In 1992, one of the most memorable series of television commercials of all time hit the airwaves. These commercials featured children singing, playing, smiling, and drinking a well-known sports drink, all the while gazing with awe and wonder at a six foot six giant of a man who wore a jersey with the number twenty three emblazoned on it: Michael Jordan. The song that these children sang to this prince of basketball was simple, yet catchy: "I want to be like Mike." And the tag of the commercial was unapologetically straightforward: "Be like Mike. Drink Gatorade."
Growing up, we all have people we want to "be like." And in many ways, this is perfectly healthy and normal. For we all need mentors who inspire our hearts and motivate us to reach new heights. However, sometimes the drive to be like someone can turn dangerous and sinister. Take, for instance, history's first sin. Satan comes to Adam and Eve with this allurement: "When you eat of the fruit of this tree, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing the difference between good and evil" (Genesis 3:5). Satan asks, "You want to be like God? Don't drink Gatorade; instead, eat this fruit in spite of God's prohibition" (cf. Genesis 2:17). So Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden fruit. And sin comes into the world.
Although we are perfectly free to try to "be like" many people, the one person we are not free to try to "be like" is God. Yes, we are called to imitate God's moral character, but we are strictly prohibited from seeking to usurp God's authority or claim for ourselves his essence and nature. For God is utterly unique. No mortal is like him. As the Psalmist rhetorically asks: "Who is like the LORD our God, enthroned on high" (Psalm 113:5)? The understood answer, of course, is "no one." No one can "be like" the Lord.
In our reading for today from Romans 5, Paul revisits and reminds us of the devastating effects wreaked by those who would try to be like God: "Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned" (verse 12). Paul says that it is not just Adam who sinned and tried to be like God, rather, we all have sinned and tried to be like God. How have we done this? Whenever we have broken God's ways to go our own ways, for then we assume that we know better than God. Whenever we have belligerently sought to control our own destiny rather than leaving our destiny in the Divine's hands, for then we assume that we assume that our power over the future is greater than God's. Any time we try to usurp God's authority, we try to be like God. Indeed, we are trying to be beyond God, more powerful and wise than he, which, of course, is utter silliness and lunacy.
It is into the context of this supercilious desire to be beyond God that Paul writes, "Adam was a pattern of the one to come" (verse 14). The "one to come," of course, is Jesus Christ. Thus, for people who would try to be like God, God decides that he will take on human flesh and be like us. This is why Paul calls Adam a "pattern." God looks at Adam, and all of us sinful, broken people, and uses us as a "pattern" for his work in Christ. It is in Christ that God decides to be like us. As Paul writes elsewhere, "Christ was found in appearance as a man" (Philippians 2:8).
Unlike us, however, God does not decide that he will be like us out of his own selfish ambition or so that he can control or condemn us; instead, he decides that he will be like us so that he can love and save us. Paul says as much when he writes, "God's grace... came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ" (verse 15).
Thus, the call of Romans 5 is to stop trying to be like God and start being ourselves: creatures so precious in God's sight that even God himself would be like us so that he can save us. And who would want to be anything else but that?