I shared the following devotional in this week’s church email blast.
Last Sunday, while on vacation, I did something that we pastors like to do every once in a while: I visited a church in complete anonymity—where I knew no one and had no responsibilities other than to worship. It was nice for a change, although I’ll enjoy being back in the pulpit this Sunday.
While I was there, I heard a sermon whose lesson boiled down to the following: “Be like Jesus… or else be a self-righteous hypocrite!”
By the time the sermon was over, I felt slightly discouraged. See, I know my own heart pretty well: I am a self-righteous hypocrite! And I’m most assuredly not like Jesus. While listening to this sermon, I thought, “Tell me something I don’t know!”
Don’t get me wrong: I want to be like Jesus. I try to be like Jesus. But I fall far short. The truth is, I always will.
As theologian N.T. Wright said many years ago, holding Jesus up as a moral example for us to follow is a little like telling an amateur golfer, “Just hit the ball like Tiger Woods.” Maybe today Wright would substitute Rory McIlroy or Jordan Spieth. At the time he wrote this, however, even pros who practiced golf eight hours a day every day were finding it impossible to hit the ball like Tiger Woods!
How much more difficult is it to be like Jesus!
No, as strange as it seems, our main task as Christians isn’t so much to be like Jesus as it is to be in love with Jesus.
How do we do that?
There’s a familiar gospel story that gets at the heart of this message. It’s found in Luke 7. Jesus is at a dinner party with Simon the Pharisee. The party is interrupted by a prostitute who falls at Jesus’ feet and anoints them with tears and perfume. Simon thinks to himself: “This man must not be a prophet, otherwise he would surely know what a terrible sinner this woman is!”
Jesus knows what Simon is thinking. So he tells him a parable about the connection between forgiveness and love. He concludes: “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”[†]
The foundation for Christlike love, therefore, is the good news that even though we are helpless sinners—apart from grace—we find forgiveness and eternal life through Christ. It’s about gratitude for receiving a gift that’s infinitely better than we deserve.
This is the message through which God will melt our hearts and transform us into Christlike people.
So let’s start there: Relax! Don’t try to be like Jesus. Instead, be like this woman in Luke 7:36-50. As fellow sinners, we will find her example much easier to follow!
† Let’s be clear: the woman’s actions themselves are a sign of her repentance. Given everything else we know from the Bible and Luke’s gospel (cf. Luke 19:1-10), we have no reason to think that she returned to her trade. Jesus knew her heart. Repentance is at least an awareness of sin and the desire to change. Inasmuch as our repentance is incomplete, we claim the promise of 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”