In the last post in this series about vocation, we looked at what the creation story in Genesis tells us about humanity’s general vocation: to be God’s representatives in the world and to reflect God’s character in our interactions with one another and in how we exercise stewardship over creation. But, as the story goes, humanity failed in this calling, marring the image of God according to which we were created and breaking faith in our relationships with God, each other, and the world. Christians believe, however, that God did not leave us in this state, but rather intervened through the person of Jesus Christ to restore that image and likeness of God and show us how to live out our human calling once again. Today I’d like to explore this aspect of vocation: the specifically Christian calling to be Christlike. (Note: Because this is a topic I write about a lot, I’ll be quoting extensively from previous posts.)
Our Scriptures and tradition describe this Christian vocation in different ways, but they are unanimous that the goal of a Christian life is to reflect, imitate, or be conformed to Jesus’ life. As I wrote earlier this year:
By one name or another, the imitation of Christ, or conforming our lives to Christ’s, has always been one of the major ways Christians have understood salvation and spirituality. Elsewhere in the Scriptures [from Philippians 2-3], we see the idea of imitation in John 14.12 and Ephesians 5.1; similar ideas of embodying the divine nature or becoming ‘gods’ can be seen in 2 Peter 1.4, Psalm 82.6 and John 10.34, and being conformed to Christ in Romans 8.29, 2 Corinthians 3.18, and 1 John 3.2. Among the Church Fathers, the imitation of Christ can be seen in the writings of Justin Martyr, St. Ignatius of Antioch, the Cappadocian Fathers, and St. Augustine of Hippo. St. Gregory of Nyssa went so far as to define Christianity itself as “the imitation of the divine nature” (De Prof. Chri. 8). In the medieval world, it was promoted by figures such as St. Maximus the Confessor and Nicholas Cabasilas in the East and St. Bernard and Thomas à Kempis in the West. Indeed, as patristic scholar Vladimir Kharlamov summarized the Christian tradition’s self-understanding, “The goal of a believer is to emulate the life and actions of Christ as much as possible. Human ability to imitate Christ is sealed in the message of the incarnation, that also reveals the human potentiality to incorporate the divine” (Theosis, vol 1, 52). All this sets up Jesus’ life as a model for our own.
As the second half of this paragraph suggests, for Christians this need to imitate Jesus goes beyond following the teachings of a beloved master or guru, but is grounded in the belief that Jesus is simultaneously a revelation of who God is and what humanity, created according to the image and likeness of God, is called to be. This idea has both Jewish and Greek origins:
Within Judaism, ‘Word’ was inseparable from the ‘Word of the LORD’ that came to the Prophets. In this sense, John would be saying that Jesus is the full embodiment of that prophetic message, which as we’ve seen so often, was all about seeing and loving the world with God’s concern for compassion, mercy, and justice for all. Within Greek thought, Logos [Word] meant something like the providential order that lies behind the whole universe — its deep structure, grammar, or blueprint, if you will. In this sense, John is saying that Jesus is the full embodiment of God’s blueprint for humanity — he is the Image of God in accordance with which we were made. Of course these ideas, Jewish and Greek, are not mutually exclusive, and Christians have from the beginning meditated on how they weave together in and through Jesus. Either way, in saying “the Word became flesh,” John is saying that Jesus uniquely expresses God’s vision for what it means to be human.
So, if Jesus shows us how we are called to live, what exactly does this look like? There are four themes I’d like to explore for this: the vocations to be incarnational, cruciform, prophetic, and healing.
The first two themes are related and are beautifully summarized in the Philippians 2 hymn:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he existed in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave, assuming human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human,
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death
— even death on a cross.
The way of the incarnation and the way of the cross are both ways of humility, but they look slightly different. Incarnation is about leaving places of safety and privilege and going where the need is, getting your hands dirty, and hearing, advocating and acting for the benefit of those marginalized by society.
This is where the third and fourth traits come in. The incarnational path is by necessity prophetic and healing, speaking out about injustices and working to heal whatever needs to be healed, whether that’s physical and mental illness, or broken relationships with oneself, with one’s neighbour, or with God. As Michael Hardin put it, “The God whom Jesus proclaims is a God who blesses all, forgives all and loves all freely and unconditionally (Matthew 5: 45), and who calls us to do the same” (Jesus Driven Life, 2.4). This is not separate from an internal spiritual life, but is the deepest consequence of a personal relationship with God: “Jesus calls his disciples into sharing in his way of being bound in faithfulness to God and neighbor. Jesus and the Father are “one,” and he invites his followers into this intimate union, praying “that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:22) (F. LeRon Shults, Transforming Spirituality). Previously, I’ve summarized the way of Jesus and its consequences for our own way like this:
[Jesus] understood his mission to be about preaching and enacting good news for the poor, the captives, and the blind, so this is our mission too. He healed and called people up into better, more faithful relationships, and so are we to do this with in whatever way we are able. He held the world with an open heart but without grasping, and so are we to live in this way.
This is the way of shalom, of God’s peace that is not just the absence of violence but the presence of justice and healed and whole relationships. But, from time immemorial, advocating for this kind of peace, living the incarnational, prophetic, and healing kind of life that Jesus led, has been the clearest path to making powerful enemies. The darkness cannot abide the light and will always try to snuff it out. This is why the way of Jesus is cruciform — it leads to the cross. Now, as Christians, we believe this isn’t the end of the story — that there is life after the cross — but even here, our vocation is clear: We are given life to offer our life for the life for the world.
What all these traits of Jesus’ way have in common is that they are all focused outside of ourselves.
But how do we do this? This way looks good — if hard — in theory, but how do we actually live it out? Realistically, while this is an identity and way of life that we can appropriate — cognitively through repentance and ritually through baptism — it is also one into which we need to grow. We are Christians by virtue of our faith and baptism, but are always in the process of becoming Christians. We are human by virtue of our birth and creation in the image and likeness of God, but we are always becoming human as we learn and grow into our vocation to be God’s representatives in the world. As Walter Wink put it so eloquently, only Jesus is the human being; we are all human becomings:
It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness — which is to say, we are capable of becoming human. […] The goal of life, then, is not to become something we are not … but to become what we truly are — human. … We are invited simply to become human, which means growing through our sins and mistakes, learning by trial and error, being redeemed over and over from sin and compulsive behavior, becoming ourselves, scars and all. (Just Jesus)
It is to this process of growing up in faith that the next post in this series will turn.