Two parts of this text stand out to me: First, its statement of identity. In these words Christ identifies who the Christ’s followers are. Secondly, its promise of a gift. Christ describes a gift given to Christ’s followers.
Growing up I attended the Worldwide Church of God a then strict offshoot of the Adventist church. It identified Christ followers by their actions – particularly how they obeyed specific rules. Did they obey the law correctly? Did they keep the Sabbath? How well did they tithe? Christians who did not keep these rules in other churches were often called from the pulpits “Christians in name only” and even members of that church often wondered “am I overcoming enough to really be counted as a Christian?” I remember people wondering if their lives were faithful enough, as they could not perfectly follow these rules. I know for me as I began to discover Christianity myself I felt at times like a hamster in a wheel, always trying harder to live right and have a positive attitude but, like the adults I modeled my faith after, never quite feeling I could make it.
Later on my faith really came alive among the campus Christian club at my high school. Here was a mixed group mainly of evangelicals and Pentecostals. From them I learned that grace was a free gift – God’s love coming unearned, undeserved, and free to all who believe. I also learned about faith as a personal relationship with God. I could talk to God as a friend, without fear, knowing God knew my heart and loved me. These gifts of faith I carry with me into my faith today.
Yet they too had their own definitions of who was a Christian. Though “confess with your mouth, believe in your heart” was a more all-embracing description of how faith is found, still people questioned were folks really Christians. After all, what if people believed the wrong things? It became not just a matter of trusting God but also a question of believing the right ideas about Jesus and God. People who didn’t believe in the Trinity, in what I later found out theologians call substitutionary atonement, well … they were suspect. And especially those non-believers and believers in other things.
Also among my Pentecostal friends, I heard particular gifts as signs of being God’s people. Had I spoken in tongues? Had I danced in the Spirit? Had I had visions? When I would visit their churches there would be a pressure to claim such experiences. I knew some that had not had them, who wondered “Is my Christianity true?”
Having had this type of journey among many different expressions of Christian faith, and having among them had times I wondered “am I living up?” I find Jesus’ words refreshing. Jesus tells us that his disciples will be those who keep his words, following in his footsteps in their daily lives. What does that look like? It looks like living out lives of love. Jesus’ teachings and example demonstrate for us what love is when it is lived out.
In many ways Jesus’s description of who the followers of the Christ are is very similar to the prophet Micah’s words in Micah 6:8, when he answers the question “what does the Lord require of us?” with “to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God”.
Ultimately it is not perfect obedience to rules, having all of our doctrines line up, or – surprise of surprises – even having the name Christian! It is having a life lived on the model of Christ, however imperfectly, through living lives of love. That is the sign we are God’s people.
I found people like that in each of those faith communities in which my faith was forged – people who despite their differences in belief and practice lived their lives with love for God, patterning their life on the example of Jesus, so that they loved and served others. Though in each community there were those so stuck on their unique beliefs, rules, rituals, or mystical experiences they failed to love and serve humbly there always were people modeling love, service, help to the hurting by living as Jesus lived.
In fact, I have found this to be true of people outside my faith altogether. History tells us of men and women like Mahatma Gandhi and Thich Naht Hahn, who are not explicitly followers of Jesus or Christian, yet whose lives emulate his life of love, service, support for the hurting, selfless compassion, and forgiveness.
We can know from Jesus’s words that people whose lives are lived in such a vein are not doing that on their own steam. Rather they have discovered how to drink deep of the same waters of life that Jesus offers his disciples when he tells them that if they follow in his steps of love they will find God dwells in them, and they in God, all through the living Christ. To live and love in this way involves being made alive by the presence of the God of life whom we know through Christ as Father, Son, and mothering Holy Spirit but who is named by other names in other traditions and land.
This brings me to the second point that stands out – we are offered a gift when we embark on this journey, the gift of another Advocate, a teacher, whom Christians know as God the Holy Spirit. By choosing to embrace life with God, we invite awareness of God within us, God the Holy Spirit. When we are aware of the Spirit’s presence within all living things and most of all within our own lives and hearts, we can know that we are never alone.
This is important because we face choices in each of our individual lives Jesus never faced. Jesus never was a pregnant woman deciding whether to keep the baby or not. Jesus was never, as far as we know, a person recovering from childhood abuse. Jesus was never deciding the particular career choices you are, or whether to marry that specific special someone you are marrying. And the list goes on…
But the same Holy Spirit who inspired Jesus’s steps has been in and with people making just those choices. That same Holy Spirit rejoices within each person who rejoices and grieves in each grieved by trauma, loss, and pain. The Holy Spirit like a mother taking a child’s hand is always with us able to guide us to the next step.
For me this is an encouragement. If I look at my life and can see that though it is not perfect I am doing my best to walk in the steps of Jesus, to live with love toward others, openness to God, and in pursuit of having justice done to make a fair world, I can know that Spirit is with and in me. And by listening to my life I can begin to discern the move of the Spirit, the guidance of the Spirit. And I can trust that the Holy Spirit can guide me, like a mother her child, even when my steps are not so clear and lead me back to the right path if we wander away.
This day may you abandon needing to be right, needing to figure yourself and others out, and simply trust walking in Jesus’ footsteps. May you trust the Spirit, knowing you are not alone.