The Next Step: You Look Just Like Him
Our gospel lesson this morning is a sort of hodge-podge of things, and at first, you might have a hard time threading them together, because they seem like separate sets of instructions. First, the part about disciples and teachers. Then, a section about fearing only those who can corrupt our souls, rather than those who can kill our bodies. Then finally, Jesus talks about coming to bring not peace, but a sword, resulting in family members being set against one another. But, Jesus concludes, “those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” These seemingly disconnected instructions are all part of a larger section of Matthew. Jesus is sending out the twelve during his years of ministry, giving them authority to heal and preach and teach as he has been. And before he sends them, he wants to give them instructions for their time away. These verses we read today are part of the list of things the disciples should keep in mind as they travel, and in that context, they make more sense together. Remember that they are still disciples, even though they’re preaching and teaching and healing. Remember not to be afraid, even though they’ll face threats. As long as their souls are safe, so are they. And remember, their ministry will cause people to need to make decisions about whether to follow or not, and sometimes this will result in division and conflict. But, following in the subversive, upside-down, cross-carrying way of Jesus is the only real way to find life. In context, then, it seems these verses are really quite perfect for our time together today, as we, all disciples, prepare to head our separate directions, but still seek to remain faithful in our journeying.
Have you ever seen one of those stories online showing people who look like their pets? Or maybe married couples who remarkably look very much like each other? It turns out, scientific studies actually show this to be true in certain scenarios: couples who have been together for years and years actually do begin to resemble each other over time. Even when couples “bore no particular resemblance to each other when first married had, after 25 years of marriage, come to resemble each other,” the research shows. And what’s more, “the more marital happiness a couple reported, the greater their increase in facial resemblance.” Scientists say this is because of “decades of shared emotions” between couples. The theory is that “people, often unconsciously, mimic the facial expressions of their spouses in a silent empathy and that, over the years, sharing the same expressions shapes the face similarly.” (1)
Who do you resemble? Or who are you trying to resemble? When I saw little, about 4 years old, I asked for “boy toys” for my birthday. My brother Jim is 6 years older than me, and I adored him, and I wanted to be as much like him as possible. So I wanted to have the things that he had, so that I could imitate him all the better. I wanted to be like Jim. Of course, I’ve also read stories about people who are trying hard to look like celebrities, going to the extent of paying for plastic surgery to alter their appearances. “Toby Sheldon, 33, has spent almost $100,000 in an attempt to look like Justin Bieber. He underwent hair transplants, "smile surgery," eyelid surgery, and Botox, among other things, over a period of five years.” (2) Who are you trying to resemble? These days, one of the biggest compliments you could pay me would be to say that I remind you of my mother, or my grandfather. Who do you so admire that you would love to be told, “You remind me of….”
Jesus sent out the disciples during a time in Jewish culture where it was typical for students, when they’d learned all they could from a teacher, to either find a new teacher to learn from, or to set themselves up as a teacher. (3) Jesus says we don’t need to do that. It is enough for us to focus on being like our teacher and master. Because we’ll never learn all we can – we’re always still in process. We need to be honest with ourselves, though, about our discipleship. How hard are we working to resemble Jesus? To be more like him? Are we putting as much in as the people who are giving their all to look like a celebrity whose fame is fleeting? Are we even trying as hard as my 4 year old self, making sure we’re well equipped to be like the one we want to resemble? Like the study about the married couples, I think it takes years of practice, of shaping our lives to look like Jesus’s life. We may feel like we start out pretty different. But years of sharing Jesus’ emotions, of feeling empathy and compassion just like Jesus does, of making the same expressions with our life that Jesus does, will result in us resembling Jesus. And that’s why Jesus asks us to do what he does, even when that means picking up the cross like he does, and putting ourselves last, and being a servant, and losing our very life like he does.
Jesus tells us that our journey to be like him might be challenging. He knows it will, in fact. He tells us that following him will be more like balancing on the edge of a sword sometimes than like strolling through peaceful meadows. Because we’ll constantly have to choose. We’ll constantly have to choose, again, following Jesus, seeking God’s kingdom, instead of other choices. And sometimes our other choices will look so good, or pull so strongly on our hearts. There’s no promise of no conflict. But he tells the disciples, and tells us: don’t be afraid. God knows even about the lives of every bird of the air. And we’re even more precious to God than that.
Our two years together have been such a short time in the scheme of things, friends. In our time here, I think Aaron and I have most emphasized to you that as a church, we always need to remember to ask ourselves “why” we’re doing what we’re doing. Why are we coming here? Why are we willing to support a budget for the work of the congregation? Why do we want more people to come here? Why do we spend time planning and in committees? Why do we want our youth to make a confirmation here that they too choose this family? Why?
My answer is that I choose this path because I want to be like Jesus. I choose it because I’ve found nothing and no one else that helps lead me into a relationship with God, that helps me glimpse the kingdom, than following Jesus. So I want to spend my life trying, even if so often I fail, to be as much like Jesus as possible. I hope you want that too, that you choose that too. If it is Jesus you want to resemble, I hope that you will commit with me, wherever we are, to the lifelong task of choosing again and again to follow Jesus, even when it is costly, even when we will be offered endless opportunities to follow other shinier, glossier things.
Be as much like Jesus as you can, so that eventually, people even say you look alike, that looking at you is like looking into the heart of the living Christ. Don’t be afraid, because you are precious beyond measure to God, who guards your soul. Know that you will have opportunities again and again to choose paths that aren’t about following Jesus. Hard choices to make. Other paths that look dazzling. Choose the way of Jesus, even if it costs you everything to do so. Even if it costs your whole life. Because in the choosing, in choosing the way of Jesus again and again, you’ll find your real life. Amen.
(1) Daniel Goleman, Long-Married Couples Do Look Alike, Study Finds, August 11, 1987. http://www.nytimes.com/1987/08/11/science/long-married-couples-do-look-alike-study-finds.html
(3) Chris Haslam, http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/apr12l.shtml?