Imitating Jesus

I recently had the delightful experience of reading a book that beautifully captured a number of my deeply held beliefs about the nature of my commitment to the Christian faith. Especially gratifying was the fact that the author, Gerald L. Sittser, and I served together as members of the administration at Northwestern College in Iowa in the 1980s and became good friends (so, he will always be “Jerry”).

In his splendid book Resilient Faith, Jerry makes it abundantly clear that the calling of each Christian is to “imitate” Jesus, who “changed everything” (p. 106). Consider his various descriptors:

  •  Jesus is the “center of reality” (p. 174)
  •  Jesus was at the “heart of the Christian way of life” (p. 174).
  • “All holiness” derived from Jesus (p. 124).
  • The early Christians had a “new identity in Christ” (p. 105)
  • “Conversion to Christ implied conformity to Christ” (p. 177)

This focus on “imitating Jesus” is consistent with the teaching in Romans 8:29 that all Christians should aspire to be “conformed to the image of God’s son [Jesus Christ].”

Jerry elaborates on seven robust themes that seriously call into question some prevalent current views among many Christians about what it means to imitate Jesus.

“Winning by Losing”

He came not to coerce, but to serve, not to intimidate, but to woo, not to win but to lose (or to win by losing) (p. 33).

From a human perspective, Jesus did not die as a “winner”; hanging on a cross between two criminals, mocked by onlookers as one who “cannot save himself” (Matthew 27:42).

To “win,” as most cultures view it, is to dominate, to be noticed, to be powerful, or rich. To lose then is to be without power or riches. Jesus turns this around. For his followers, to win is to be the least by serving others; to lose is to be the most by self -aggrandizement. Jesus calls us to repent of self-serving to others-serving.

Although Jesus died as a “loser” from a human perspective, from the early Christian church through this day, those who aspire to follow him by imitation have exerted an immeasurable “winning” redemptive influence on earth.

The Power of Love

Christian nationalists of our time are consumed with a desire to exert power. Based on an erroneous belief that America was ordained by God to be a “Christian nation,” they seek to impose their understanding of Christian values on all American citizens; ignoring the clear meaning of the clause of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution that allows for diversity in religious commitment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Therefore, followers of Jesus do not embrace the “power of coercion.” Rather, they are committed to giving everyday expression to the “power of love,” with the primary teaching of Jesus that expresses that power to be found in the Sermon on the Mount.

Imitators of Jesus Live Out the Sermon on the Mount

The radical nature of what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount cannot be overstated. It provides what Jerry calls the “template” for Christian living (p. 131).

Especially counter-cultural in our tribalistic “us-versus-them” culture is the teaching of Jesus regarding how those who aspire to imitate him should treat those who consider themselves to be their enemies: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5: 43-44).

During the past 12+ years, my focus on trying to love those who erroneously consider themselves to be my enemies has been on modeling on my website loving and respectful conversations among Christians who have strong disagreements. This focus is motivated by my belief that it is a deep expression of love to provide a safe and welcoming space for those who disagree with you to express their contrary beliefs about a contentious issue and their reasons for holding to their beliefs (since we all believe that we have good reasons for what we believe). I have come to realize that listening is the beginning of love.

Imitators of Jesus are “Agents of the Kingdom”

Jesus did not call his followers to be “other-worldly.” Rather, imitators of Jesus are called to be “agents of the kingdom, influencing it from within both as individuals and as a community” (p. 174).

In Jerry’s words, “Jesus’ kingdom had everything to do with this world. His kingdom embodied a larger vision of reality, the reality of God’s just and merciful rule over all of life. It transcended this world, to be sure; but it also promised to transform this world.” As Jerry asserts, “They [early Christians] prayed, ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,’ believing that God would answer that prayer, at least in part, through the kind of people they were becoming in worship” (p. 133).

In my own words, imitators of Jesus aspire to “partner with God” by contributing to the realization of God’s broad redemptive purposes for all of Creation.

Imitators of Jesus Care for the Most Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Members of Society

As Jerry reminds us, Christians in the early church “organized for action to meet practical need; they served the most vulnerable and despised in society” (p. 176), such as tax collectors and prostitutes.

This important reminder is consistent with the meddlesome teachings of Jesus recorded in Matthew 25 as to who will “inherit the kingdom.” It will be those imitators of Jesus who gave food to the hungry, who gave something to drink to the thirsty, who welcomed the stranger, who gave clothing to the naked, who took care of the sick, and who visited those in prison. As Jerry concludes, early followers of Jesus lived differently in the world…. [they] were known as the people who cared for the ‘least of these’.”

Imitators of Jesus Improvise

Jerry observes that “Early Christians, living as cultural outsiders, learned how to be improvisational disciples among a Greco-Roman people who did not understand, nor always welcome, the new religion of Christianity. Christians never knew, from one day to the next what circumstances they would face, what challenges awaited them” (p. 119).

I especially resonate with this observation because of the dynamic view of everyday Christian living that I embrace (see my earlier Musing titled “A Dynamic View of Following Jesus”): It is in the very process of faithfully imitating Jesus that I gain greater insight into how I should continue to imitate Jesus.

Jesus is the “Fulfillment of the Old Testament Story”?

Jesus clearly taught that he came to earth to “fulfill” the Old Testament law and the prophets: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5: 17). Based on that teaching, Jerry observes that “Early apologetics works demonstrate how important the Old Testament story was, with Jesus serving as its fulfillment” (p. 164).

There is surely an important element of truth in this assertion about Jesus fulfilling the “law and the prophets.” But there is also a rather common erroneous interpretation that is destructive of Christian values.

On the positive side, in the Hebrew Bible, the Christian’s Old Testament, the prophets make numerous references to God’s intention that the Israelites be agents for the realization of God’s redemptive purposes on earth. The grandest reference is the covenant promise to Abraham that Israel is a people chosen by God to bring God’s blessing of shalom to “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3). This is elaborated upon in teachings from the Old Testament prophets, such as the following:

  •  Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh” (Isaiah 58: 6-7).
  • And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

The above words from the prophet Isaiah are a precursor to the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 25 that followers of Jesus should minister to the needs of that poor, disadvantaged and marginalized in society; those Jesus called the “least of these” (vs. 45). Christians who practice such teachings are surely imitating Jesus.

But there is a pernicious mis-interpretation of some Old Testament passages that I believe starkly contradict what Jesus taught and the way he lived.

This mis-interpretation came home to me in an Adult Sunday School class I attended a few years ago when the co-teachers asserted that God intended for the Israelites to kill all the men, women and children in the land of Canaan, as recorded in Joshua 6.

I wanted to shout out “No! No! A thousand times No!” Believing in the inerrancy of Scripture, by which I mean that the Bible is true “in all that it affirms” (which doesn’t by-pass the challenging hermeneutical question as to what it is that a given biblical passage affirms), I believe that the author of the Book of Joshua believed that the Israelites had received such a command from God. But he was wrong. Why? Because, as is clear from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus would never approve of such a violent action.

Unfortunately, this mis-interpretation has found a home in the minds of many contemporary Christians; particularly to those who have succumbed to the allure of power (other than the “power of love”), such as the Christian nationalists. The tell-tale sign is their gross mistake of interpreting Joshua 6 as providing a green light to advocate for and practice violence. Their theological mistake is to believe that what they perceive as a “good end” justifies an “evil means”. The contrary teaching in Romans 12: 21 is that the only way to “overcome evil” is “with good.”

All of the above narrative reinforces my aspiration to follow Jesus by imitating the way he lived.

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