There are as many different ways of interpreting Jesus' life as there are interpreters, and the myriad of lenses used in looking at Jesus can be overwhelming. We can analyze him using sociological, historical, literary, ethical, mystical, and theological lenses. And within the theological lenses we can look at him from Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Fundamentalist, and dozens of other perspectives.
And yet, in the midst of a bewildering variety of ways of seeing Jesus Christ, our central concern in living as a Christian is (or at least should be) to live "in Christ": To imitate, emulate, and seek to embody Christ in such a way that we can say with Saint Paul "it is no longer I that lives, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2.20). So what kind of lens can we use to view Jesus that most effectively helps us imitate Christ and live in Christ?
Well, the first step in imitating Jesus, or anyone else for that matter, is to look at them and ask "What are they doing?" And based on the answer to this, we break down what they do into constituent actions, and then we try to imitate those actions one by one, until we can combine them into a complete re-presentation of what they did. It works this way for most activities, from learning handwriting to swinging a golf club, from flying a plane to performing a liturgy. Perhaps the same insight might work for imitating Christ as well.
Thus, without demeaning or denying the insights we gain from literary, cultural, and theological lenses, what if we used a Pragmatic Lens instead: What practical ministry activities did Jesus do, and how did he do them?
If we are going to use a Pragmatic Lens to view Jesus' life and ministry-- as recorded in the canonical Gospels-- how do we identify actionable practices that we can seek to emulate as we minister to others? To do this, we need to look for unique behaviors which Jesus did intentionally and differently from others in his culture. Thus we are not looking for trivial behaviors-- walking, sleeping, eating, breathing, etc.-- which are common to every human, except insofar as he imbued these trivial behaviors with a new meaning while doing ministry (for instance, who he ate with). We are also not necessarily looking for devotional behaviors which are common to most first century Jewish men, such as reading Scripture, praying, keeping Sabbath, and going to Synagogue or Temple. The way Jesus reinterpreted these practices will be of interest, but THAT he did them is not necessarily and insight into his uniqueness or genius. When I filter through the behaviors which seem to be trivial or common, I see five basic kinds of ministry activities across the Gospels that are unique to Jesus in emphasis or enactment:
First, Jesus welcomed the lost. He was notorious for speaking with, eating with, and even touching, people who were rejected by the laws and norms of his people. He welcomed whores. He touched lepers. He spoke with Greeks and Samaritans. From Pharisees to Roman Centurions to Sadducees to notorious sinners, Jesus welcomed all who came to him and included them in his proclamation of the Good News of the arrival of God's Kingdom. We may debate over the degree each kind of person was welcomed, but overall everyone was welcomed in ways that were socially shocking and unprecedented in his culture.
Second, Jesus fed the hungry. We may debate how exactly Jesus fed people and whether they were miracles of ontological food multiplication or social food distribution. But it is clear that Jesus not only prayed for "daily bread" for all people, but also provided (or inspired the provision of) food for everyone who came to him. And his pattern was always to feed before teaching, or as an illustration of his teaching.
Third, Jesus healed the sick. Again, we can debate how he did it. Were Jesus' healing miracles an actual irruption into space-time of a Divine healing power, or did he accomplish his healing through some psycho-somatic suggestion that allowed people's bodies and minds to repair themselves (or perhaps both!). Regardless of the mechanism used, Jesus clearly put a premium on restoring people to physical and mental health as a "normal" part of announcing the arrival of God's Kingdom. In every place where we find him teaching and preaching, we also find him healing and usually feeding. Which leads us to the fourth practice.
Fourth, Jesus liberated the oppressed, which is to say he commanded evil powers to cease and desist harming people, and cast them out. Some may include this as part of Jesus' healing, but I think there is a qualitative difference. Because the same words used to speak of Jesus exorcizing demonic powers are also used to speak of Jesus confronting and rebuking people who are harming others. Jesus "speaks truth to power", and commands forces of evil and death to leave, regardless of whether those forces are wielded by unclean spirits, self-righteous Pharisees, or the corrupt Sadducee Temple establishment. While healing is an active release of power to restore someone to health, the liberation found in Jesus' ministry is a powerful protest to block evil from doing harm.
Fifth, Jesus communicated God’s Love. He taught. He preached. He told parables. He boldly announced the arrival of a Kingdom where God's Love reigns as we love God above all, and love our neighbors as Christ has loved us (see the Great Commandments and New Commandment in the Gospels). This Love was not a mushy feeling or sentimental longing, but a hard-edged commitment, exemplified by Christ on the Cross, to give oneself sacrificially for the good of others, regardless of how much they deserve it, or how much it costs us. This Love not only entails that we are unconditionally accepted and nurtured by God, but that we in turn must unconditionally accept and nurture others. In so doing, Jesus also teaches that this Love for others entails certain responsibilities such as faithfulness, integrity, compassion, justice, and forgiveness, as well as not using others as means to gain pleasure, power, or possessions (a great example of Jesus' teaching, and how Love is a costly commitment with hard responsibilities, can be found in Matthew's Sermon on the Mount and Luke's Sermon on the Plain).
To these five unique ministry activities, we would most certainly want to add a list of devotional activities which supported and inspired Jesus to do these things. Such a devotional list might include: Regular public prayer and discussion (following Jesus' pattern of attendance at Synagogues); Participation in the worship and rituals which bound the Community together (as witnessed by his Baptism by John and his involvement in the Temple Cult); Private devotional prayer and meditation (such as when Jesus withdrew to desolate places to reconnect with his Father); Guidance, inspiration, and empowerment by the Holy Spirit; And regular Scripture reading (as shown by how Jesus' life and ministry seems to have constantly been infused with the subtext of Scripture's narratives and laws).
Thus, if we view Jesus through a Pragmatic Lens, looking for a set of practices to imitate, we see an intense devotional life which motivates and empowers Jesus to:
Welcome the lost;
Feed the hungry;
Heal the sick;
Liberate the oppressed;
Communicate God’s Love.
This gives us a complex of concrete kinds of activities which we can imitate as we seek to live "in Christ". And it of course raises a set of practical questions for each of us who desire to live "in Christ" and minister to others as Jesus did. How can we take the actions of Jesus and turn them into actionable practices for us, in our culture, at this point in history? As I ponder the five types of activities that constituted Jesus' ministry, and I seek to emulate them, it make me ask the following:
Who are the "lost" that we can welcome? Who is the outsider, the alien, the outcast, the neglected, the forgotten, the stranger in our midst? How can we welcome them as God in Christ has welcomed us?
Who are the "hungry" that need to be fed? Where are the vulnerable and neglected in our community? What are the material needs-- the "daily bread"-- that people are struggling to find? How can we supply that need, or help them find the skills and training to supply those needs?
Who are the "sick" that need to be healed? How can we help them find healing? How can we work together to create a community where everyone has access to the healing they need to be healthy and whole, in spirit, body, and soul?
Who are the "oppressed" that need to be liberated? What are the forces and prejudices and systems and institutions that work to keep them oppressed? How can we name these systems of oppression, and stand up to them, speaking truth to power? How can we protest to exorcize the evils, And nullify the powers, that keep people enslaved?
Finally, how can we creatively communicate God's Love in a culture that often views people as means to be used to attain ever increasing power, pleasure, and possessions? How can we explain God's Love in a way that helps all people know that they are forgiven and accepted, while also challenging them to the do the hard work of forgiving and accepting others?
For those of us, like myself, who tend to be nourished by abstract ideas such as the nature of God, the meaning of the Incarnation, the interpretation of Scripture, or the ontology of the sacraments, this Pragmatic Lens may feel less than satisfying. It seems to ask us to imitate Jesus without fully understanding the deep meaning of Who and What he is. But there are also those who are left cold by such abstract questions, and are only inspired by tangible actions which can be implemented. And Jesus himself seemed to be bluntly pragmatic at times, insisting that the Way of following him was not about ideological abstractions, but concrete actions to share God's Love. For instance, he never spent much time teaching the nature of God, but rather he embodied God's nature to be seen and touched (cf. John 14). In his parable of the Sheep and Goats in Matthew 25, it was those who served the least, last, and lost that actually served him, regardless of whether they realized it was Christ they were serving. And in Matthew 7 Jesus insists it is not those who verbally acclaim him as "Lord Lord" who know him, but rather those who put into practice what he says.
So, it seems that if we are to follow Christ we must first and foremost actually FOLLOW Christ by seeking to do what he did. We of course will never be fully successful in imitating Christ. We will stumble and sin in many ways, just as Jesus' first followers did. But just as Jesus raised Peter up from the water when he tried to follow his Lord in walking on the water, so also Jesus will forgive us and raise us so long as we keep on trying to follow him. And this growth in Christlikeness through trial and error has no end, no limit, as Jesus forgives us "Seventy times Seven", even as he asks us to do the same for others.
But if you are like me and crave theory to ground your practice, and theology to ground your ethics, then perhaps it is best to see the entire process of imitating Christ and growing into Christlikeness as the practical outworking of God deifying human nature in the Incarnation. Following the Pattern of Christ's Incarnation, in which God becomes physically embodied to heal and make atonement, Christ is now socially embodied in the Church. Our Mission is to continue the mission of Christ, as we reach up to embrace God’s Love, and reach out to share that Love with a hurting world. And Christ has given his Church "sacred acts" or "sacraments" by which he still reaches out to save and heal God's children. We perform these sacred acts-- above all Communication, Baptism, and Eucharist-- to incorporate people, by faith, into the saving Reality of Christ. By these sacred acts, Christ's community is nourished, re-membered, and empowered to continue Christ's mission to welcome the lost, feed the hungry, heal the sick, liberate the oppressed, and communicate God’s Love. Teresa of Avila wisely notes "Christ has no body now on earth but ours." And C.S. Lewis has said about our common life as Christ's Body: "The Church exists for nothing else but to draw [people] into Christ, to make them little christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose."
Lord Jesus Christ, in you God becomes human so that humanity may be united to God: So inspire us by your example and empower us by your Spirit, that we may be transformed into your image. Help us imitate you and do very the things you did: Welcome the lost, feed the hungry, heal the sick, liberate the oppressed, and communicate God’s Love. All this we ask for your sake. Amen.