Growing up Catholic in the 40s and50s, I don't remember being encouraged to imitate Jesus' dying and rising. I never thought of myself as another Christ. That title and ministry was reserved only for members of the hierarchy. We laity were simply expected to pick out a special saint or two and imitate their holy life-style.
When Protestant friends or family asked why I prayed to saints instead of directly to Jesus, I deftly gave the "party answer." Jesus as God was so far above us humans that we had a much better chance of having our petitions heard and answered if we employed an intermediary to present our case. We were also advised to search the list of saints to find one of two who were the "most forgotten." Since these forlorn individuals had more heavenly time on their hands than the popular saints, they could lobby Jesus on our behalf 24/7.
The early Christian communities would never have appreciated such theology and behavior. Those first followers of Jesus boldly regarded themselves as other Christs, carrying out not only his commands but also his ministry. They were so one with him that Paul could remind the church in Rome, "If we have died with Christ, we believe that we are also to live with him." Just as Matthew's Jesus could instruct the evangelist's community, "Those who welcome you welcome me, and those who welcome me welcome the one who sent me."
Notice how Matthew includes in this passage a reference to the Elisha narrative in our II Kings narrative. "Anyone who welcomes a prophet because he or she bears the name of a prophet receives a prophet's reward; those who welcome a holy person because he or she is known as holy receive a holy person's reward." Yet the evangelist wants his readers to understand that, even though they might help the holy and prophets carry on their specific ministries, they themselves are also holy and prophetic.
Only when we began to lose our identification with the risen Jesus did we begin to employ intermediaries between us and Jesus. Given today's readings, it's not difficult to determine why we started to distance ourselves fro him and his ministry. Jesus' disciples gradually began to understand the implications of being "...baptized in Christ Jesus' death, through baptism buried with him."
Matthew leaves no doubt of Jesus' demands. "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, those who do not take up their cross and follow after me are not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."
Even after one tones down the Semitic exaggerations, we're still left with humongous demands and responsibilities. Though both Paul and Matthew presumed Jesus would return in the Parousia during or shortly after their lifetime, they knew their oneness with Jesus was the most demanding aspect of their day by day existence. They were buried daily with him in their generous self-giving to others. The awoke each morning open to carrying whatever new cross he would send them that day.
But through the years, every Christian's responsibility to continue Jesus' ministry became a thing of the past. What was once expected of all became something for just the clerical few. We gradually became unworthy even to directly communicate with the person with whom we had originally been identified. The unbelievable had happened!