This past Sunday we dipped back into the suggestion jar. Two very similar requests came in, which likely means I really had to do this one. But basically the request was how do we actually take the teachings of Jesus and apply them? How do we live according to the teaching of Jesus in “real life”? How do we do our jobs, parenting, balancing our chequebooks, etc as Christians?
Yeah, covering that in one sermon is a bit much… but, but here’s some thoughts.
Paul, when writing to the Ephesians tells them “be imitators of God.” We’re going to get into that more in depth during August, when we’re at Knox- what does imitating specific attributes of God look like. What it means to be like God is not something we can cover in a single sermon. But this morning will be something of an introduction. And next week we’ll dig a little more into how we together can live like Jesus as a community. But this morning we’re going to look mainly at the individual level. How can each one of us apply who Jesus is and what Jesus teaches to my life. How can I imitate God every day in St. Thomas in the 21st century?
So how do we imitate God and live according God’s call? How do we live and love like Jesus? How do we learn to be compassionate and forgiving and holy and upright? Now I have to admit right from the get go that this may not answer the question very well, because often when we look at Jesus we don’t see specifics that will answer every possible situation. How I ought to respond to a specific situation is going to be something that needs some wrestling with. There aren’t easy answers when it comes specific situations. But what we’re looking at today will be some general stuff about how to get more christlikeness into your daily life.
So, we’ll work with three things:
1. Read the Gospels more
Paul, in telling the Ephesians to imitate God says “walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself for us”. So what does that look like in practical terms. How do we walk in love like Jesus did? Well, I think the best place to start to take a step back and look at Jesus. Spend time looking into what sorts of things he did and said. When asking “what would Jesus do?” it’s probably a good idea to also ask “what did Jesus do?” What did his life look like? How did he respond the demands of real life? When calling disciples, Jesus didn’t just had out instructions, Marks tells us he called people “to be with him” (Mk. 3:14). You see, in Rabbinical tradition, the disciple learns not just ideas and facts, but learns to mimic the master. Being a disciple of Jesus is about hearing his words and seeing his life, and doing the same; living as he does.
Protestant theology historically speaking has created a bit of a weakness which it is finally showing signs of correcting. Luther and Calvin and the other 16th and 17th century Reformers were largely inspired by their readings of Paul- especially Romans and Galatians (Luther referred to Galatians as his Catherine Von Bora, his wife). If you look at classic reformation theology Romans often lies as the centre piece (and in some cases even more specifically Romans 8). And somehow, in the shuffle of rejecting the Medieval sacramental theology (which had its own weakness and strengths), many protestant movements got stuck in Paul’s letters focusing on his doctrinal stuff- and specifically the doctrine of salvation. They assumed we gotta get this doctrine right. And so, for a lot of theologians, the gospels became somewhat secondary. They were nice stories that backed up the claim that Jesus was the Son of God. In fact in some circles they even began saying the Gospel wasn’t realized until Paul. Nobody knew what the Gospel was (or at least didn’t articulate it in writing which has survived until now) until Paul. The Gospel became this one doctrine- that we are justified/saved by grace through faith, which is this one sentence which Paul wrote in several different letters and captured the imagination of Luther and Calvin and became the only thing- getting saved was all there was (or perhaps better to say it was the first thing, of which the others become distant seconds).
So we had (have) this doctrine of salvation based theology. Proper doctrine and knowledge was the end goal of discipleship. Discipleship was anchored in catechism (not that catechisms are bad). But when the New Testament was being written, that wasn’t really the case. The Apostles had a kerygma based theology- a theology which is preached. And what they preached was Jesus. Here’s what Jesus said, and what Jesus did, how he lived, and then the ultimate act of crucifixion and resurrection. They didn’t preach doctrine, that came later. Check out Acts 2 to see what I mean. Peter just tells the people in Jerusalem what has just transpired. Jesus demonstrated himself as Son of God, then evil men conspired to crucify him, but now he is risen. Then the people cried out “what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Then comes salvation stuff. Repent, receive grace, forgiveness and the Holy Spirit.
The important part was Jesus came, lived, revealed God to us, and died in the ultimate act of self-giving love, and was raised victorious. And our proper response to that, is to live in that love- to be “in Christ” (that small phrase shows up over 80 times in Paul’s letters); to walk the way of Jesus, to repent of the old way of walking which leads to destruction and turn towards the Jesus way which leads to life. It is about being “in Christ”.
So that should lead us to conclude that the gospels provide us with the model for what our way of living should look like (model, not manual). So we ought to read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John more. They give us this incredible perspective into Jesus. In these books we can “be with him”. In the gospels we see Jesus whose life is “the script for the ongoing life of the church” (Kirk, Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul?, 75). Walking the way of Jesus is easier when you have a description of what Jesus’ walk looked like. It was characterized by compassion, love, wisdom, confronting self-righteous hypocrisy, and alleviating suffering. Jesus spent his time healing the sick (physically and spiritually), rubbing shoulders with the “unclean”, helping the poor, calling on the lost to follow him into life, and telling anyone who would listen about the Kingdom of God. What many refer to as “Kingdom ethics” is a life of love and sacrifice exemplified by Jesus- the taking up of the cross. “the disciples imitate and replicate Jesus’ ministry” (Ibid. 76). How do you apply Jesus’ words? Well, look at Jesus more. Live a life which captures the same qualities. When you read about Jesus, how would you describe the life he lives? Then challenge yourself- how do I live a life which would be described the same way. How can I raise my kids in a way which would be described as “compassionate, loving, righteous”? How do you perform your job in a way which would be described that way? Read about Jesus, look at Jesus. You will be surprised at times. Then read it again, and get surprised again. You will find in him this shattering of preconceptions. When you read the gospels with your mind open and look deep at what’s going on, you’ll see someone who can and will blow your mind.
Imitate Jesus. You’ll blow other peoples’ minds.
2. “Walk in Love”
Paul says walk in love. That was a Greek way of saying stay in this ongoing process. Walking in love means always be loving, not just love in isolated moments or occasionally pull love out of your toolbox, but live out love. Jesus said the first and greatest commandment was “Love the Lord your God” and the second “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Obeying Jesus’ teaching will sometimes look different for one person in contrast to someone else. Jesus doesn’t just give us a list of do’s and don’ts. Well, he does give us some of those, as does Paul and the other Apostles. But they’re usually not terribly specific. Give as you are able. Well, each of us is able to a different extent, so giving out of love will look different for each us. Love your neighbour will look different depending on who your neighbour is. If your neighbour is a wonderful godly person, you may have an easier task than if you have a neighbour who’s a drug dealer. Loving your neighbour isn’t optional, but how that looks is going be different. Sometimes loving your neighbour will be as easy as being friendly and warm, but sometimes, loving your neighbour will require you to get your hands dirty. If your neighbour is someone struggling with addiction, or an elderly widow who wants to stay in her home as long as she can, or a single mom trying wrangle strong-willed, noisy children who are throwing a tantrum in the grocery store. (By the way, speaking as a parent to two small kids, when that happens, rolling your eyes is not loving. A smile and some sympathy is.)
The Scriptures tell us above all else, put on love. A new command I give you, love one another. Against love there is no law. Love your neighbour. walk in the way of love. The greatest of these is love. The defining characteristic of an obedient life is love.
So when asking yourself, “what would Jesus do?” perhaps you can ask “what’s the most loving thing I can do in this situation?” How can I demonstrate love in this? How can my job be a place to demonstrate love? When responding to a person there is the “golden rule”- what would you want them to do if the roles were reversed? How would you want the other to act towards you?
Jesus doesn’t give us specific words to address every possible situation which could ever possibly come up. He doesn’t comment on every single subject there is. He doesn’t address a lot of things which may be concerns to us in the 21st century. Should I get a blackberry or an iphone or an android? Not gonna get much help from Jesus. Although… Blackberry is a Canadian company, headquarters just a short trip away, and we are supposed to love our neighbour…
But what he gives us is a principle and a model. He says in all things love your neighbour as yourself, and he showed us what loving his neighbour looked like. He responded based on need and out of love. Sometimes it looked one way, other times it looked different. Showing love to the woman at the well in John 4 looked different that showing love to the Roman centurion with a sick child (Matthew 8). But in all cases it was certainly loving, and compassionate and merciful, but also redemptive. It didn’t just give away something good, but called for the recipient to live differently because of that encounter with love.
Applying our faith to the practical things of life isn’t always going to be clear. There isn’t one set way to do all things. God gives room for creativity and circumstances. How Paul imitates God is different from how I will imitate God, which is different for how each one of you will imitate God. But certain principles ought to be consistent throughout. We should all be void of “bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” says Paul. Brawling, I should note doesn’t just mean we shouldn’t get into fist fights. It refers also to yelling matches and using abusive verbal attacks (See Snodgrass’ awesome commentary on Ephesians [NIVAC]). Imitating Jesus means leaving no room for hatred and anger and verbal or physical attacks. Instead, it is to demonstrate compassion, forgiveness, mercy and love.
Imitating God means loving the people around us (at home, at work, at church, at PTA meetings, at the soccer pitch, at the park, at the coffee shop) and attempting to bring grace and mercy to the situation. What does it look like to love your co-workers? What does it look like to love the cashier at the grocery store? What does it look like to love your mechanic, your waitress, your hairdresser, your clients, boss, family, friends, etc. Where and how do they need to see grace? Where do they need to see compassion and forgiveness? Where do you need to seek their compassion and forgiveness? When you ask these things, the other issues start to take shape. If I love my neighbour as myself, that will shape my life, and it will look more and more like Jesus. Imitating Jesus is less like legalistic following the rules, and more like character development. It’s a walk.
3. “Fragrant offering and sacrifice”
Being like Jesus is very much counter intuitive for us. All human beings have this tendency to be egocentric. My life is about me. But loving my neighbour as myself is a direct challenge to egocentricity. It’s inherently about what can I give to someone else, as opposed to what can I get. Living out Jesus’ commands goes really, really wrong when it becomes about me. It’s not at all about me. It’s not about earning his approval, or getting rewarded for our obedience. Living out our faith in Christ is about being crucified with Christ- allowing Jesus to live through us. It’s about yielding my own preferences for the sake of another. Paul tells us that living as imitators of Christ means giving ourselves up as Jesus did- as an offering and sacrifice. Available to God, given to him, like a fragrant offering, like a sacrifice offered up. We live as living sacrifices Paul told the Romans. That’s of course an inherent contradiction- Living sacrifices. But he writes that very much intentionally. Sacrifices weren’t alive anymore. That’s the point; our repentance to our old, selfish selves should be to such an extent that the old you is as good as dead. We need to die to sin, Paul says. In Christ, that part of us that was dragging us down is executed, it is thrown into the depths. And so what’s left is no longer entangled by selfish desire.
Living out our faith in Jesus is about abandoning ourselves. It’s about receiving the lavish, incomprehensible love of God and passing that along to others. Yeah we’ll all slip up along the way. I’m rarely the model of patience, compassion and selflessness. 1 John 3:2 reminds us that we aren’t yet what we will be. We will one day be made like him. For now, we are to be more and more shaped by God’s desire than by our own. We are to pray your kingdom come, your will be done. When you allow your own preferences to come after someone else’s need you become more like Christ. This doesn’t mean becoming a doormat, or allowing evil or stress overcome you. It means responding to the needs which present themselves to you with the other person’s best interest in mind. Of course, sometimes their best interest and what they want are two different things. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do is say no. Saying no is not always unloving. Saying yes and consenting to someone indulging destructive tendencies isn’t love. Obviously we don’t do this in a self-righteous and condemning way. Jesus didn’t call on hellfire and brimestone for the woman at the well. He said this way is not good, come and receive living water.
Our calling is to model and offer redemption. “Our calling is to make manifest the Christ who plays the lead in a different story [from our old way which leads to death] and to show that this other story is the paradoxical way to life, peace significance, security and… power and glory, but all by way of the cross” (Kirk, 85). The cross is the ultimate enemy of egotism. You can’t be selfish and accept the cross. But paradoxically, that cross, the implement of death, is where Jesus (and by extension, we) find life- a life worthy of our calling. “A righteous life is now possible for the first time in human history because the power of sin is defeated through ‘resurrection via crucifixion'” (Kirk, 87).
How do you live out your faith? How do you live out the teachings of Jesus? Well, forget about your own selfish preferences and love your neighbour the way you’d want them to love you. Wouldn’t you want someone to give up something for your benefit? Why refuse to budge on something that will benefit others? Give of yourself. Spend time looking at the Scriptures which tell us about Christ. Read what Jesus did, and what Jesus said, and how he obeyed the Father and took up his cross, and then look at how death couldn’t stop him. And be like that. Imitate him who gave everything up for you.