Holiness How-To: Imitate our Gospel Parents

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost / Tenth Sunday of Matthew, August 13, 2017
I Corinthians 4:9-16; Matthew 17:14-23
Very Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

For though you have a myriad of tutors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for I begat you in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I beseech you, therefore, be imitators of me. (I Cor. 4:15-16)

Paul says this to the Corinthians after reciting a litany of what the apostles have to go through: they are appointed to death, they are a “spectacle to the world,” and they are “fools for Christ’s sake.” They are weak, dishonored, hungry, thirsty, naked, beaten and restless. They are ridiculed, persecuted, blasphemed, and so on. And in the midst of all that, they labor, they bless, they endure, they exhort.

And Paul says that he’s not telling them all this to shame them by comparison—though they are no doubt ashamed or at least should be. Rather, he says it is because even though they have many teachers in Christ, he is their father in Jesus Christ through the Gospel, and he wants them to imitate him. It is this fatherhood in the Gospel that I would like to speak of today.

One of the problems I encounter when speaking with people about their spiritual life is that they may not know what to do. We can often see our sins clearly enough—we are proud, we are angry, we are lazy, we are gluttonous, we are lustful, we are envious, we are greedy. But how do we actually do holiness? This is harder. Why is it harder? It’s because our whole species is infected with sin since Adam and Eve, which makes sin easy and holiness hard.

So Paul gives the Corinthians a clue here. He says “be imitators of me.” So look at Paul and do what he does.

But let’s back up a little and talk about what it means that he “begat” them “in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.” What does that mean?

Paul is the apostle who went to Corinth and taught them about Jesus Christ. He went there on both his second and third missionary journeys. In Acts 18, we read how he went to Corinth and stayed with a couple named Aquila and Priscilla, who were also tent-makers like he was.
Paul stayed in Corinth the first time for a year and a half. He baptized many Jews and Gentiles, including the Jew Crispus, who was the leader of the local Jewish synagogue. He later came back at least twice.

Paul’s relationship to the Corinthians was not just as a teacher but as the one who introduced them to Who Jesus is—He told them of His identity as the Son of God, that He died and rose from the dead. And he baptized many of them. It was through Paul that the Church of the Corinthians was begun. And then he nurtured it through subsequent visits and by writing them epistles.

In our own lives, we probably have a Paul, someone who brought the light of Jesus Christ to us and really showed Who He is, teaching of His life and ministry on this earth. It may not have been the person who baptized us, but it could have been.

For some of us, this fatherhood (or motherhood!) could have been functioning when we turned away from unbelief to faith in Jesus Christ. This is the classic sense of conversion, where someone goes from being an unbaptized non-Christian to a Christian, living life now in the Body of Christ, the Church. Jesus is met in a palpable way, introduced through that father or mother in the Gospel. And life is never the same.

For others, this Gospel parenthood was present when we turned from heterodoxy to Orthodoxy. Raised with or living in only part of the Christian truth, there was someone who was there to bring us to the fullness of Christian faith in the Orthodox Church, to tell us the rest of the story, gently to correct whatever needed to be corrected.

And for others, this Gospel parenthood was present and active at some point in life when we made the choice to go from inactive or nominal in faith to the point where it became real and truly became our own. This can happen with those who were raised in the faith and have an awakening to it, but it can also happen in other contexts, as well. That person became a catalyst for making the change from just sort of going along and identifying as Christian to the point where Christianity really becomes our life project, where Jesus is always in front of our eyes.

Now Paul does not say to the Corinthians that he is the only person who could possibly be a father to them. Note he says “you do not have many fathers,” not “I am your only father.” So these people are rare but not necessarily unique. There could be more than one.

Whoever it might be or however many there might be, if we have been truly introduced to Jesus Christ, whether for the first time or more fully, there is someone who was there for us and became a father or mother in the Gospel in a real way. And we thank God for them. And we thank them.

We should not be merely grateful for these people or to these people, however. They are given to us precisely so that we can imitate them. We voluntarily submit ourselves to their example and even to their word when appropriate. In the latter case, I am thinking here especially of a father-confessor or someone who is given active charge of us, like a teacher or even our natural parents, especially when we are young. Submitting ourselves to their word means voluntarily taking on obedience to that person.

Paul never coerces his spiritual children. But he certainly gives them words that he expects to be obeyed—and even correction when needed. And it makes sense that this relationship of obedience should be there, because he is their father. It is not a relationship of domination or force, but of love and mutuality.

In just a few chapters after our passage from I Corinthians read this morning, Paul again tells the Corinthians to imitate him (I Cor. 1:11). And he adds “as I imitate Christ.” So when we think of our fathers and mothers in the Gospel, we should not think that we have to imitate them in every thing, especially if they sin. We do not imitate their sins. But we do imitate them as they imitate Christ. They are given to us by Jesus Christ precisely for this purpose, so that we can see Him more clearly in their example and in their words.

If you are stuck in your spiritual life, think of that person or those people who became your father or mother in the Gospel by connecting or reconnecting you with Jesus. Consider their way of life. Learn from them how they live. Listen to their words. And them imitate them as they imitate Christ.

We often find ourselves feeling lost and confused when it comes to making real, lasting changes that will open us up to grace and be for our salvation. But God has not abandoned us in our confusion. He has given us fathers and mothers in the Gospel. He sent them to us in just the right moment to open our eyes, to bring us His love, to instruct us with good words.

So what is left to us to do? We imitate them. We obey them. We love them and learn from them. As Paul says, we may have a lot of teachers in Christ, but we do not have many fathers. Think about who that person is for you. Find those fathers. Find those mothers. And then let’s do what they do. It’s not easy, but it is simple. We just have to do it.

To God the Father from whom all fatherhood flows (Eph. 3:15), with His Son Jesus Christ and the life-giving Spirit, be all glory, honor and power, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.