In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) – Acts 1:15 (ESV)
It started with a Jewish carpenter from a dusty town called Nazareth. His life, death, and resurrection proved that he was exactly who he claimed to be – God in the flesh. From 120 to over 2 billion professing believers today. It’s not logical. It’s not because of marketing. It’s not because the becoming a Christian made life easy. It’s because Jesus said, “I will build my church.” Through the Spirit, the early church withstood every opposition brought against it. The church multiplied and spread throughout the world. And now, almost 2,000 years later, here we are.
The lights, the decorations, the smells, the food – Christmas looks and sounds like the most wonderful time of year. It’s portrayed as a season that represents all that’s good and right in the world. It’s seen as a time when humanity is capable of unusual kindness and goodwill. Yet none of that captures the reason Christmas exists.
The eternal, second person of the Trinity did not take on flesh because of all that is right in the world. He did it because there was no other way for God to save his people from their sins. He did it because of all that’s wrong with the world. He did it because we were powerless and without hope. And so in a small town, in unsanitary conditions, a baby named Jesus was born to teenage parents. God himself had come to save his people from their sins. He had come to give us hope that one day, all the good that we long for at Christmas will fully and completely come true.
I am convinced that few things are as damaging to our spiritual growth as applying cause and effect thinking to our relationship with God. Especially as it relates to the reason behind his love for us. Because of our experience with cause and effect in the world around us, we are temped to think and act as if we must do something in order to bring about God’s love. Nothing could be further from the truth.
God loves us because he loves us. Not because we are inherently lovable. Not because we do good deeds. Not because we go to church, read the bible, pray, fast, give to the poor, evangelize, or gather regularly with other believers. He loves us because when he sees us, he sees us clothed in Christ’s righteousness.
“Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8 ESV). This is a stunning truth. We tend to think either consciously or unconsciously that the events in our lives reflect God’s attitude toward us. Jesus was perfectly obedient to the Father and yet he suffered in ways that none of us have or ever will. His experience reminds us that our circumstances are not a reflection of how God feels about us.
Circumstances change. God does not. If we are trusting in Christ alone for our salvation, we can rest assured about our Heavenly Father’s feelings toward us. His love and delight for his children is the same each day. Nothing we do can make him love us more or less.
Relationships are messy. They aren’t static nor do they follow a linear progression. We’d never try to program our relationship with our spouse or our friends. So why do we try to program discipleship in the local church? If discipleship is fundamentally about a growing relationship with Jesus, why do we insist on treating it so differently? Programs have a role to play and we definitely need a strategy for making disciples. We also need to teach people how to grow as disciples as they go about their work, school, child-rearing, marriage, etc.
When Jesus told his followers to go and make disciples, he meant for that to be done in the context of everyday life. You could argue this has always been God’s design. In Deuteronomy 6, Israel was told to talk about God’s law in the rhythms of daily life. Growing our love for God and others doesn’t primarily happen in an awkward one-on-one relationship or a one-size-fits-all program. It happens when we realize that everything we do, from the mundane to the exciting, is an opportunity to grow in our relationship with Jesus. The challenge is to see what it is about our situation that can increase our love for Jesus.
The religious leaders disliked Jesus for a lot of reasons. They didn’t like who he hung out with, the way he didn’t keep the Law according to their interpretations, and the fact that he was more popular with the crowds than they were. So I imagine they were shocked when they heard Jesus say, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20 ESV). How could anyone be more righteous then they were? They had developed laws to keep themselves from breaking God’s laws. I doubt it was just the religious leaders who were taken aback by this statement. The average person must have thought, if not them, then who? Unbeknownst to both groups, they had the same problem: they weren’t perfect. So in stepped Jesus as the substitute. His perfection is given to those who put full trust in him alone.
Which brings us to our situation today. Every single person I’ve met, Christian or otherwise, would readily admit they aren’t perfect. In that moment, we are admitting two things: 1) we are not God and 2) we need God. The only question is whether we realize that Jesus alone is the answer to our sin problem. Only then can we be perfect in the midst of our imperfection.
A few weeks back, my kids were playing a game together where the younger one would try to imitate the older one. It was quite amusing to watch her struggle to do all the things her big sister could easily do. Kids have a tendency to imitate others. It’s a part of growing and learning. It’s also a biblical idea. Jesus told his followers to do for others what he had done for them. Paul repeatedly encouraged his readers to imitate his lifestyle. The writer of Hebrews told his audience to imitate the faith of their leaders.
All of this got me thinking, “am I living a life that’s worthy of imitation?” The point is not for people to imitate me because of some inherent goodness nor is it for me get any credit. It’s for people to see so much of Christ in me that they say, “I want to live like that.” It’s about pointing people to him. He’s ultimately the one we are to imitate.