Sunday, March 1, 2020

Lent 2020: Be Like Christ

I have a feeling this is going to come off like a really cheesy sermon, but let's roll with it anyway.

If you're old, like I am, you remember those Gatorade ads from the early '90s that featured Michael Jordan. Celebrating his athletic prowess, the ads featured a memorable, ubpeat tune in which the singer longed to "be like Mike."

Those ads popped into my head when we were driving home from Mass today. My wife, who's not a practicing Catholic but has been a good sport about going to church as a family, asked me if the scripture readings usually have a theme that ties them together. In particular, she was wondering how today's first reading, the story of the Fall in Genesis, related to the devil's temptation of Jesus in the desert from the Book of Matthew. Her first thought was that the idea of free will tied them together.

I think that's part of the message we can take from each one. But I think what we're really seeing is a contrast between how we should and shouldn't respond to the will of God. In essence, don't do what Adam and Eve did -- do what the new Adam, Jesus, did. When temptation comes, be like Christ. Doesn't make for as catchy of a jingle, but there you have it.

Let's talk for a minute about theosis. It's something I ponder frequently. It's one of the things that attracts me so strongly to Orthodoxy, as it's an idea that's central to Eastern Christianity. The gist of it is that the more we imitate Christ, the more we reflect God. "God became man so that man might become like God," St. Athanasius said. Christ has given us everything we need to pursue a godly life and to be "partakers in the divine nature," as Peter said in 2 Peter 1:4. In the words of Jesus himself (John 10:34), "Is it not written in your law, 'I have said, You are Gods'?" This is our purpose, as followers of Christ.

To Western Christians, this idea might sound bizarre, even blasphemous. Perhaps that's because in the West, and especially in the Reformed traditions, we find an overarching emphasis on the idea that we are incapable of bettering ourselves. If you're a rotten person, you'll always be a rotten person. Couple this with the idea that the only thing you need to do to gain eternal salvation is to make a one-time intellectual assent with no further effort needed, and you end up with people thinking that because they've handed it all over to God, it's OK for them to remain their current rotten selves. At best, this attitude creates spiritual apathy; at worst, it makes Christianity look to outsiders as being populated by people who neither look like Christ nor attempt to follow in his footsteps.

But what if we're the only Bible some people will ever read? It's imperative for us to think about that before we present ourselves as a Christian to someone else. A brilliant observation from Thomas Merton drives the point home:
Do not be too quick to assume that your enemy is an enemy of God just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy precisely because he can find nothing in you that gives glory to God. Perhaps he fears you because he can find nothing in you of God’s love and God’s kindness and God’s patience and mercy and understanding of the weaknesses of men. Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God, for perhaps it is your own coldness and avarice, your mediocrity and materialism, your sensuality and selfishness that have killed his faith.
In other words, reflecting the goodness of Christ into the world isn't just something we do for its own sake, or to be nice, or in hopes of gaining some kind of supernatural brownie points. It's because we are the hands and feet of Christ, and if we want to draw people to Christ, we can't do it by judging them for their failures, or shaming them with isolated verses of scripture, or threatening them with hellfire. When is the last time somebody won you over to their point of view by telling you how lousy you are if you don't see things their way?

And we do this not just because it's nice to rack up converts and "get people on our side," but because we believe that to have Christ in our hearts is to heal the world -- to feed the poor, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, love the unloved, stand up for the oppressed, reject violence, and show the world that God is love.

This is the heart of theosis, and it is the heart of what it means to be like Christ, in a world that so badly needs his love, mercy, forgiveness, and compassion.

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