Last summer, at our annual worship theme brainstorming session, the question was raised, “What would it look like if I actually lived like Jesus?” The question stopped many of us cold. It’s a pretty bold question, isn’t it? Over the course of these weeks in Lent, we are going to wrestle with that question. During a time when the Church has historically asked that we look at our own lives, our own practices, our own ethics, it is appropriate to ask that question: What if I actually lived like Jesus?
Some of you might pause, like I did, when I heard this question. But…can we? Can we actually live like Jesus? On one hand, it is in our name as “Christ”ian. But on the other, we acknowledge that Christ was divine and we are not. So, can we live like Jesus? Should that be our goal?
In order to try and answer the question today, I think we need to start with a preliminary question: Who was Jesus anyway? Scholars will give many versions of their answer to this question, so rather than try and integrate them, I’m just going to pick one as a starting point for the conversation. Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright wrote a book together a few years ago called The Meaning of Jesus, where they offered their visions for the answer to this question. I am going to start with Borg’s answer, because it is simple and dovetails nicely with our Scripture passage for today.
A few minutes ago, you heard this long passage from the beginning of Luke that I like to call Jesus’ job description. Following the birth narratives and the baptism narrative and the genealogy of Jesus in Luke, there are these two back to back stories that orient us to what Jesus was really about. The temptation of Jesus. And Jesus’ appearance in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. I think that these two passages together form a description of Jesus’ mission on earth. In the Temptation, it explains what Jesus was NOT going to do or be. The potential missions and messages that he rejected on the way to his ministry. Then in the synagogue, he stands up and tells them who he IS going to be and what he is going to do. Jesus is setting his boundaries, his limits, and his priorities and agenda. Together, they form Jesus’ job description.
Borg doesn’t name this passage intentionally, but he could have. He names five elements of who Jesus was and how he saw himself, and these elements provide a great summary of what we see in these chapters. So let me explain the passage through that lens.
First, Borg says that Jesus was a “Spirit person.” The way that Borg defines this is that for Jesus, “God was an experiential reality.” Look at the number of times that Jesus talks in this mystical language about God. About listening to God, praying to God, responding to God. For Jesus, there was a spiritual reality that made him act and behave in certain ways. He came to John to be baptized, a spiritual symbol, and immediately went into the desert where he fasted – a spiritual experience. Luke uses this language, too. Perhaps you noticed in the passage how many times the Spirit was mentioned. Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert, declared “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Jesus’ birth has been anointed by the Spirit, his baptism accompanied by the Spirit, John’s message was formed by the Spirit. And Jesus’ response to Satan in the first temptation is a Spirit answer. “Humans cannot live by bread alone.” There is something more than a physical presence in this world – there is a spiritual reality. We are fed by God! Jesus was a “Spirit person.”
Secondly, Borg says that Jesus was a healer and exorcist. He claims that paranormal healing was a significant part of his message and purpose. Jesus proclaims that in the synagogue, when he says that he has come to bring sight to the blind. He saw the world as broken in many ways, and deeply in need of healing. The Gospels are filled with stories of healing…physical, emotional, and spiritual. His healing power was paramount.
Thirdly, Borg names Jesus as a wisdom teacher. He says that Jesus brought a new and unconventional wisdom. Not only are the Gospels filled with stories of Jesus’ healing, but they are also filled with stories of his teachings. He taught his followers a new way to see, to center, and to live, says Borg. I think that the second two temptations speak to this new wisdom. Satan tests Jesus by offering him visions of power and majesty. And Jesus rejects them. To bow down to earthly powers, and to stand on top of the Temple with the ability to command all he saw, he was tested to reinforce the wisdom of the world. But he rejected it and preached a new wisdom, of compassion, of counter-cultural faith in God, of seeing every human being as a child of God instead of a resource to be used and abused. Jesus taught this new wisdom and new way to be, to the delight of many of his followers and the angst of many who were aligned with the old power and wisdom of the world.
Fourthly, Borg says that Jesus was a social prophet. Jesus says this much in the passage today. Notice who Jesus quotes in the synagogue narrative: he reads from the words of the prophet Isaiah. And then tells them, “Yeah, that’s me.” (“these words are fulfilled today in your hearing.”) Jesus experienced injustice as a carpenter in a small town. He saw what the local religious officials, and the capitol religious authorities, and the political powers that be – all did to the little guy. And he saw his role to stand up to such power, in prophetic and staunchly political ways. To say that you are proclaiming good news for the poor, releasing the captive, preaching jubilee and cancellation of debt – these are things that don’t make you friends in high places. In fact, when he finished speaking in the synagogue, what did the townsfolk do? They ran him to the edge of town to throw him off the cliff! Over his ministry, Jesus spoke prophetically and politically and it got him into trouble. In fact, Borg would claim that that is what God him killed.
Finally, Borg says that Jesus was a “movement initiator.” He was charismatic and popular. The Gospels tell us that the crowds followed him wherever he went. He was radically inclusive and populist, and people flocked to his message. He did more than heal. He did more than teach an ethic. He created a movement.
So, now with Borg’s five characteristics in front of us, let’s ask our question of the day again: Can we live like Jesus?
And for that, I’d like to turn to the co-author of the book with Borg – N.T. Wright. He writes a chapter titled, “The Truth of the Gospel and Christian Living.” And he names four elements of the Christian life that are fascinatingly close to Borg’s.
The first area of Christian experience that Wright highlights is the area of spirituality. Can we be like Jesus in this way? Absolutely! It is central to who we are as Christians. Jesus was a Spirit person…we are spiritual people. Thus, we practice our spirituality in ways similar to the way that Jesus did. We pray. We listen for God. We respond to God. He are baptized like Jesus was. We recognize that we are not to live by bread alone, but by the power of the Spirit. When we meditate, contemplate, worship, engage in spiritual reading, we are doing the same thing that Jesus did when Borg named him as a Spirit person: we understand that God is an experiential reality. And we can live like Jesus did in this way. The language that many of us are used to is that we have a “personal relationship with God.” That is a spiritual statement. For us to understand ourselves in relationship with the divine is not something that can be completely understood in rational terms. So we use terms like mystery, holy presence, wonder, and spirituality. Words that Jesus himself used, by the way. We can be like Jesus when we are “Spirit people.”
Second, Wright says that we are to be healers. A significant part of our role as Christians, he says, is to bringing about healing in our world. Physical healing, for those who are sick or diseased. Emotional healing, for those dealing with mental health issues. Spiritual healing, for those who are trapped in the web of sin. Healing for our communities, our cities, our nation. Healing for our earth, says Wright, as we recognize God’s creation and our role as stewards of it. In our worship and our mission, we can absolutely be like Jesus in the ways that we heal. I remember my first day on the job as a hospital chaplain in training, the head chaplain read the passage in which Jesus told his disciples, “one day you will be able to accomplish far greater than I have accomplished.” And this chaplain professed his belief that the hospital that we sat in – and indeed every hospital – was a fulfillment of that promise. Places that heal are places that are foundationally Jesus-like – whether or not they intentionally admit it. Jesus was a healer, and we are meant to be healers. As chaplains, that was part of our role as holistic healers. As Christians, it is our role to heal. When you see someone tearing down another, or breaking the spirit of another, or intentionally harming or sickening another, they are not living in the way of Christ. The way of Christ is the way of healing.
A third area that Wright suggests is critical to our faith as Christians is that of theology. Just as Jesus was a wisdom teacher, we, too must acknowledge this “wisdom from above” as Paul calls it. That doesn’t mean that every one of us feels comfortable leading a Bible study class or preaching from the pulpit, but as Christians, we are called to teach one another. Mentor someone new in the faith. Support our young people. I love the model that the youth leaders have espoused the last few months of occasionally sending our youth into our adult Sunday school classes. When they do that, young people have the opportunity to be taught by those who have had more experience in the faith and in life. Every word you say, every action you take is theological training. Someone is watching. What are your actions toward those less experienced in the faith teaching them about God? I love the fact that this church is intentionally multigenerational. In a world that judges the old in one way and the young in other, that is a counter-cultural message. And it is the way of Jesus.
A fourth area that Wright suggests is a significant part of our faith is politics. This is such a dangerous conversation these days, as political conversations are filled with so much incivility and non-Christian behavior, we have to be careful. But what Wright means when he talks about politics is that we must engage ourselves in prophetic ways – because that is what Jesus did. I’ll read a quote from Wright here:
The worship and mission of the early church were both inescapably “political”: to worship the God revealed in Jesus meant giving him an allegiance that was then denied to all others. To announce the lordship of this Jesus, and to summon people to trust and obey him, was to command them to leave the worship of all other gods.
In other words, Wright suggests, we have to mean it when we pray, “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” Just like Jesus was prophetic, we can live like the prophetic Jesus when we chose to worship God over the “little-g” gods of this world. Like the passage in Isaiah that Jesus read, we are prophetic when we reject the politics of this world – the partisan dehumanization and power-worship. We are living like Jesus when we take a stand to acknowledge that we worship God alone.
Five elements of who Jesus was. Four elements of how we can live like him.
That leaves one left. On purpose.
Jesus was the initiator of a movement. We are not. We are by nature followers of his initiation. And this is the final point that I would make about whether or not we can live like Jesus. There are ways that we can live like Jesus, but in the end, we must remember that we are not Jesus. We can emulate Jesus, but we also worship him as the One and only perfect human revelation of God. As we unpack the answer to the question, “What would it look like to really live like Jesus?,” we pause in a moment of grace to remind ourselves that Jesus has already lived the life of Jesus. And instead of judging ourselves eternally – in ways that will always leave us short and ashamed, let us instead rejoice. For in the salvation and redemption and reconciliation that the One Christ brought to the earth, we are a redeemed people. Let us learn to live into that redemption.