The National Catholic Review
In last week’s second reading Paul held himself up as a model for imitation to the Thessalonians (2 Thess.3:7-12). For Paul imitation is neither the "sincerest form of flattery" nor a "cheap copy," but a means to model oneself in the life of Christ. Paul holds himself up as a model of imitation strictly because of his apostolic call. And Paul offers himself as a model because the apostle’s life is to be shaped in the image of Christ. It is a model, however, in whose likeness all Christians are called to shape themselves. The occasions in which Paul calls his churches to imitate him are instructive for understanding the nature of the Christian path. A number of times Paul describes himself as a parent for his congregations, both mother (1 Thessalonians 2:7;1 Corinthians 3:1-2:;1 Corinthians 4:15; Philemon 10; Galatians 4:19; see Beverly Gaventa’s new book, Our Mother St. Paul) and father (1 Thessalonians 2:11;1 Corinthians 4:14-16; 2 Corinthians 11:2). This places the members of his churches as children in the faith, whom he sometimes casts as infants (Galatians 4:19;1 Corinthians 3:1-2, 4:14; 1Thessalonians 2:7; Ephesians 4:14-15), but whom he calls to maturity (Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 2:6, 13:10,14:20; Philippians 3:12,3:15; Colossians 1:28, 4:12; Ephesians 4:13). Spiritual maturity develops at least partly in imitating the spiritual parent. So what is the content of Paul’s call to maturity through imitation? Apart from last week’s call to work for a living and not burden the Church (2 Thessalonians 3:7, 9), Paul also calls us to imitation in other concrete ways: 1. 1 Thessalonians 1:6: the Thessalonians imitate Paul and Christ by receiving the word with joy in spite of persecution; 2. 1 Thessalonians 2:14: the Thessalonians imitate the churches in Judea by suffering persecution; 3. 1 Corinthians 4:16 and 11:1: the Corinthians are to imitate Paul by maintaining the traditions (11:2) and the way of life in Christ (4:17) he has demonstrated and taught, just as Paul imitates Christ; 4. Philippians 3:17: the Philippians are to imitate Paul and his co-workers who have striven to put Christ first, in joyful suffering, and to maintain the "same mind" in Christ; 5. Ephesians 5:1: the Ephesians are asked to imitate God and live according to the sacrificial example of Christ. Paul’s call to imitation can be seen as the ordinary and everyday application of his example (work for a living; hold fast to the traditions and the ways you have seen in me) to the extraordinary call to model oneself on Christ’s sacrificial example (suffer persecution for the sake of the Kingdom). Paul’s apostolic example is a challenge to Church leaders today, it seems, if we are to take this apostolic example as measuring stick. If Paul’s call to imitation is to bear fruit, though, it is clear that clergy must be modeled in Christ’s image so as to be models for the laity. For the laity, however, these worthy models must become a call for us also to model ourselves in Christ’s image. As D. M. Stanley, S.J., in a classic article from 1959, said, "the acceptance of the kerygma, as we have already seen, implies much more than intellectual assent to certain abstract doctrines: it involves a way of life in conformity with the Gospel which Paul has preached and which is exemplified in his own life. The complete acceptance of the Gospel demands some very practical, down-to-earth applications to Christian living" ("Become Imitators of Me" in Biblica 40 (1959) 869). Stanley also says that imitation is "the working out in {the early Christians}, through divine grace, of what constitutes the object of Paul’s kerygma, their assimilation to Christ who has attained glory through suffering" (868). Stanley’s insight links imitation with the second reading this week, Colossians 1:12-20, in which we are told that we have been made by God "fit to share in the inheritance of the holy ones in light. He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins." Our ordinary daily witness can never be made in the image of something cheap, tawdry, flattering, or empty, and this is a challenge for clergy and laity alike, for it is Christ, ultimately, whom we are called to imitate, through models of great worth, Paul and others, in order that we might share in extra ordinary cosmic victory he has won.