Embodying the Ways of Jesus: Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Today marks a day of remembrance for a man who pioneered one of the greatest developments in modern American history – the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. Or, better articulated, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., helped open the doors of dignity and respect for our African-American brothers and sisters. For he knew, was correctly convinced, that these honors were due to all humanity created in the image of God.

And as I have pondered who this man actually was and what he actually did, I realize that he embodied the ways of Jesus in a unique way, in a way that gets easily overlooked in our western evangelical context.

How so?Think of this: When we imagine the Jesus we find on the pages of Scripture – all that he was and stood for and did – no one really stands back and says: “Whoa, what a man of theological precision!” Of course, we would agree that Jesus, as the living Word, was theologically correct. There’s not much argument there – though I would add that his theology was not so much propositional (simply words on paper, if you will) as it was very practical. Rather, we stand back in amazement at what God did through his Son.

And that’s just it. When we look at the life of Dr. King, we remember what he did and that for which he stood. It is those things in the life of King that remind us of the man, Jesus. He mirrored the One who stood for truth and justice like no other.

Jesus, as the servant of the Lord, came to proclaim good news to the poor, to prisoners, the blind and the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). And while we want to “spiritualize” these folk, making it primarily an abstract statement for all people, it’s really a very practical statement about the people Jesus had come to reach and call. Find actual poor people, find actual prisoners, find those who cannot see through their eyeballs, find an oppressed people, and you can bank on Jesus being drawn to these folk. It’s not that Jesus isn’t for middle-class, fairly well-off folk like myself. I’d certainly hope he’s ok with folk like me. But Jesus was very interested in reaching the lost and outcast sheep of Israel, the despised half-blooded Samaritans and the rejected Gentiles.

Or, again, better summarized – the poor, prisoners, blind and oppressed.

It wasn’t just that he was for all “messed up” people, if I can use that term. He was for people who were “messed up,” but who also recognized their desperate condition, all the while longing for deliverance, healing, reconciliation and more.

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.

And more is found in Matthew 5.

Turning back to Martin Luther King, Jr., we all know he gave his life, literally, for the African-American community. He raised his voice to call for the dignity and respect and compassion that was due such a beautiful people of the human race. He did it all with the power of grace, the grace of powerful words. And I’m stirred to remember that he did it all without weapon nor violence. This, too, reminds us of the Jesus of Scripture.

Still, in our world today, I’m taken aback that so many Christian leaders are primarily marked out by whether or not they are theologically precise. It’s never about how much of the truth, or God’s kingdom reality, is lived out. I’m not saying theology is bad. I study it, have given my life to it, teach it, write it, love it. But I am convinced theological truth is essentially centered in practical living in the right ways of God, just as it was for the living Word.

A man of compassion embodies compassion. That is theological truth.

A woman of grace embodies grace. That is theological truth.

A man of justice embodies just-living. That is theological truth.

A woman of self-sacrificial love embodies love. That is theological truth.

We know this because Jesus embodied all of these characteristics and more. And he was the Truth.

Again, let me repeat: I’m not saying that the practices of theology are out of bounds. No. But a man or woman who espouses correct doctrine can be set aside if they have no marks of living out the truth and right ways of the living Word. The parable of the good Samaritan reminds us of this.

One can tell me about the doctrine of election all day long, writing volumes to impress. But if one doesn’t live out the doctrine of election, which is ultimately that we are called to be a blessing to the families of the world (as expressed to Abraham in Gen 12:1-3), then your thoughts on election may be rubbish.

So today we remember a man of truth, justice, compassion – a man who embodied the ways of Jesus in a way very foreign to what we hold highest.

We remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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