Thirty-eight thousand, four hundred pounds. What could you buy with that amount of money? You could buy a very nice car. You could buy 102,000 pints of milk. Or you could buy a pair of football boots, which is exactly what somebody did this week. What was it about these boots that made them so valuable to somebody? Are they made of some exotic material? No. Do they guarantee the wearer superhuman footballing skills? No. Are they made to a special, futuristic design? No. Somebody paid thirty-eight thousand, four hundred pounds for a pair of football boots because they were said to have been worn by Sir Stanley Matthews in the 1953 FA Cup Final, in which he inspired Blackpool’s victory over Bolton.
You don’t need me to tell you that Sir Stan is a hero around here and around the country. We still encourage young players to look up to him, to aspire to his example. His hard work coupled with sublime skill. His discipline and self control, so great that he was never booked. The way in which he looked after his body so that it could keep playing far beyond those of his contemporaries. All of these are praiseworthy and worthy of emulation.
I wonder who your heroes are? Who do you look up to, whose example do you want to follow. It might be a parent, or another member of the family. It might be a work colleague, or a friend from school, maybe even a teacher. Or is it someone famous, a celebrity, a singer or actor? Who do you want to be like? Have you deliberately chosen your role models or do they affect you without you noticing it?
I wonder who looks to you for an example? Who watches what you do and copies it? Who notices what you’re saying or doing, and follows along after. Who notices your attitude to other people and takes up those attitudes? As I was sitting in a cafe in Hanley thinking about what I would say this morning, an advert came on the radio looking for people who would act as positive role models to children in our local schools. It struck me that we are all role models in some way, we don’t have a choice about that, what we have a choice about is what kind of role model we are.
This reality is recognised by Paul in his letter to the Christians in and around Philippi. Paul knew that people are wired so that they are affected by the people around them.
So he suggests that it is important to make an active decision about whose example we are going to follow. He gives us a portrait of two groups of people. One group whose example is going to cause us to desert Jesus, and another group whose example will cause us to fight loyally for Jesus.
He describes these two groups as citizens of two different realms. I don’t know if you’ve been watching the Winter Olympics, but that is a situation where the place that you call home really matters. It decides what team you compete for, and it tells you which team to cheer for. At Twickenham yesterday there was little room for the neutral. You were either Irish or English, and you knew which. So it is with the two groups that Paul describes, you are either see earth as your home, or you see heaven as your home.
The first group are those who are at home on earth, and are entirely caught up with earthly things. They are the enemies of the cross of Christ. Now the cross is the place at which our sins are forgiven, our relationship with God is restored and we are given new life. The enemies of the cross are those that deny the reality of sin, who turn their backs on God and want to deprive people of the new life that God offers to everybody. This group are those who are more concerned with their stomachs, the things that they want to consume. They are ruled by their desires and are fixed on achieving all that they can for themselves. Their sense of right and wrong is so badly out of kilter that they are proud of the things that they ought to be ashamed of, they boast about the amount of damage they cause, the pain that they inflict, and the amount that they steal.
When I put it like that, it seems unthinkable that any follower of Jesus would be tricked into following their example. But it happens, because we are not always good at seeing it as clearly as this. We might know that it is ridiculous to claim that we have never sinned, but yet fail to be honest with ourselves about the sinfulness of an unkind word or bitter thought. We might know that we are to be wise with the good things that God has given us, but still be enchanted by the bright lights of the advertising campaigns whose siren call is to buy more stuff. The uncritical praise of the voices of the world can drown out the voice of peace that calls us to a more excellent way.
The second group, in contrast, are those who know themselves to be citizens of heaven and live like it. At first glance it seems like Paul is setting himself up as the example for Christians to follow, and that might seem a bit arrogant to us. Surely Jesus should be the example that we aim to follow, Jesus should be our role model. Shouldn’t he?
Well, yes in some ways that is the case. But there is a problem, Jesus can’t be our example for following Jesus. Jesus cannot show us how to live out a life faithful to him, here on earth, whilst he is with His Father in heaven. He has sent the Holy Spirit to be with us, to guide us and give us the power to do it, but Jesus cannot be our example. So, Paul says we have to look to other Christians for this.
In the verses leading up to this, Paul makes something very clear, he knows that he is not the finished article. He writes:
“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
When he calls others to follow his example, he is not claiming that every word and action of his is good or worth copying. He is only too aware of his own sinfulness and weakness for that. What he is doing is calling us to follow his example in pressing on towards greater holiness, more faithfulness, deeper love, always getting closer to Jesus. Those in this group regard heaven as their home, the place where they belong. They know that they are not there yet, but they also know that Jesus has given them the right to live there and they are absolutely focussed on living lives that reflect well on their motherland.
So, Paul presents us with these two groups. The citizens of earth and the citizens of heaven. He then offers us a choice. Whose example are we going to follow, and whose example are we going to avoid? Those are general questions, but also very specific ones. It’s all very well us saying that we want to follow the example of those heading for heaven, but it’s no use unless we can actually identify some real people, and do something to observe their example and follow it. Who do you know that has a depth of relationship with Jesus that you want to experience? Who do you know that has more experience in an area of Christian life that you want to explore? Who might have already battled and won against temptations that you are facing now? Will you read the life stories of those who have gone before?
In the same way, it’s all very well saying that we want to be clear of the influence of those trapped on earth, but it’s no use unless we actually know who they are in our lives. What television or radio programmes leave you feeling jaded or cynical? Which magazines encourage you to want more stuff? Who is it that leaves you feeling slightly grubby when you’ve spent time with them?
That last question might lead us into some difficult decisions. If we are to be examples to others, as I believe God calls us to be, then it may be that we are sent to spend time with those who might be a dangerous influence on us. At those times, it is important that we are fully aware of the risks and are careful to pray and ask others to pray for us as we spend time with them. It is in this that we support each other in our ministry. It’s a bit like the Olympics. Our country decides the team we compete for, and it also decides the team that we support and cheer for.
As we head through Lent, towards Easter, so we are heading through our lives towards our final destination. Who we travel with, and whose lead we follow will have a massive effect on what that destination is. If we are aiming to end up in heaven, then we need to travel in that direction, with others who are heading there, and encouraging others to travel that way as well. If we travel unthinkingly with those who are headed for destruction then we run the risk of being destroyed.
But, our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.