For three years now, I have preached a summer series using a children’s book as a second reading in our worship service. We read the book in whole and talk about it specifically in the children’s sermon, and then it is referenced to varying degrees in the main sermon which closely follows the theme of the book.
Today’s book is Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, by Peter Brown.
Within our brief (and familiar) scripture lesson this morning, we discover a series of illustrations that have a common thread. They all aim to illustrate how we are able to influence others—particularly those (followers of Jesus or not) who are not “walking in the light of the Lord,” as Isaiah describes it in 2:5 of his oracle.
To continue the metaphor of light that Jesus begins in these verses, one of the ways we are able to influence others in faith is by letting God’s light shine brightly in and through us. In doing so, others are drawn to the light of God’s love in the same way that we are drawn around a campfire at night.
A Faulty Imitation
But most of the time, when we talk about discipleship and evangelism, we’re not talking about salt and light—about seasoning the world with grace and expanding the visibility of God’s love. Especially with discipleship, we tend to focus on imitation: You imitate me, and I imitate my pastor, and so on down the line—with the end goal of everybody becoming the same so we can all get along.
This is not actually very far off of the model of discipleship that was common in Jesus’ day, to be fair. In the ancient world, to be someone’s disciple meant you learned to be a carbon copy of your master. You got up when they got up; you went to bed when they went to bed; and you didn’t just eat when they ate, you ate what they ate too. You learned to talk and teach like they did, and you (in many ways) tried to become them, so that their person was overwritten on top of your own person. If everything went correctly—over years and years of disciple-making—you would even be mistaken for your master when a stranger encountered you: you became indistinguishable.
Jesus’s Brand of Discipleship
But I think from the get go, Jesus intends something a little different for the disciples that will follow after him. Jesus doesn’t call impressionable teenagers from prominent religious families. He calls grown-ups: misfits and outsiders and people who haven’t been raised and already taught for years how to be a disciple. At a time when a rabbi’s disciples were expected to learn to read and interpret finicky pieces of scripture and theology, Jesus’s own disciples may not have all been literate.
What Jesus seems to expect is that his disciples will become vessels that contain and embody the Spirit of God (and this is something that becomes more and more clear as we read into the story of the early church). Jesus desires that his followers—(his disciples)—will be Spirit-filled and Spirit-led as is Jesus himself, yet at the same time retain their unique selves.
Scripture tells us this, in 1Cor 12 and other places: that God has created each of us as a unique person and gifted us each in a unique way. Like Paul in 1Corinthians, Peter urges the church (that’s you) to “use whatever gift you have received to serve others,” and he recognizes further that our varying giftedness allows us to be what Peter calls “faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various (VARIOUS!!) forms” (1Peter 4:10 NIV11).
Whether we’re talking about Paul’s image of the Body of Christ, or Jesus’s parable of the vine and the branches, or whatever in between, we just can’t get around the expectation that when we are living the Christian life as it is meant to be lived, we will look……and sound……and act……and be very different than one another.
This is one of the things I love about being an American Baptist. Just a year or two ago our denomination was again determined to be one of the most diverse Christian denominations in the USA. I’ve been a part of other Baptist denominations in the past, and nothing came close to the diversity I’ve found in the ABC. Every time I’m at one of our national gatherings (such as the one in Portland last month), I look around and can’t help think: This is what the Kingdom of God is going to be like—people from all nationalities, ethnicities, native languages, economic and social situations—the diversity is astounding.
But for all that we are different, we are one in Christ. We recognize with Paul in Galatians that if you add anything to the Gospel, it just isn’t the gospel anymore. So we work to keep the important things important and try to keep everything else pretty far down the list of priorities.
I think our American Baptist life together is an imperfect fulfillment of Jesus’ hope expressed in John 17. In that chapter, Jesus prays for you. And for me. And for all of us. He prays (as he says in v.20) not for his immediate disciples only, “but also for those who will believe in me through their word…”
Do you know what comes next? Do you remember what Jesus prays to be the case within us and among us? He prays:
“…that they may all be one, just as you, Father are in me, and I in you, that they may be one even as we are one” (ESV).
Unity. That’s what Jesus desires for and of us.
But remember: the Son is not the Father. Jesus is not Yahweh. They are as distinct from one another as any two can be. Yet they are indivisibly one—and they are one in a way that we can hardly begin to comprehend.
Three persons yet one God.
Christ has two natures but they cannot be divided.
It’s all enough to make my head spin. But it illustrates the point, I hope: What is expected of us is that we are quite different from one another—yet are one in Christ.
So as the first disciples of Jesus learn and grow in Christ—as they develop, as they are filled with the Spirit at Pentecost and afterward, as they grow and are transformed more into the image of Jesus, they provide us with a better and better template for how Jesus would have us to live….how we can be fully ourselves (more and more the unique persons God created us to be), and at the same time more and more like Christ.
Imitation, part deux.
If I’m right about all this, it means we’re probably not reading those texts on imitation very well. Eleven times in the NT, a biblical author instructs their audience to imitate someone. But taking the whole context of scripture into consideration, it is clear that imitation is not about impersonation, but about inspiration.
Let’s look back to Paul—it seems there’s almost always a good illustration or two to be found among his writings. Even though Paul advocates for “imitation” eight times in his writings, he makes it quite clear in the very same letters that imitation is not about making everyone look and act and think like him.
An example: in 1Cor 4, Paul speaks of himself as the Corinthian church’s father and then says, “I urge you, then, be imitators of me” (ESV). Yet by this time in the letter, Paul has not once but twice pointed out that he’s not trying to get himself followers; he’s not trying to get others to make their lives look like his own. In the first chapter he strongly criticizes them for saying “‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,'” and so on.
Paul doesn’t want anyone following him. He wants to inspire them to live as God intends them to live: diverse people unified in their commitment to the Spirit-filled life.
The way Paul does that is to be the salt of the earth, a city on a hill, and a lamp set high on a stand. Paul is trying to model a Spirit-filled life for them. He doesn’t want superficial impersonators posturing as Pauline puppets; he wants to see them drawn into a deeper embodiment of the Holy Spirit as revealed through Jesus Christ.
“Don’t you know,” Paul asks in 1Cor 3:16, “that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (ESV).
Don’t you know? The best way to inspire a Spirit-filled life in those around you is to “let your light shine before [them], that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Mr. Tiger & Conclusion
In a more earthy, Genesis 2-3 kind of sense, this is exactly what Mr. Tiger does in his community. He has tried so hard to be good, to keep his nose clean and earn the respect of everyone around him. But he also realizes that there are parts of who he was made to be that are being stifled. That there was something unique in his very creation that he was smothering to death.
It’s not easy for us when we choose to be who God created us to be. People don’t like change—even distrusting when the changes we try to make are for our betterment. Like Mr. Tiger’s fellow citizens, those who know us sometimes find it easier to rip us out of their lives entirely than come to terms with the “new us.”
But when we live into who God created us to be, letting our light shine, we often find that we (like Mr. Tiger) are able to inspire others to live into who they are, to follow their own giftedness and passions, and as such, to find a more full and complete life.
But in order to inspire others in this way, it has to be true for us too—we must be spirit-filled as well. God’s light must fill us if others are to see it in us. God’s Spirit must be seasoning our life if we are to season the world. We will only find a full and complete life when we live a life that is filled with the Holy Spirit—and that is an inspired life—and an inspiring life—indeed.