Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Imitating Christ

The second of my Lent homilies, to be given tomorrow . . .

“A disciple is not greater than his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).

There is both warning and promise in these words.  Someone once asked, “What is the difference between God and the Vicar of Buslingthorpe?” And the answer was, “God doesn’t think he’s the Vicar of Buslingthorpe!”  The warning is not to get above ourselves. However well we learn, by the end of our lives we’re still learners, still disciples, still with more to discern and discover. The mark of the disciple of Christ should always be humility.

But our challenge is to grow to be like our teacher. "My child, to the degree that you can leave yourself behind, to that degree will you be able to enter into me," says our Lord as expressed in the devotional classic “The Imitation of Christ”, written by Thomas a Kempis in the early 15th century and never out of print since. The imitation of Christ is our highest calling, and Thomas a Kempis wrote his book as a devotional guide for those who, within community, were seeking (to borrow words from St Paul) to grow into the full stature of Christ.

To be forgetful of self is very rightly the first step in this. An important corrective note, though. That doesn’t mean to treat yourself badly, or to hold yourself as of no account. If anything, deciding to follow Christ is a journey of discovery of ourselves as valuable and lovely and loved. If I am to love all of God’s creation, then I must love myself too: but as Christ loves me, and with a critical love that shares his vision of the things that need changing, correcting, improving.

Nor is it necessarily a matter of being ascetic and solemn and not enjoying the world. We are, after all, following a man who it seems enjoyed a good party. We are allowed, no, we are instructed, I think, to love the world God has made and given into our care, to delight in it, and to enjoy it.

So the journey of the disciple should be a happy journey. The same Greek word that translates as blessed (makarios) can also translate as happy. Not a facile, surface happiness, but a deep joy that sustains us in hard times as well as when the road is smooth and easy.

To imitate, to grow like someone, you must also study them. The Gospels are our guide, and the other writings of the New Testament, as we seek to know Jesus better, and to know what it really is that he means and asks of us when he says, “Follow me.” When we read thoroughly rather than selectively and focusing on the nice bits, we will find some difficult and challenging things. So it’s good to have help as we study. That’s one reason why Bible study groups can take you so much further than just looking at the scripture on your own. But we can also be helped by Thomas a Kempis and his more modern equivalents: people who set out to guide and help the Christian pilgrim, and also the stories of people we think of as saints, or honour for their piety.

Imitation on stage or screen comes in two forms, I think. One is the imitation of the impressionist, like Rory Bremner or John Culshaw or Tracy Ullman. These can be very good, and they take a lot of work, but it’s surface stuff, looking and sounding like the person but not serious, maybe raising a laugh by getting the person to do or say something they never would in real life. The second is the serious actor playing a part, and maybe seeming to really become that person as they do so. Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, maybe. I think it was Colin Firth who said of a part he played something like, “You can only really do it if you take that person to heart.” Discipleship is more than acting, even acting at that level, but the same thing applies: “You can only really do it if you take that person to heart.”

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