Monday, April 25, 2016

Emulating Jesus

Words have the potential for incredible power; power that can transform lives and the world we live in.  And it doesn’t take many words either.  Consider the impact these four statements have had on our world, even though each is less than fifteen words long: 

  “Be the change you want to see in the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi

  “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

  “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.” – Teddy Roosevelt

  “Your time is limited.  Don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” – Steve Jobs

In this morning’s reading from the Gospel of John we hear Jesus say fourteen words that have reshaped the course of history and human interaction: “A new commandment I give you: love one another as I have loved you.”  Spoken after diner in the upper room on Maundy Thursday and just hours before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, this new command becomes the final teaching Jesus gives to his followers. 

If “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” forms the core basis of all Christian ethics, then “love one another as Jesus loves you” is the primary mark of discipleship.  In fact, Jesus says, “By this everyone will know you you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  From reading the gospels, to considering the history of the Christian church, to casual observations of how we ‘believers’ get along with one another in our own day, it is obvious loving one another is no simple task. 

One of the most important projects I am a part of right now is gathering monthly with a multi-denominational, interracial group of clergy here in Suffolk.  We are sharing our stories and learning together more about what is happening in our community.  It interests me that our group is tempted to want to “produce” something for Jesus, something like say, a tent revival with music and preaching and an inflatable bounce house for kids.  It is an idea resting on solid biblical teaching: Jesus did say, “Go out into all the world making disciples and baptizing in my name.”  But today’s reading reminds us that how we live with one another is just as important to Jesus as what we say about him to others.  Inviting seekers into our Christian way and life is pointless if our fellowship is not characterized by the love Christ has for us.  I have said it before: our being (who we are as people of faith) is just as important as our doing.  What we do for Jesus always emanates from who we are together with Jesus.  For now, I believe the best thing our clergy group can do is allow our Christ-like love for one another to grow.  The bounce house can wait.

“Love one another as I have loved you.”  What exactly is Jesus asking us to do?  His actions form the foundation for our behavior toward one another, but how?  Let me suggest a couple of things this is not, as well as a possibility for what it is:

  Clearly Jesus is not calling us to mimic him.  To mimic is to copy someone’s mannerisms and expressions.  Since we have never met Jesus in the flesh it is impossible for us to mimic him.

  Obviously Jesus is not commanding us to impersonate him.  When we love one another as he loves us we are not trying to fool other people into thinking we are Jesus.

  Perhaps Jesus is commanding us to imitate him; to do something in the same way he did it.  But this too has problems.  Think about the setting for today’s reading.  Jesus has already acted out for the disciples what it looks like to love one another as he loves.  He stood up after the meal was finished, stripped off his cloths, wrapped himself in a towel, and performed the role of a servant by washing his followers’ feet.  Imitating this action would not be hard, but would it be effective?  Does the act of foot washing convey across all time and through all cultures what Jesus’ love is to look like?  I don’t suggest you walk into Wal-Mart, take off your clothes, wrap yourself in a towel, and offer to start washing feet (although I am curious as to what Judge Moore would say when you appeared before him in court).

So here is one final possibility: perhaps Jesus is calling us to emulate him.  People often treat imitation and emulation as interchangeable words, as if they meant the same thing, but they don’t.  Imitate means to do something in the same way as something or someone else.  Emulation is different.  If you are a stickler for words, you may be familiar with Paul Brian’s book Common Errors in English Usage.  In it he writes this:

People generally know what “imitate” means, but they sometimes don’t understand that “emulate” is a more specialized word with a purely positive function, meaning to try to equal or match.  Thus if you try to climb the same mountain your big brother did, you’re emulating him; but if you copy his habit of sticking peas up his nose, you’re just imitating him. 

Here is something else that may help to clarify the difference.  Italian Renaissance artists believed the best way for a young artist to learn how to paint was to copy in exacting detail the works of a great master.  This work of imitation gave the artist a foundation upon which to step out in order to create his or her own unique style.  This process, rooted and grounded in the master’s work, but expressive of the young artists’ individual talent and perspective, is what emulation looks like.

Chris Goslow, a pianist and composer, encountered this distinction in his own life and wrote about it on his blogsite:

I got mixed up over the difference between learning from those I admired and thinking that I should try to be JUST LIKE them.  In other words, I confused imitation with emulation.  Ultimately, I found that trying to follow in someone else’s footsteps does not work.  Instead, I have found that I must follow my own creative path, even as I’m inspired by learning from others.  It is the key to creative happiness and fulfillment.

When Jesus says, “You are to love one another as I have loved you,” he is commanding us to emulate him; to take his example and make it our own by putting our own unique stamp on it – loving as Jesus loved in a way that is true and authentic to who we are as a created and beloved child of God.

Years ago at a Vestry meeting at a previous church I served, a person brought up an exciting new idea.  He had learned of a church in Tennessee where a group of men got together every Saturday morning and offered to do basic maintenance for parishioners’ cars – things like change the oil, fill the fluids, check the belts, adjust air pressure… that kind of thing.  It is, in my estimation, a wonderful way to emulate Christ’s love and that Vestry thought it would be a great ministry for us to offer to our parish.  Then came the crucial question: who in our church likes to work on cars?  The answer: no one.  Then the question became this: what do we like to do?  It was not our call to imitate the ministry of the church in Tennessee.  It was our call to emulate their example by finding our own unique way to live out Christ’s teaching.

Through this morning’s baptisms we welcome four new people into the Christian faith and life.  They are now a part of our wonderful fellowship of disciples who seek to emulate Jesus’ love for one another.  Though our prayers we will ask God to fill them with the holy and life-giving Spirit.  We will ask God to teach them to love others in the power of the Spirit.  And we will ask God to send them into the world in witness to God’s love.  And while they will be filled with God’s Spirit, not one thing about their flesh and bones will be changed.  They will continue to be who they are and act in ways unique to who God has created them to be.  They won’t mimic, impersonate, or even imitate what it means to be a Christian.  They will emulate it by being the Christian only they can be.

Like a young Italian Renaissance artist, if you are going to love others as Christ loves you, you will need to spend some time imitating what you see in Jesus.  But this must give way to emulation as you grow in your sense of self and calling.  Only you can be you.  Only you can manifest Christ’s love in the way you do.  Do you believe in yourself enough to do this?  Do you value yourself enough to create your own unique way to love others as Jesus loves you?