Getting Packed: The Image of Christ
My father’s uncle, Burl, was an avid hunter and fisherman. He spent most of his free time either chasing animals through woods or chasing fish through the water. As a little kid, I heard stories of how he and his best friend, who was my grandfather on the other side of the family, had spent their childhood roaming the hills, woods, lakes, and rivers or Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama. There were stories of big fish, big game, and big exaggerations – embellishments if you will – but then, those come with the territory. But stories are more fun when you live them yourself and this one has no embellishments or exaggerations, just the story as it happened.
And I have witnesses.
I got into fishing when I was around eleven or twelve years old. We had family and neighbors that talked about it enough and eventually, I decided to try my hand at it. I bought a Zebco 202 and attached it to a cheap rod and started buying what tackle my meager grass cutting could afford. I’m not sure how it came about, probably Uncle Burl heard me say something, and he asked if we wanted to go fishing at Weiss Lake, just over the Alabama line. So, we decided the next time we came to Rome, where most of my parent’s family live, we would go.
We got up at what I thought was the middle of the night, grabbed some biscuits that I think my Aunt Louise may have made, and piled into the pickup truck: Uncle Burl, my dad, my cousin Don, and me. We drove from Rome west, down Alabama Highway and watched the sun just begin to light the water when we got to the lake. Burl took us to the roadbed, a place where the old road used to go but was covered by water when Weiss Dam was built by Alabama Power. We took our weapons of choice – rooster tails – and made our way down to the water, wading out up to our knees.
We were fishing for hybrid bass, smallish fish that put up a fun fight and were big enough to make a decent filet. As I watched the sun come after casting for a few minutes, I began to wonder if I was in the right spot or throwing out my lure the right way. I watched my dad and his uncle, both throwing the lure out across the old roadbed, holding the rod tip down close to the water and reeling it in fast as they could to make the blade on the lure spin like crazy.
I noticed a few bugs skimming the water and was beginning to think this might be a long boring morning when it started. A first, it was just a ripple along the surface, then a few fins, then, it was an out and run. When fish get into a smaller group of fish or some other food source, they go after it with ravenous madness, piling over one another to get at the food. I don’t know exactly what was on or under the water, but I know the hybrids liked it – and our rooster tails.
When the run hit, it seemed like every cast got a fish. As fast as you could get a lure in the water and reel the fish in you could get another one. We were filling up baskets so fast we could barely keep up. Uncle Burl, having experienced this before, was steady and smooth, bringing them in faster than any of us. He ran out of room in his basket and yelled for Don to bring him another one. Don had a fish in his hand and was trying to get it in a basket. Not one to give up a good thing, Burl held onto the fish and cast into the water, getting another strike when the lure hit. He shoved the fish into his overall pocket and started reeling in the second one, yelling for Don who was still trying to get the basket. Dad or I might have helped but we were busy with our own fish. Burl got the fish in and threw the line back out once more while holding the new fish in his hand and got yet another strike. At that point, he had one fish in his pocket, one in his hand, and one on the line.
As fast it started, it was over. The fish had gotten their morning breakfast and they were off to deeper water, getting out of the harsh, summer sun. But not before I caught more fish than I had ever or would ever catch at one time again. I just watched my dad and Uncle Burl for the how, and the fish found their way into the basket.
A Hymn of Imitation
Imitation, like my mimicking the way my dad and Uncle Burl were fishing, is something that everyone does. Almost all our early stage learning comes from imitating those around us in our earliest years. We learn what is good, what is bad, what is safe, what is funny, what is sad, and most everything else in our first years by doing and responding in the way those around us do and respond. Even as we get older and begin to learn other life skills or professional skills, we learn, most of us, by seeing what someone else did and doing it.
The same is true of the church. Most of what we learn about God and the worship of God comes from those we go to church with whether we choose the church or find ourselves born into it. Sometimes that’s good, when you have people with a healthy sense of theology and faith experience, and sometimes it can be downright scary. Many of the things I learned from the first church I attended as a teenager, I found myself unlearning through the years since they were unhealthy ways of being a follower of Jesus, harmful to me and to others. In their place, I have learned and imitated others, whose sense of Christlike-ness is simply more Christlike.
Part of the text we read today is believed to be an early hymn or psalm of the church, something that would have been used in a worship setting. If you like, you can imagine the words from verse six to verse eleven as being sung or chanted by the earliest followers of Jesus, a way for Paul to make his point about having the mind of Christ, which, I think, is another way of saying, being in Christ. Paul begins by giving the Philippians a spiritual checkup:
- Do they have encouragement from belonging to Jesus?
- Do they have comfort from Jesus love?
- Do they fellowship together in the Spirit?
- Are their hearts tender and compassionate?
If the answer is yes, Paul wants them to make him truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose. They don’t need to be selfish and they should not try to impress others. They need to be humble and think of others as better than yourselves, taking an interest in the needs of others and not just themselves. Knowing what he knows about the people he is writing to, Paul; decides to use a popular hymn of the time to make the point. In the passage, and in the hymn, we get one central thing from Paul that he defines as being thing of Jesus to imitate: humility.
Why humility? Because true humility, truly giving up your self to God for God to mold it, is the greatest act of imitation that we can engage in. As we become humble, like the clay before the potter we talked about last week, we become imitators of Jesus by being pliable to the will of God. Robert Mulholland talks about humility in relation to our ideas about taking up our cross and he writes,
Our cross is not that cantankerous old person we have to deal with day by day. Our cross is not the employer we just can’t get along with. Our cross is not that neighbor or work colleague who cuts across the grain in every single time of relationship. Nor is our cross the difficulties and infirmities that the flow of life brings to us beyond our control. Our cross is the point of our unlikeness to the image of Christ, where we must die to self in order to be raised by God into wholeness of life in the image of Christ…
Imitation has been called the sincerest form of flattery. By our reckoning this morning, the greatest person to imitate – truly seek to become like in thought and deed – is Jesus, who became humble before God, pliable to the will and work of the Spirit. Let us ask ourselves this simple question: would Jesus have done the things I did this week? If not, and I imagine we can all say not, we have work to do in submitting to the Spirit of God to make us Christlike. Let us seek now to be humble and pliable before God.
Malina, B. J., & Pilch, J. J. (2006). Social Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Mullholland, M. R. (2016). Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation. Downers Grove, Il: IVP Books.
 (Malina & Pilch, 2006, p. 305)
 (Mullholland, 2016, p. 46)