Emulate Christ

When a tradesman of Jesus’ times passed his craft on to his child, the process began early and continued until the son was ready to take over the father’s tools. By then, he had so mastered the art of imitating his father’s gestures, angles and grip that the worn grooves of the tools fit his hand like a glove. Someone who had learned a different technique would find the family’s tools awkward, and as tools were passed down from generation to generation, each worker would feel truly in touch with the family tradition.

This process is similar to what Peter suggests Christians should do in following Christ. As Peter talks about how to respond to unjust persecution, the Greek word he uses for following in Jesus’ footsteps actually describes the meticulous process of tracing letters as one learns to write. It suggests long-term concentration and dedication as disciples learn to pattern their behavior on that of the master.

Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:20b-25
John 10:1-10

Peter goes into some detail about how the disciples are to emulate Christ. He encourages them to meditate on how Christ refused to be caught in a pattern of reciprocal insult and how he made no threats against his persecutors. It’s almost as though Peter were saying, “You can’t get by in this world without models, so become aware of and choose the models that influence or even determine your way of living.”

Without using 21st-century vocabulary, he was urging his community to be countercultural and to adopt the nonviolence Pope Francis called for in his message for the 2017 World Day of Peace. Francis calls us to “cultivate nonviolence in our most personal thoughts and values.” How can we do that better than through imitation of Christ?

In the apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” Francis quotes his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI as saying, “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

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The author of 1 Peter knew that no philosophy, no political movement is capable of sustaining the work of genuine peacemaking over the long haul. Nonviolence is too prophetic, seemingly too precarious and even unsuccessful to maintain without the help of divine grace. That grace comes to Christians through faith in Christ.

In his 2017 peace message, Francis said, “Whoever accepts the Good News of Jesus is able to acknowledge the violence within and be healed by God’s mercy, becoming in turn an instrument of reconciliation.” Like Peter, who recognized that he and his companions were frail followers, Francis is not calling us to be perfect but to be aware of the violence within us so that it can be transformed into the work of Christ.

When Peter reminds us that Christ bore our sins, he is indicating that Christ absorbed the evil unleashed on him without becoming a part of it. That is the freedom he offers his followers, the grace to deal with evil without succumbing to it.

In the enthusiasm of the first Easter, the early Christians believed that anything was possible. They lived and proclaimed Jesus’ message even at the cost of their lives. They had enough faith to imitate Christ in bearing the sin of the world, confident that life and love triumph over every form of death.

In his World Day of Peace message, Francis offers us concrete details about how we can do the same in our day. He invites us to apply the beatitudes in our daily work, to show mercy by “refusing to discard people, harm the environment or seek to win at any cost.” He challenges us to “choose solidarity as a way of making history and building friendship in society,” showing that “unity is truly more powerful and more fruitful than conflict.”

So Francis spoke in our name, saying, “I pledge the assistance of the Church in every effort to build peace through active and creative nonviolence.” We are the church. Francis has done no more than put a vital contemporary view on Jesus’ command to go out to the whole world preaching the Gospel.

The mission of imitating Jesus and spreading his nonviolent way of confronting evil is urgent today, but he left us his tools and inspired many of our predecessors to use them. They have handed them over to us, and our world awaits the assistance it has been promised.

[Mary M. McGlone, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, is currently writing the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph in the United States.]

This story appeared in the April 21-May 4, 2017 print issue.

This Sunday scripture commentary appears in full in NCR's sister publication Celebration, a worship and homiletic resource. Request a sample issue at CelebrationPublications.org.

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