Christ Imitators



A Sermon for Sunday August 22, 2010, Luke 19:1-10 and Philippians 2:1-5

One of the funniest and most intriguing things about living with a toddler is watching them grow and learn, usually by imitating those around them. Our 2 year-old Katie, for instance, is at the point in her life where she immediately repeats whatever Elizabeth, Anne (aka Nana) and I say.

A few weeks ago, while on vacation at the beach, Katie woke up at 6 am, eager to start the new day. I groggily rolled over and told my wife that I would get Katie, change her diaper and go upstairs with our daughter to eat breakfast and watch Disney’s The Jungle Book. As soon as I finished changing Katie’s diaper, I suddenly realized I needed to go to the bathroom.  I said quietly to her, “Katie, I need to go to the bathroom and you’ll have to come with me. But we need to be very quiet going down the hallway because Mama and Nana are sleeping.” She said ok and we opened her bedroom door and proceeded down the hall to the bathroom. I quietly repeated the instruction one more time, and Katie responded, “Be very, very quiet! Mama and Nana are sleeping! Be very, very quiet!” She was sincerely trying to follow the instructions and be quiet, but unable to control the volume of her sweet voice, which boomed throughout the beach house. It was all I could do not to completely burst out laughing.

Like many toddlers, Katie will repeat instructions or something we’ve taught her to say as a way of processing and understanding the lesson. On other occasions, Katie will simply repeat or imitate what she sees because she is fascinated by an activity we are doing: When I grab a pillow and lie down on the floor to pretend as if I’m sleeping (snoring effects and all), Katie will also grab a pillow and lie down on the floor and pretend to sleep and snooze.  Or when Elizabeth is singing and dancing while she picks up around the house, Katie will sing and dance while picking up some of her coloring pages or toys, all the time saying, “Look mama, I’m singing and dancing. I’m cleaning up.”  Katie, you see, is learning how to do things, how to be a person by imitating her parents. (She also imitates her Nana but we won’t go into that. J)

Imitating another person, however, is not a behavior exclusively attributed to children. Pre-teens, youth and adults also imitate. The action is ingrained in us because it is the quickest and often the easiest way to learn how to do (or not do) things and be some-thing for good (instead of bad) in this world.

The wise philosopher, Confucius once said,  If I am walking with two other men, each of them will serve as my teacher. I will pick out the good points of the one and imitate them, and the bad points of the other and correct them in myself.[1]

Centuries after Confucius, the equally wise apostle Paul wrote to the early Christian  church in Philippi that Christians can persevere through any difficulty if they imitate the greatest teacher of the faith:

“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus.”

Paul’s request appears to be a crystal clear instruction for us Christians to follow: Be imitators of a selfless and unconditionally loving Jesus through every single thought, word and deed in your daily life. The instruction sounds simple and straightforward and looks wonderful on paper. And yet these aren’t just pretty words to read and ponder dreamily on a sunny day. They are words to be put into practice…and that isn’t easy.

Sometimes Christians truly do practice the selflessness and humility of Jesus by putting the interest of others before their own interests… and sometimes Christians truly don’t practice these things, even going so far as to represent a Christ who looks nothing like the one in the Bible.  And if other folks in the world were asked whether Christians get Jesus mostly right or mostly wrong, the answer probably won’t be pleasing to believers’ ears. One of my favorite religious authors, Shane Claiborne, writes[2]:

“If someone asks if we are Christ’s followers, can we say, ‘Tell me what you see? Is there enough evidence to prove that we are taking after the slaughtered Lamb? What if they ask the poor around us? What if they ask our enemies? Would they say that we love them? Christians haven’t always looked like Jesus. Perhaps the greatest barrier to Christ has been Christians who pronounce Jesus so loudly with their lips and deny him so loudly with their lives.

Judging by recent news headlines, the greatest barrier to Christ at the moment is Christians who pronounce Jesus loudly with their lips and deny him loudly with their lives. And no, I’m not talking about the debate among Christians over the planned mosque and interfaith center two blocks from Ground Zero in New York City.  Two other stories that have been making headlines over the past month are much more worrisome:

In Gainesville, Florida, the non-denominational and Christian church, The Dove World Outreach Center is proceeding with its plan to hold an “International Burn A Quran Day” on September 11…despite being denied a burning permit by city officials.  In an interview on CNN, Pastor Terry Jones said,“We believe that Islam is of the devil, that it’s causing billions of people to go to hell, it is a deceptive religion, it is a violent religion and that is proven many, many times,” The Dove World Outreach Center is even selling T-shirts and coffee mugs that say “Islam is of the Devil.”[3]

Hundreds of miles away in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Christians are in some intense debates and protests over the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro’s legally approved right to construct a new building . And two signs erected by the Islamic Center, which has existed since 2000, on a 15-acre field have been vandalized—one spray-painted in graffiti with the words “Not Welcome” and the other smashed to bits. [4]

Now, I realize that every religion has members on the fringe who propagate hate, fear and violence and Christianity is no different. But even if most Christians would never burn Qurans or spray paint mosques, I suspect that there are quite a number of good law-abiding, Jesus-loving Christians in mainline denominations who share the sentiment and opinion that all Muslims are vile, evil terrorists. A new poll released Thursday by TIME magazine revealed that of the 1,002 adults surveyed about the Muslim faith and Muslim-related issues, 45 percent believe most Muslims are “unpatriotic Americans”; 56 percent do not hold a favorable view of Muslims, and 62 percent have never personally known a Muslim.[5]

Followers of Jesus today grumble just as much about Muslims as followers of Jesus grumbled about “the other” in the days when Jesus was physically present among them. Consider this morning’s story from Luke’s gospel in which Zacchaeus, the wealthy chief tax collector hears that Jesus is coming through Jericho and runs out to meet him.

Unable to see Jesus because of the crowds, Zacchaeus runs ahead and climbs into a sycamore tree to get a good view of the rabbi. When Jesus passes by the tree, he looks up at the tax collector and says:‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ 6zZacchaeus hurries down, happy to welcome Jesus into his home. But not everyone was happy. The gospel writer tells us that: 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ All who saw it—good law-abiding citizens of Israel, Jewish religious leaders and the disciples, Jesus’ most loyal followers. All of them began to grumble.

8Zacchaeus, however, stands there and says to Jesus, “‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ 9Jesus respJesus responds, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.1Zacchaeus too is a son of Abraham and a child of God who is worthy of Jesus’ friendship and love despite being a chief tax collector.  Zacchaeus discovers the love of Christ when he gets down out of his tree, out of his comfort zone, to encounter Jesus face –to-face.

This concept was the theme of this summer’s Middle School Youth “Mission Possible” event where 65 youth and 15 adults (from Pleasant Hill and Presbyterian churches in North Carolina, Tennessee and Pennsylvania) stayed in this church for a week while doing mission work in the Duluth and Atlanta area.  One of our 7th graders, Kathryn, will come forward to share her experience from that week:

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I attended the Mission Possible event not knowing what was going to happen. The first night we got into groups and we talked about the theme “Get Down”, and what it meant to us. At that moment, I didn’t have a clue what “get down” meant to me.

But the next night, three men from the Clifton night shelter came to our church to share a meal and their story with us. One of the guys explained how one day when he walked into his bathroom, the floor caved in beneath him. The fluke accident put him in the hospital with severe injuries. His insurance didn’t cover his medical bills, including his physical therapy, so eventually he lost all of the meager savings he had left and wound up on the streets…homeless.

Since being helped by the Clifton Night Shelter, the man is doing much better. He has been able to find a job and is working toward getting his own apartment. The Clifton resident, who never was addicted to drugs, alcohol or committed a crime, said he has always remained positive despite his difficulties. He said that without God, he would’ve never made it through hard times.

The man from Clifton told us that it’s always important to help someone out and to never assume that they are homeless because they’ve got drug or alcohol problems. He said even if you suspect they might use the money you give to help their habit, you should still help. “Even if you give the homeless people on the streets money and they spend it on alcohol or drugs, it could take that drug that pushes them to realize that they need help”.

The next day we went to the fountains at Centennial Olympic Park. We noticed a homeless guy wandering near the benches near the Park’s walkway, and that people would intentionally step aside to avoid touching him. When he sat down on a bench, the person sitting there immediately stood up and went to another bench to sit.

I went to Erik, our youth adviser, to see if he would give my money to the homeless man. Eric gave the man the money, bought him lemonade, and handed him a T-shirt from his backpack. Thanks to the resident from Clifton who spoke to us the previous night, I felt comfortable giving the money to the homeless man without worrying where the money would go.  Now I realize what “get down” means. It’s about getting out of your comfort zone and doing something for a person in need, and I’m grateful for the way those experiences and the Mission Possible trip impacted me and empowered me to show Christ’s love.

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Imitating Jesus is about getting down from the comfortable and lofty places of our lives to encounter the love of the living God and share that love and mercy with others.  Zacchaeus gets down and he looks the Lord in the eye and pledges to give all of his wealth to those in need and those he has wronged.  All who were there to see this display of humility and selflessness, and who grumbled about Jesus wanting to eat with a sinner…still need to get down from their comfortable and lofty places of fear, judgment and hate to discover Jesus’ love for them.  The people surrounding Jesus still have much to learn about what it means to follow and imitate Jesus. The religious author Claiborne writes:

In the South, we have a saying: ‘You are the spittin’ image’ of someone. Folks still speculate over how exactly the phrase originated, but I’ve heard it put like this. It’s shorthand for “spirit and image.” Spittin’ image…it means more than just that you ‘look like’ that person. It goes beyond just appearance to include character and temperament. It means that you remind people of that person. You have their charisma. You do the same thing they did. In the truest sense, Christians are to be the spittin’ image of Jesus in the world. We are to be the best things he was. We are to preach the things he preached and live the way he lived. We are to follow in the footsteps of our rabbi so closely that we get his dust on us.”

We Christians are to be the spittin’ image of Jesus. We are to be of the same love, humility and mind as Christ Jesus. We are to be Christ imitators. As Neil Diamond sings, “It’s not about you/It’s not about me/Love is all about we/Yes, it’s all about we.”

A group of High School youth and adults learned this firsthand when they went on a mission trip this summer to help the people of Houma, Louisiana as part of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Youth Week Camp. Adam, one of our 11th graders, will come forward to share more about his experience:

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My first thought about Houma, Louisiana was its hot and humid down here and the mosquitoes are the size of birds. During this trip there was a big storm that lasted on and off for half the week.  When we arrived at our worksite at a Methodist church in the nearby town of Dulac, the area was partially covered in water from the rain the night before.

The water was about 8 inches deep.  We had to build a bridge just to get from the road to the stairs of the church, which was up on stilts. During all this I was watching the locals, whose neighborhood was flooded, carry on doing everyday things like it was a dry day.  I thought to myself why don’t the people just move away from here where it doesn’t flood.  And then I remembered that their families have been there for generations and want to keep their heritage alive.

Two days later it rained so much that the road was completely under water and we couldn’t even get out of the car unless you had waterproof boots that were high enough to wade in.

We then headed to another worksite but learned on the way that the road near the location was also flooded and was impassable.  I kept asking myself why God would send us here to work and help people in need when we can’t even get to our worksites because of the floods.

But eventually the rain stopped and the sun came out and we were able to finish painting and doing repairs at the Methodist church together, with no further problems.  At the end of the week, I learned that this trip was all about putting people before yourself, helping make an impact in people’s lives, team work, and being God’s shepherds.

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Being Christ imitators is about working together to change people’s lives for the better. Being Christ imitators is about being like the One Shepherd who tends to all of the sheep. Being Christ imitators is about all of us (not one or a few) to embody—for the entire world to see—the Jesus who loved and loves every person unto suffering and death on the cross.

That loving, merciful, non-violent Jesus is the one and only Jesus we can genuinely and faithfully embody for others.  The distorted image of Jesus as being mean, unmerciful and violent that too many Christians put on display can no longer be an option for any one of us who claim to follow Jesus.

In response to the Dove World Outreach Center plan to burn copies of the Quran, the Gainesville Interfaith Forum—made up of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu religious leaders—are holding an event on Sept. 10 at Trinity United Methodist Church to foster understanding, mutual respect and peace. In a note posted on his church’s website, senior minister Dan Johnson of Trinity, wrote:

“We feel compelled to raise our voices to proclaim that the action the Dove World Outreach Center is proposing is absolutely wrong and counter to the life and teaching of the Jesus whom we love, follow and call savior and Lord,”

Meanwhile in Murfreesboro, Russell Richardson, the pastor of Grace Baptist Church, which is located next door to the future site of the Islamic Center (of which he and the church openly welcome), posted a column on his church’s website that included the following:

“The heart of the change in a Christian’s life from before to after salvation is love. Jesus said that we would be known to be His disciples by the love we have for each other. In fact, He commanded it. In Luke 13:34-35 Jesus told us that we were not allowed to be without love for other believers. Instead we were to love each other in the same way that He loved us. That is a far cry from the way we see Christians treating one another in churches today. Yet it is our love for one another that is supposed to distinguish us from people who are not followers of Christ.”

The youth and adults of this church, through summer mission trips and daily living, distinguish themselves as followers of Jesus by the way they humbly and selflessly love.  There are others just like them—people who faithfully strive to fulfill their calling by God to be the spittin’ image of Jesus in the world.

Let it be our fervent and hopeful prayer that there will be many more spittin’ images of Jesus to come so that younger generations will learn how to imitate Christ…so that younger generations like Katie will follow him so closely that they will get his dust, his love, his grace on them and others.

Amen.


[1] http://thinkexist.com/quotation/if_i_am_walking_with_two_other_men-each_of_them_i/147446.html
[2] “Jesus for President” by Shane Claiborne, 2004.
[3] “Religious Leaders Speak Out Against International Burn a Quran Day”, CNN’s Belief Blog, August 20, 2010 http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2010/08/20/religious-leaders-speak-out-against-international-burn-a-quran-day/. Also see Dove World Outreach Center at http://www.doveworld.org/
[4] “ In Murfreesboro, Tenn.: Church ‘Yes,’ Mosque  ‘No’” TIME, by Elisabeth Kauffman, Thursday August 19, 2010, http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2011847,00.html?xid=rss-topstories. Also see, The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Tenn., at http://www.icmtn.org/ and Al Farooq Mosque in Nashville, Tenn., at http://www.masjid-alfarooq.org/
[5] “Majority oppose Mosque, Many Distrust Mulims” by Alex Altman, August 19, 2010. http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2011799,00.html
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