Imitating Christ: Preaching Thomas a Kempis

Editor's Note: Below is a "Monday Sermon," from our series of sermons at the Patheos Preachers Channel that pastors can enjoy and learn from. It is our hope that this particular series from Daniel Harrell, which preaches through the Church Fathers, will encourage pastors, show them a way of approaching theological education from the pulpit, and refresh their theological memories. See Reverend Harrell's columnist page for more information.

I first read The Imitation of Christ in college, and was captured by its call to a simple but intense instruction on loving God. It didn't do much for my grades. As Thomas à Kempis wrote, "Shun too great a desire for knowledge, for in it there is much fretting and delusion. Intellectuals like to appear learned and to be called wise." Not being much of a mystic myself, I initially found much of this writing unnerving. But as I allowed myself to be drawn in, I gained some crucial perspective by which to live the Christian life. "The more you know and the better you understand, the more severely will you be judged, unless your life is also the more holy. Do not be proud, therefore, because of your learning or skill. Rather, fear because of the talent given you. If you think you know many things and understand them well enough, realize at the same time that there is much you do not know. Hence, do not affect wisdom, but admit your ignorance. Why prefer yourself to anyone else when many are more learned, more cultured than you?"

Not only am I not much of a mystic, but I struggle with prayer too. Thomas' own prayers have at times become my own: "My Lord Jesus I beseech you, do not be far from me, but come quickly and help me, for vain thoughts have risen in my heart and worldly fears have troubled me sorely. How shall I break them down? How shall I go unhurt without your help? 'I shall go before you,' says our Lord; 'I shall drive away the pride of your heart; then I shall set open to you the gates of spiritual knowledge and show you the privacy of my heart.' O Lord, do as you say, and then all wicked imaginings shall flee from me. Truly, this is my hope and my only comfort—to fly to you in every trouble, to trust steadfastly in you, to call inwardly upon you, and to abide patiently your coming and your heavenly consolations."

Thomas was born in the German town of Kempen, from whence he gets his name. He attended a school in Holland led by members of the monastic order, Brothers of the Common Life. Greatly impressed by their personal devotion to prayer, their simplicity, and their deep relationship with God, Thomas decided to devote his own life to their ideals. He entered their Dutch monastery when he was 19 and spent the rest of his long life within its walls. The Brothers tried to get Thomas to engage in the practical affairs and ministries of monastic life, but it quickly became clear that his passion was for meditation and prayer. So they left him to it. Though The Imitation of Christ is by far his most popular work, he wrote a number of sermons, letters, and hymns, each reflecting the mystical spirituality of his times, the sense of being absorbed by God. "There are many who hear the Gospel often but care little for it because they have not the spirit of Christ," Thomas wrote. "Yet whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ."

Whether the title of his book derives from the 1 Corinthians 11 is unknown, but verse 1 inescapably comes to mind. The apostle Paul writes, "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." It's a sentence few Christians would dare utter since the last thing we want anybody to do is model their spiritual lives after ours. It's one thing to imitate Christ, quite another to imitate Christians. Author Anne Rice made headlines a few years back by announcing that she had become a Christian; and then made headlines some time later when she announced she had changed her mind. She rejected "Christianity" in favor of "Christ" as if the Body of Christ on earth were somehow separable from Jesus himself.

This is where à Kempis can help. He writes, "Do not think yourself better than others lest, perhaps, you be accounted worse before God Who knows what is inside people. Do not take pride in your good deeds, for God's judgments differ from human judgment and what pleases people often displeases Him. If there is good in you, see more good in others, so that you may remain humble. It does no harm to esteem yourself less than anyone else, but it is very harmful to think yourself better than even one person. The humble live in continuous peace, while in the hearts of the proud are envy and frequent anger."

To imitate Jesus you have to love Jesus enough to want to do it. And this is hard. The life that Christ calls Christians to live is not the kind of life we want to live. We want a life free from hardship and death, not a life characterized by hardship and death. But Jesus was clear that to follow him meant taking up crosses. "Jesus has always had many who love His heavenly kingdom, but few who bear His cross," Thomas wrote. "All desire to be happy with Him; few wish to suffer anything for Him. Many love Him as long as they encounter no hardship; many praise and bless Him as long as they receive some comfort from Him. . . . Those, on the contrary, who love Jesus for His own sake and not for any comfort of their own, bless Him in all trial and anguish of heart as well as in the bliss of consolation. Even if He should never give them consolation, yet they would continue to praise Him and wish always to give Him thanks. What power there is in pure love for Jesus—love that is free from all self-interest and self-love!"

12/2/2022 9:06:00 PM
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    About Daniel Harrell
    Daniel M. Harrell is Senior Minister of The Colonial Church, Edina, MN and author of How To Be Perfect: One Church's Audacious Experiment in Living the Old Testament Book of Leviticus (FaithWords, 2011). Follow him via Twitter, Facebook, or at his blog and website.