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. (Col. 3:16)
In this green house of love forgiveness must flow freely and openly. When we recognize that we are all the same, that we stumble in the same way, that we have the same love for our Lord and for each other then we may begin to forgive as we are forgiven. Then maybe we can say with Paul, "Follow my example". Not an example of perfection, we have Jesus for that, but instead an example of what God can do with imperfection.