A friend of mine has a four-year-old named Richard, and apparently Richard recently surprised his Dad by telling him, "I wish I was Jesus." My friend thinks that Richard wants to be Jesus because he thinks Jesus is a superhero with special powers. That's understandable, since four-year-old boys see plenty of stuff about superheroes, then when they're at church, they hear stories about Jesus healing sick people, making dead people come back to life, stopping storms, walking on water, turning a sack lunch into enough food for thousands of people to eat, and coming back from the dead himself. Pretty superhero-ish stuff.
But being a good dad, my friend wanted Richard to understand that Jesus is different from the superheroes on the cartoons. Something about putting Jesus in the same category as Spiderman or the Incredible Hulk seemed too sacrilegious to accept, so my friend told Richard that instead of pretending to be Jesus (like we do with superheroes), he should try to be like Jesus.
But that wasn't good enough for Richard. He responded, "No. I'm just going to pretend to be Jesus and do the cool stuff he did."
I think I'm going to try and see if Richard can preach some weekend soon at our church, because regardless of how much of it he gets as a four-year-old, there's some pretty good theology there. The desire to be like Jesus can take us to some good places in the spiritual life, but it alone can't take us as far as we're meant to go.
Gary Moon helped me realize the difference in a great blog post for Conversations Journal. To translate part of what he wrote there to my experience: My sports hero in high school and college was David Robinson. I really wanted to be like him, and tried to find any ways I could to do so. I played his sport and chose his number 50 to wear with the teams I played for, but that's really about as far as any similarities could be drawn. Anything beyond those things displayed obvious differences: He had huge muscles, was incredibly quick for his size, could seemingly jump over opponents, and led the league in scoring, once scoring 71 points in a single game. I was skin and bones, couldn't run, couldn't jump, and in college averaged double points for the season (as in 2 points per game). But at least I wore his number.
Moon points out similarities and differences between the ways that we imitate our sports heroes (his was John McEnroe) and our imitation of Jesus as Christians. There's an important similarity in that, to be like them, we must imitate their overall everyday lifestyles if we have any hope of being able to do some of the things they did. But then he points out a really important difference: ”There is a distinct advantage for those who want to live like Christ instead of play tennis like McEnroe. Christ will actually step into your flesh (incarnate you) and show you how to play—from the inside out.”
Long ago, I worked hard at being a basketball player. Yet however hard I worked, there certainly was no David Robinson stepping into my flesh and teaching me to play from the inside out. College basketball was evidence to me that I had gone as far as my body would ever take me in the sport. I wanted to be like David Robinson, which certainly helped me toward being a better player, but there was never any David Robinson in me.
Yet at the heart of the gospel of Jesus is the opportunity we are given, in very livable and practical ways, to welcome him into us as we also are welcomed to live in him. There is a lot about this that's a bit mystical and mysterious, but at the same time it's stuff that gets played out in our tangible, everyday lives. If, out of our desire to be like Jesus, we generally order our lives as he did, doing the kinds of things he did in order to become the kind of person he was, the testimony of his best friends through the ages is that we will discover him there right beside us in the process, even in us, teaching us how to live from the inside out.
Then it's no longer just about us wanting to be like Jesus, but it's about Christ in us.
I'm pretty sure that's what Richard was trying to say, in a four-year-old kind of way.