In my youth I was a diver on my high school swimming team. Like most teenagers I had taught myself how to do a front flip and a back flip, but going beyond the basics required coaching. The next step was to learn how to do one-and-a-half somersaults and land in the water head-first. My coach was another high schooler, a senior, and he was a great diver. I asked him about doing the one-and-a-half. I wanted to understand the concept and to know what to expect. His answer was surprising.
“You just throw your head down into the water,” he said. “You just have to feel it. Here, I’ll show you.” and in what seemed like one graceful move he was up in the air, tumbling easily and knifing the water. He didn’t know physics or aerodynamics. He didn’t know the technical terms of diving. But he could show me how. I learned how to do one-and-a half somersaults as a freshman, and by my senior year I could do two-and-a-half somersaults.
That first year I was a disciple of someone who knew how to dive. He was older, more experienced, and he demonstrated how to dive day by day. In less religious language, he was my coach, my mentor, or my example. He established me as a diver and to this day, decades later, I can still do one-and-a-half somersaults.
That same year I became a follower of Jesus, because I knew in my heart I needed a savior. I was grateful for Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. I also knew I need something more. I needed to learn a new way to live because my life was a mess. Unlike my diving career, it took me years to find an example for following Jesus.
“Don’t look at me,” my church youth-leader said. “I’m just a man. Keep your eyes on Jesus.”
This presented a problem for me because I couldn’t see Jesus. I could read about him. I was certain that his sacrifice paid the debt for my sin. I just couldn’t see how in the world I would ever be like him. The problem was Jesus was unreachable. To make matters worse, everyone I knew kept pointing only to him. If the advice for Christian growth ever deviated from “don’t follow me, I’m just a man,” it became, “be sure to read your Bible and pray.” I tried to do it, but prayer was boring and lifeless. Bible reading was a little more interesting–and also a lot more confusing.
In my experience even the leaders in the church seemed to indicate that we were all in the same boat: sinners who needed a Savior. Right, I got that; but now I was in the boat and I was looking for someone to show me how to become part of the crew.
Then, one day, almost by accident, I came across an amazing statement by the Apostle Paul. It startled me because it was so different from what I was used to hearing in church. This man, Paul, said:
Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. I Corinthians 11: 1
Paul seemed to be confident in his relationship with Jesus. Although he once referred to himself as “the worst of sinners,” he knew what following Jesus was all about. He invited people to imitate his actions. Instantly I knew I needed exactly this: someone to imitate. Yes, Jesus was the goal, and here was someone who could do something more than simply point to the goal. Paul told the Corinthians, “Here. I’ll show you how.”
How many Christians (or even leaders in the church) make such statements today? I suspect that many people would consider Paul’s words boastful if they heard someone else say them. Yet this is exactly what Jesus instructed in the “Great Commission” when he charged us with “teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28: 20)
I believe this is the challenge of the church today. We have a gospel that promotes forgiveness and exalts Jesus as Savior. We have language which declares Jesus is Lord. We do not, however, have much of an idea about how to make disciples who will actually be like Jesus. In fact, some leaders even consider discipleship as secondary to the mission. I have heard this preached more than once: “When you get to heaven God will only have two questions. ‘Do you know my Son?’ and, ‘How many did you bring with you?’” I would like to suggest that this concern for evangelism is sincere but misguided. Even for those whose heart burns to win the lost, the answer is Jesus’ instruction to make disciples.
Paul’s example is not merely an example for recognized church leaders. Leaders and “common Christians” alike, we should each consider how we can share our very lives with other believers. Our example can encourage others, and the practical aspects of following Jesus can be shared from one follower of Jesus to another–apart from formal classroom situations.
Each of should should ask, “Is my life worthy of imitating?