Last year in June, a group of former NFL stars traveled to Rome for a meeting with the Pope. Former New York Jets running back Curtis Martin summed up the experience: “This was a wonderful day. Just to have an opportunity to shake his hand and to feel his presence in person was a blessing. He is the closest thing we know to Jesus walking the earth.”
Is he? This is not to question either the Pope’s gravitas or the depth of Martin’s emotions that day. It must have been an overwhelming experience. But who really is the closest thing to Jesus walking this earth?
Historically, there was Enoch, of course, who “walked with God.” They were so close that one day God invited Enoch to come to his place (Genesis 5:24). And there was King David, described by God himself as “a man after my own heart” (Acts 13:22). What about the Apostle John, who gave himself the title, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 21:7)? That’s a pretty bold statement. People could have called him on it if it wasn’t true. But it was. John was really close to our Lord.
The expression close to Jesus could imply either a close relationship with him or—as Martin probably meant—being very similar to Jesus. If you think about it, it’s really a strange thing that we could speak of anybody as being close to Jesus—in either way!
By rights, no one is anywhere near close to Jesus. We humans are by nature and in practice sinners! How can we walk with God? How can we pretend to be like his Son? How dare we enter the presence of God? “Woe is me!” says Isaiah, speaking for all of us. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips… and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5). He was rightly terrified.
We don’t come close to Jesus. We can’t. But Jesus comes close to us. First as Immanuel, God with us, to live the righteous life none of us are capable of, and then to suffer and die—as he took for himself the consequence of my sin and your sin. The result? Based on your faith, God considers you righteous, because of his Son. And draws you near to him.
Today, Jesus comes close to us again, and very personally. His Spirit descended on his followers at Pentecost. From then on, every believer enjoys the indwelling presence of this Counselor, this Comforter, who is God. Now that’s close!
Who is the closest thing to Jesus walking this earth today? You are! If you know Jesus, you bring the presence of God to everyone you encounter.
Rev. Brent Juliot serves as pastor of Oak Ridge Lutheran Brethren Church in Menomonie, Wisconsin.