“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love,
as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us,
a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
Why do you follow Jesus? For me, at least, there’s an element of mystery to this business of following Jesus. The ego-ish side of me would like to believe that there’s an element of personal virtue in so doing – that I’m sufficiently smart and appropriately humble to have recognized this as a good and proper way to live.
But that’s balderdash. We can (and do) speak of “deciding to follow Jesus” but the truth is jarringly different. If there’s any element of genuine faith in me, it’s a function of God’s call on my life – it’s not a function of my intelligence. Which is a way of (reluctantly) acknowledging the insufficiency of works-based religion. I didn’t choose God – God has chosen me.
Why? There’s an ancient question! The opening words of Malachi’s prophecy are laden with embarrassing difficulty: “Jacob I have loved, Esau I have hated,” says God. Why? Because Jacob was somehow superior to Esau? Assuredly not. Malachi’s assertion is difficult to the core, but whatever it means, it’s clear that God’s choosing is NOT based in the character or in the will of either of Esau or Jacob.
But having been called, the human is then confronted with choice: To go one’s own way, or to follow God. At some level that sounds pietistically noble, but if one is to follow another, it makes some sense to pay attention to the intended destination of the leader. In Jesus’ case, the destination seems to be the cross – which is, of course, death. That’s the message, it seems to me, of the text above: Be imitators of God…. the one who gave himself up for us.”
I realize there’s a Christological assumption inherent in that assertion – that Christ can be identified with God. For me, at least, that’s an identity I’m willing to entertain. That means I’m willing to entertain the likelihood that my call is (at least partly) to death.
Back in July it was privilege to join the people of Zion UCC in Calumet in celebration of their 125th anniversary. My sermon was derived from this text from Ephesians. Here’s part of what I said:
- The message of the Gospel isn’t that we ought to be nice (though there are plenty of times where being nice is a good idea). No…. we must be clear about this: the message of the gospel is something entirely different than good manners. The message of the gospel is that there are people who are excluded from polite society and who are viewed as not belonging and God particularly loves these people and if we want to be part of what God is doing, so must we.
- In the times of Jesus and Peter and Paul, those outsiders (from the perspective of a good Jew) were Gentiles, and women and slaves. They were tax-collectors and prostitutes and children. (This is hard for us to get our heads around because for the most part children are adored in our culture – but in Jesus’ time children were viewed essentially as sub-human – thus it was so radical for Jesus to say…. ”Unless you become like a child…..” Nobody in Jesus’ day wanted to become or to be thought of as a child!)
- So…. if Jesus were physically around today, who would he be hanging around with? Well, I think you know. The equivalent in 2017 to the outcasts of Jesus day are folk on welfare and Medicaid and people with skin a darker color than yours and mine and people who perhaps have come into this country illegally and people whose sexual orientation is puzzling to most of us. I’m pretty sure these are the folk Jesus would hang around with. And I say this with a lump in my throat, because for the most part, these are NOT the folk I spend much time around.
You and I, dear reader, both know that the church is struggling. Not every single congregation is struggling, but many, many are. Partly we struggle for reasons well beyond our control – I need to say that clearly and unequivocally. But I also need to say that partly we struggle for reasons of our own making. To put it bluntly, partly we struggle because we try to make following Jesus easier than it can ever really be. We need to face facts – to follow Jesus is hard. It involves choices that many of our neighbors will fail to understand or even find objectionable. But I’m convinced that unless following Jesus is a matter of some actual difficulty, it will never again attract a meaningful cadre of pilgrims.
The apostle put it bluntly: “Be imitators of God.” Can we try that? It will be hard. We will fail. And perhaps by so doing we will find salvation. The salvation that arises from the paradoxical reality that out of sacrifice (death) comes life.
UCC in Iowa