Beloved, do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God. (3 John 11)
I’m not sure that imitate is an especially inspiring verb in this culture. It suggests a lack of originality and creativity. In evangelical Christianity, it may suggest rote religious performance, inauthenticity. But at multiple points in the New Testament, epistle writers exhort their correspondents to imitation. Paul and his co-workers give the Thessalonian Christians “an example to imitate” (2 Thess 3:9). The readers of Hebrews are not only to remember their leaders, but “imitate their faith” (Heb 13:7). And the “Elder” writing the third and shortest of the Johannine letters tells Gaius to “imitate what is good” (v 11).
In the Middle Ages, that inspired attempts to imitate none other than Jesus himself. The first Franciscans were called to “follow in the teaching and the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ,” living in imitation of his own obedience, chastity, simplicity, and poverty. “The imitation of Christ,” writes Mark Galli in his short introduction to St. Francis, “was the highest aspiration of humankind.” As I told my students this afternoon, Francis imitated Jesus so faithfully that medievals believed he was given the stigmata, the very wounds of Christ, as a sign of his Christlikeness.
I also told students that it felt silly for a thoroughly middle-class, mortgage-holding modern like me to suggest they mimic the Christ-imitation of a monastic who refused even to touch money. Perhaps I should have instead read them the most enduringly popular devotional of the Late Middle Ages. Thomas à Kempis began The Imitation of Christ:
“He who follows Me, walks not in darkness,” says the Lord (John 8:12). By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ.
Looking through the beginning of a book I was given at my own high school graduation, I was struck that Thomas anticipated the Pietists’ emphasis on Jesus-followers living out their faith, not just believing it:
What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it. For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God?
Likewise, theologian Kerry Dearborn, the Renovaré commentator on the letters of John, emphasizes that their author has “no greater joy than this, to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (v 4), but does not identify truth “as a set of principles of propositions, as in knowledge we possess that will fade away. Rather, truth is identified with the eternal Father and Son and is thus a powerful shaping force that takes hold of us through the Spirit.”
So how should we, as “co-workers with the truth” (v 8), imitate the Son, in the power of the Spirit? First, by practicing hospitality. The author praises Gaius for doing “faithfully whatever you do for the friends, even though they are strangers to you” (v 5). What is that if not imitation of Christ welcoming strangers?
By contrast, a man named Diotrephes “refuses to welcome the friends” (v 10), the missionaries traveling the routes linking the earliest churches. But he not only fails to imitate the hospitality of Jesus, but the humility of Jesus. A man who “likes to put himself first” (v 9) is not imitating a King in whose kingdom the first are last and the last first, a Messiah who took the form of a slave and humbled himself to the point of crucifixion.
Knowing that I’m less like Gaius and more like Diotrephes than I’d like to admit, let me close with a prayer of St. Francis — who also imitated Christ in praying to his Father for guidance:
Most High, glorious God,
enlighten the darkness of my heart
and give me
and perfect charity,
sense and knowledge,
Lord, that I may carry out
Your holy and true command.