Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Staggering Possibilities of Imitating Jesus

God has a greater vision for what is possible in our lives than we do. Many of us would be thrilled to attain promise Jesus offered: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Matthew 11: 28 – 30) It’s true: there is a practical, day-to-day, moment-by-moment harmony capable of generating the rest and peace he promises. I suspect that for most of us, this would be enough. But what if this wonderful invitation represented the starting point of our life in Christ? What if Jesus has something more in mind for us?

Beyond rest and peace are the staggering possibilities of living a life imitating Jesus in word, thought, attitude and deed. I believe Jesus invites us to learn from him because he intends to reproduce himself in us. He does not invite us to learn about him; he presents to each of the incredible offer to become conformed to his image.

In Jesus, God came to earth to accomplish something greater than the forgiveness of sin. Jesus also came to earth in order demonstrate the possibilities of a life lived in harmony with the Father. Jesus was fully God and fully man; to understand his humanity is to encounter the hope that Christlikeness is possible in this life. In his earthly ministry Jesus used everyday situations to shape his disciples: paying taxes, feeding the hungry, fishing, encountering a fever at home, settling disputes between people filled with pride and competition. Jesus knew that commonplace situations contained eternal possibilities: a drink of water could change a town, coins could become cities, and palm leaves could threaten an empire. Moreover, Jesus expected to leave behind a group of followers who were capable of continuing his work in every respect. His solutions transformed the most unlikely cast of characters into world-changers who operated with his priorities, lived out his example, and operated with the same authority and power as their Master.

Perhaps for some this vision is too large. If we are overwhelmed by the call to imitate the Lord Himself, then perhaps we could find a more accessible role model? We might be tempted to choose another mentor: a pastor, a friend, a celebrity, or an “older brother.” For those tempted in this direction the letter of James has a remarkable suggestion: consider Elijah. “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.” (James 5: 16b – 18) Who is greater, Jesus, or Elijah? Of course, we know the answer. Shouldn’t Elijah’s life of faith and practice be more attainable than that of Jesus?

“Elijah was a man just like us.” How many of us believe that? Elijah’s life story involves a supernatural prayer life capable of changing weather patterns. Elijah was a man like us? We can immediately see that in some ways this is true: he was subject to uncertainty, perhaps even bouts with depression. These similarities resonate with us, but Elijah also miraculously multiplied food, called down fire from heaven, and raised the dead. If James seriously attempted to lower the bar of discipleship by suggesting a mere human as a mentor, in our day we are still left standing and staring at the height of the bar. Elijah’s life certainly has the authority of scripture, but how are we to understand, interpret or adapt his life to our experience? What would be the response of our family or friends if we maintained that we were just like Elijah? Yet we know we are called to follow Jesus, not Elijah.

The difficulty in asking the question, “what would Jesus do” comes not in imagining a possible answer—most of us can figure out what Jesus would do. The difficulty lies in seeing ourselves as capable of imitating his actions. Over the years I have taught several introductory-level classes in New Testament at a nearby university. When we finish reading the gospels I always ask my students if they think Jesus is a worthy role model. In every class nearly every hand goes up in the affirmative. Then I ask my follow-up question: “How many of you think it’s possible to live up to his example?” Not a single hand goes up. No one moves. Who in their right mind would claim they could measure up to Jesus? It is one thing to esteem Jesus as a holy man, or even recognize his claim to be God-come-to-earth, but who would take on the responsibility to be like him? We affirm him as a role model and simultaneously deny any real possibility of becoming like him.

We must choose whether becoming like Jesus is possible in this life, or even desirable. If we decide that becoming like Jesus is not possible, could it be that we are avoiding facing the more difficult question of whether it is desirable?

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