I’m always interested when people say that they want to be more like Jesus, because it’s something that’s important to me as well. Christ’s life and persona is the echelon of the ideal Christian life, and I know we are supposed to imitate and model ourselves on Jesus; do what he did, say what he said, act like him and be like him in all we say and do.
Simple really. Except not.
You know, trying to be something other than what we are is something we all know how to do. Our whole lives, we learn to copy people we think have desirable attributes; physical, social, financial, political, in fashion and hairstyles and ways of acting and speaking. Whole industries have grown up to service our need to be like other people – people we feel are successful, sexy, smart, interesting, powerful, rich, or is just someone who sings pretty. Weird.
It’s all about identity. We want to lose ours and get someone else’s instead, because then people will like us and think we’re cool too. Wanting to be like Jesus Christ these days has to be a good thing, especially when you consider some of the alternatives. I still struggle with the uncomfortable realisation I live in a world that had little trouble finding someone in about ten minutes to replace Charlie Sheen in Two And A Half Men. I just hoped it would be a little bit harder is all.
Changing the subject entirely, Jesus, when he was here, apparently wasn’t looking for an identity. However, having been baptised by his cousin John at the appointed time, Jesus entry into the wilderness could be construed as the beginning of a search for his true identity. No doubt Jesus already knew he was special. And he knew other people knew he was special. People had seen a bird come out of nowhere and heard heaven speak when John dipped him in the river a few days before. Jesus knew people were either expecting him to save the world, or turn out to be another crazy false messiah in a camel-hair toga. When Jesus left for the wilderness, he looked like any other young adult might who knows way too much to go back to his old way of life, but also realises he’s not quite ready for whats about to come. We’d call a journey like this “finding ourselves” However, it seems that by leaving his family, religious tradition and employment and all the expectations that come with them, Jesus is not going to look for his identity. Indeed, he looks for all the world like he’s trying to lose it.
And it’s not until he’s done with this wrestling, this sacrificing of his own will, this process of identity deconstruction that Jesus re-enters the world. He has become a human being without a skerrick remaining of his traditional, religious, political, commercial or even a personal or familial identity. He deliberately left it behind in the wilderness. Having done this, Jesus now knows that he’s ready to undertake and complete the work of his Father in the world of men. In losing his identity, he has given up all he ever really had as a man – and now, he has nothing else left to lose. He is ready to fulfil his destiny.
When we claim to be imitators of Christ, we need to be careful we don’t simply exchange one set of personal attributes we think are undesirable for another set from somewhere else we find more desirable. This is simply taking on another identity. Jesus Christ identified completely with the Father that sent him, and was able to do this because his own identity had been completely laid down. Of course, Jesus didn’t identify as a Christian, the way we might do today. He didn’t identify as a carpenter, a Jew, a Rabbi, a teacher, a son, a brother, a citizen, or any of the other things he was expected to either. He identified as the Son of His Father, and did only what came from that. He laid down his own identity, and all the other faces and names and roles he had been expected to have, and did this as a daily discipline, for all of his life. And, in essence, this is what he asks us to do too.
Of course, we can’t relinquish our social or personal responsibilities as citizens or parents or employees. We may be sons of God, but we’re not the Son of God. We can however relinquish all concepts of what we are meant to do and be – this identity of “Christian” – and instead, as Jesus did, simply lay down our will, and our desire to do the right or the popular thing, in exchange for the will of the Father. Oh, and we also should never believe our own publicity – take ourselves so seriously we forget what we were meant to be doing in the first place. It’s easy to get caught up in the seriousness of the Great Commission, and forget that the gospel is simple, any fisherman can tell it. The idea we’ve come to be accustomed to of what a “Christian” is and should be is a construction of ours, and not Jesus’. Jesus knew we’d never be able to do all that he did anyway. It’s meant to be much more simple than that.
A Christ-identity is one that is always being laid down for the Fathers will. A Christ-identity is one that is being journeyed through like a wilderness, and laid aside like a promise of false riches and power. A Christ-identity is one which has no life of it’s own, but is sustained daily by the manna of God’s provision of grace. A Christ-identity is one that does not die with the one who carries it like a personality does, but which, like communion, is shared again and again with thanksgiving and humility, and will come alive again no matter how deep the grave, or how grievous the wound. Imitating Jesus is more than just copying his ways and his words, and keeping to some predetermined construct we’ve created of what a Christian ought to do and say and be. Being like Jesus is being prepared to give away our idea of what a Christian, or a religious person, or a minister, or a leader, or a good organiser, or a perfect mother, or cool father, or neighbourly neighbour, or very hurt person who is able to forgive, or even a quite good person, or anything else we think we need to do to be a Christian should look like. And it’s to just keep giving that idea away away, while we love the people He brings within shouting distance in the meantime.
Because, funnily enough, that’s exactly what Jesus did.