Paul stressed that in order to be effective witnesses for the gospel, we must become “living epistles.” We must become open letters that anyone can read and by reading, come to a deeper understanding of just who this radical Galilean was and is. It is a high calling, indeed and not one to be taken lightly. If we take Jesus’ words recorded in the 26th Chapter of Matthew as true, then it should be obvious to even the most dense among us that the litmus test for defining a Christian is not belief in Christ, but in embodying Christ.
My experience has been that many sincere adherents of the Christian faith pay little attention to the magnitude and the importance of this calling to emulate Christ in thought, word, and deed. I don’t say this to judge, but only to record what I think is an accurate observation. I would also add that I, too, am guilty of taking this call too lightly.
I have, however, managed to take the Christ-calling a bit more seriously over the past few years. For this I am ever grateful and, at the same time, quite aware that I still have a long, long way to go in terms of character formation. Yet I press forward toward that goal, which as Michael Frost points out, is incumbent upon all who would claim Jesus as Master and Teacher:
Practicing the presence of Christ means being a living example of the life of Jesus. This raises the stakes enormously. It means that our lives need to become increasingly aligned with the example of Jesus. It doesn’t require sinless obedience – as if that’s possible anyway. It means, though, increasingly becoming people of justice, kindness, mercy, strength, hope, grace, generosity, and hospitality.
Yes, this divine calling is an invitation to a life of fulfillment and reward beyond our imagining, if we will only yield ourselves to it with complete abandon. Yet for many of us, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Still, it is necessary to move forward as best we can, relying on the promises of God and the empowerment of the indwelling Holy Spirit. For many of us, we get better in spite of ourselves. I know that is often true in my case.
This call to emulate Christ is a call to give flesh to grace. The whole story-line of God’s Great Saga is one of proactive grace. God saw that we needed grace and gave us Christ and Christ saw that the world needed grace and gave the world us. Just pause and chew on that one for a minute. What a great honor and what a great responsibility.
The world in which Jesus carried out his grace-mission is far different than the one we live in. In some ways the world of the first century was far more difficult than our era, but in other ways, we face challenges Jesus never had to contend with. Still, if we take seriously the divine calling we have been speaking of we can’t let these challenges divert us from the task at hand. Michael Frost speaks clearly to the dilemma facing the contemporary church:
In our world today – post-Christendom and postmodern – we find ourselves a far cry from the simpler times during which Jesus lived…..we find ourselves up against challenges that we can’t imagine Jesus having to deal with. We stare vacantly at our WWJD (What would Jesus do?) wristbands, wondering just what Jesus would do when confronted with the befuddling complexities of contemporary culture. No wonder so many Christians opt to withdraw, to burrow deeper down inside their warrens in the hope that they can avoid contamination from the onslaught of the post-Christendom West. Likewise, the temptation to give in and be swept along by the prevailing mores is perfectly understandable. Swimming always against the constantly shifting flow of culture is exhausting, and it’s not incomprehensible when Christians throw their hands up and just stop swimming.
The pressing questions confronting those who are consecrated to the mission of vivifying the Body of Christ and mobilizing its resources in service of a world in great need revolve around both form and function. What kind of organization can best carry out the task of giving flesh to grace in highly varied circumstances? Once the shape is defined, how can the church best meet the needs of the community in which it finds itself?
As I have mentioned in other venues, my vision of the future church is of a body of highly committed Christians operating in groups that are creative, transformational, and incarnational. Michael Frost, writing with great promise and hope, cites six values that need to be embraced by the church of the future:
1. To seek an approach to spiritual growth that values inward transformation over external appearances.
2. To value a spirituality that seeks not to limit our God-given humanity, creativity, or individuality; to value diversity and difference over conformity and uniformity.
3. To enjoy from-the-heart, honest, dialogues and avoid relationships marked by superficiality and hidden agendas.
4. To strive to be completely honest with God and appropriately transparent with others about our inmost thoughts, hopes, dreams, emotions, shortcomings, failings, transgressions, struggles.
5. To seek to welcome back mystery and paradox over easy explanations; to live with questions that have no easy answers.
6. To work to honestly recalibrate our lifestyles, diets, spending patterns, and commitments to reflect our hope for a more just, equitable, and merciful society.
At first blush, these goals may seem overly idealistic and virtually impossible to bring into positive manifestation. As I study, reflect, and pray over these optimistic visions for the church, however, I find that they are not only highly pragmatic, but equally achievable if we consecrate ourselves to the task. We must also add to the equation a factor that many of us who hold a more liberal, progressive view of the faith seem to have either forgotten or cast into the dustbin of disbelief: With God, all things are possible.
Our work here at LifeBrook has demonstrated the reality that positive change is, indeed, possible. We have found that using a small group approach works best in bringing about spiritual transformation. Frost relates that in his church the formation of a small group ministry called “Life Transformation Groups” has worked quite well.
As stated earlier, our calling is to emulate Christ and become living epistles for the faith we claim. Although we face challenges that are different and, at least in some ways, more difficult than those faced by Jesus, these are exciting times for the Body of Christ. Within the context of these challenges and changes, we have the opportunity to forge a great future for Christ’s church.
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