I’ve been meaning to blog this for a while:
A couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to this story about the retirement of John Stott from public ministry. Stott is, in the minds of many, the greatest living evangelical theologian. He’s a an Anglican, but his appeal is broad and his influence immense. The story notes that Billy Graham has called him “the most respected clergyman in the world today.” And though I do not share all of Stott’s political conclusions, I have long had great regard for his theological insights. And I was deeply moved by the sermon he preached last month — the 87 year-old’s final public sermon before heading into well-deserved retirement.
The substance of Stott’s sermon: we in the church need to focus on becoming more like Christ.
“God wants His people to become like Christ,â€ Stott said, as he was greeted with a standing ovation. â€œChrist-likeness is the will of God for the people of God.â€
â€œWe are to be like Christ in his Incarnation,â€ he said. â€œIt was unique, in the sense that the Son of God took our humanity to himself in Jesus of Nazareth, but the amazing grace of God in the Incarnation of Christ is to be followed by all of us. We are to be like Christ in his Incarnation in the amazing self-humbling which lies behind the Incarnation.â€
So much of contemporary Protestantism emphasizes belief over action. Too many pastors tell their congregations that salvation is a consequence of assenting to a simple formula: believe in Jesus Christ and his redemptive work on the cross, and presto, you’re guaranteed admission to heaven. And while assenting to the truth of the Christian story is surely one aspect of conversion, it is a beginning rather than an end. Faith in Christ without a willingness to become like Christ is empty faith — and John Stott, in the twilight of his remarkable ministry, makes that case.
Becoming like Christ is, obviously a process, rather than a singular event. Becoming an agent of love and justice and selflessness isn’t easy, even with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But what I appreciate from Stott is his reminder that all Christians are called to do this incredibly difficult work. The life that Jesus calls His followers to in the Sermon on the Mount is a life marked (to borrow from Lexus) by the relentless pursuit of perfection.
Perfection, we are told, is impossible for humans to achieve. Without faith, it probably is. But for me, as a Christian, one of the central tenets of my own belief is that Jesus is calling me to be as He was. I am called to model Christ and emulate Christ, and that is infinitely more useful than merely telling people about Christ. As Stott makes clear, the “Great Commission” for Christians is much less about what we say and much more about how we live.
Talking about the Christian duty to pursue Christ-like perfection brings us quickly to a seeming paradox. We’re called to become like Jesus — but a central part of His message is forgiveness for those (surely including ourselves) who regularly and repeatedly fall short of the mark. What we’ve got to do, it seems, is hold two things in simultaneous tension: the knowledge that we are all loved, just as we are, even if we never change — and the knowledge that we are called and required to do the achingly hard work of relentlessly changing ourselves and the world.
Sometimes, I imagine Jesus saying something like this to me: “Hugo, I love you just as you are. No matter what you’ve done, no matter what you’re doing or thinking or saying, I couldn’t love you any more than I already do. No matter what, no matter what, I adore you. But I long for you to change and grow; I’m calling you to follow me and to feed my lambs.”
I haven’t blogged about my faith in a while. But it seems that in recent months, the Spirit is stirring in my life in a more overt way again. I’m feeling closer to God than I have in a long time, feeling His call on me more acutely. John Stott’s valedictory sermon has been very heartening, and it’s been much on my mind these past couple of weeks.
It’s influencing what I’m writing about gender, too. At the risk of being accused of monumental hubris, I do believe God is calling me to do very specific work with men, particularly young men. My post on Monday has not been well-received for a variety of reasons, but perhaps especially because of this line: Our culture is too easy on our young men.
I love young men as I love their sisters. But I am tired of the ways in which various figures in our popular culture perpetuate the myth of male weakness, I am disgusted by the ways in which everyone from Harvey Mansfield to Dr. Laura infantilize men and blame women for male failures. I am angry as a man, as a feminist, but also as a Christian who believes that the message of the world’s largest faith is that we are all called to become like Jesus. Though there is no male or female in Christ, Jesus lived as a male, knowing all the temptations of the body, and He transcended the limitations of the flesh. And as John Stott (and the apostle Paul) remind us, we are called to be transformed into His likeness.
I’m a long way from perfection. I’m a long way from really being Jesus to the people in my life. But I’m growing closer and closer, and can already mark how far I’ve come even as I am stunned (but not disheartened) at how much further I have to go. And I am a man who lived as impulsive, self-destructive, and unChrist-like life as any. I’m not calling on young men to immediate perfection. I’m calling them to transform themselves and the world, and I’m working — as best I can — on ways to make the case for that transformation as compelling, seductive, and winsome as I can.