Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, G.A., on Mar. 29 2009.
1 John 2: 3-6
How long has it been since you have seen anything that had “WWJD” on it? That was really popular ten or fifteen years ago. There were bracelets, T-shirts, and bumper stickers. When was the last time you have seen anything that had those four letters “WWJD” asking you to consider, “What would Jesus do?” I have not seen a bracelet in a long time. That was fairly popular among youth at the time because it was right there. You could see it. It was always a reminder. I saw a T-shirt a few months ago that looked like it was on its second or third owner. Somebody had either gotten tired of the T-shirt or had gotten tired of answering the question, I am not sure which. However, I did see a bumper sticker not too long ago, so it is still out there. I am sure it seemed very original at the time to whoever decided to come up with that “WWJD,” but this has been the kind of thing that Christians have asked since the time of Jesus.
In the 1950’s, there was a very popular book by a Methodist minister out of Texas who said we should always try to figure out what Jesus would do in a particular circumstance and that would tell us what we should do. Why is it important that we would consider in a dilemma or moral choice what Jesus would do?
There are two things that we can say about Jesus that Jesus shows us. One is that we are Christians because we believe that Jesus is the most complete picture. He is the best we can understand about what God is like.
There is the old joke about the little girl who is drawing a picture. Her mother asks her, “What are you drawing?”
The little girl says, “I am drawing a picture of God.”
The mother says, “Nobody knows what God looks like.”
The little girl says, “Well, they will when I am done.”
That is really what Jesus is for us. Jesus is the picture of what God is like. John says this in his Gospel. Nobody has seen God except for the one who has come down out of heaven, and he has made him known to us. One thing that we say about Jesus is that Jesus gives us the clearest, most complete, picture of God that we can have. That is why we are Christians because we believe that Jesus does this.
The other thing that Jesus does is that he gives us the best picture of what it means to be human. This may sound like a contradiction but it is not. This is a very clear witness of scripture. Whatever Adam wasn’t, Jesus was. Wherever Adam failed, Jesus succeeded. Jesus is the one person to ever live perfectly. He is the one person that succeeded completely in being what it means to be fully human and at the same time fully divine. I am not saying he wasn’t. It is a paradox, both at the same time. When we want to know what it means to do the right thing, to be the right kind of person, we ask the question, “What would Jesus do?” He tells us what is right and what is wrong.
Throughout the Lenten season, we have been talking about Images of Atonement. There is a great picture on the front of the Order of Worship bulletin. If you have not really studied this, there are so many different things to see in the picture. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t look at it a week later and think, “Oh, I didn’t see this before.” We are reminded that in the New Testament the writers cannot state fully and completely what it is that Jesus does on the cross. It is such an amazing thing that God has done. At the cross, he is the way that we are made whole with God. The theological word is atonement. If you want to slice it off, you can see at-one-ment. We are made one with God. We are provided peace with God. The writer of the New Testament cannot find just one way to express it so they have a number of things that they say about it. They say it is like we were found guilty, and instead of being punished, someone was our substitute. That is the whole purpose of the Mel Gibson movie, Passion of the Christ. Jesus is our substitute and has received the punishment that was due us all.
But that’s not the only way the New Testament looks at it. The New Testament says sin has orphaned us, and through Christ on the cross, we have been adopted by God. We who were orphans and left on our own are now children of God. Paul even says we are heirs. We are in the will. We are in God’s will and God has given us grace, mercy, and forgiveness. It is as if we have been brought into the household and we are real children.
Last week, we talked about how we are slaves of sin, as if we were on the auction block. Our future was guaranteed and there is nothing we could do to set ourselves free. What did Jesus say to the disciples? He said, “I came not to be served but to serve and to give my life as a ransom.” We think of ransom as being paid to kidnappers. In the ancient world, it was the price paid to set anybody free, including a slave. Paul tells the Corinthians, “You are not your own. You were bought with a price.”
You can see all the different ways that the New Testament tries to describe what Jesus has done for us. It is as if the atonement were the world’s most beautiful diamond, and we pick it up and keep looking at the different facets of it. We hold it up one way and the light hits it. We say, “Isn’t that beautiful! That is the most beautiful way right there.” Then you turn it around and the light hits again and you think, “Oh now, look at this!” No one side of the diamond is the whole diamond. You have to look at it all together. That is true of all these different ways that the New Testament tried to describe how we are made at peace with God.
I say this because this issue of “What would Jesus do” and the side of the atonement that it helps us look at is probably the most shaky on its own. If you only looked at it this way, I would tell you that it would wobble a good bit. It would be hard to stand. But the New Testament writers were inspired by God to include it. They have included it and they have said to us that Jesus is our example. There is no place where we have a better picture of this than on the cross.
Think about all the things that Jesus taught. As Jesus was making his way to Jerusalem, think about all the things that he taught them and teaches us still. He talked about forgiveness. Peter is evidently upset with his brother and he said, “If my brother offends me, how many times must I forgive me? Seven?” That seemed like a lot to Peter. Jesus said, “No, seven times seventy.” Of course, it is not a mathematical formula. It is really a Jewish way of playing with numbers. We would say 13 is unlucky. It was a way of saying, “You can’t stop.”
What was one of the things Jesus said while he was there on the cross? “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” When he is getting ready to send out the Apostles as missionaries and he said, “Go out, don’t take a bag, don’t take any money, don’t take an extra pair of shoes or an extra coat. You have to totally trust in God while you are out there. Trust in God completely.”
As Jesus was preparing to die, John records that his ultimate trust in God in that moment was to say, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit.” He said he came to seek and to save the lost. We see so many examples of that as he was walking around Palestine. Of course, there on the cross with his hands nailed to the wood, he was still reaching out to that thief. The thief said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” In all that pain and suffering, he was still reaching out and said, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Didn’t he say, “Turn the other cheek”? Didn’t he say, “Resist not evil”? He went to the cross willingly. Jesus lived it out. Everything he taught, he did and he did it in the worst moment. When we are having a bad moment, we want to excuse ourselves. We say, “I was having a bad day. You have to overlook this.” Jesus in the absolutely worst, most critical, most painful moment does it. He lives it out.
In 1 John 2, John says, “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.” Paul says to the Philippians, “Have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Think the same way Jesus did.” Then he goes on to describe it. There are other places in the New Testament where we are told that Jesus is the example and we are to follow him. We look at the cross and we see what it means for Jesus to fulfill his mission and we are supposed to be like him.
Those of you who are theologically minded let me just point out that the reason why this particular image of atonement fails on its own is because we know there is nothing we can do to save ourselves. If we want to develop an idea that if we just do it enough, if we act like Jesus often enough, if we are a fine enough person then God will love us and that is what makes us saved. That is not true. Doesn’t Paul say to the Ephesians, “For by grace you are saved through faith and not of your own doing”? Why? In case anybody would want to brag about it, lest anyone should boast. Why is it here then? If by itself it really won’t stand, why is it here as part of that great diamond of atonement?
To explain this, let me ask you a question. This is not hypothetical. You have to think up something. Think about a time when you were faced with a moral crisis. You had a real ethical dilemma. It was a clear choice between doing something that you know Christ would want you to do and doing the wrong thing. You chose to do the wrong thing. Later, did you say to yourself, “Thank goodness I did not do the Christian thing. Thank goodness I did not do what Christ wanted me to do”?
Maybe you were tempted to cheat on a test, so you did. Did you walk out and say, “Thank goodness, I did not rely on myself on that. I am really glad I cheated.” Perhaps you were tempted with the opportunity to be unfaithful and you chose to do so. Did you walk away from that and say, “Thank goodness, I did not stay faithful.” Maybe there was an opportunity to steal money and you are basking on the beach in Bermuda having embezzled it from somebody and thinking, “I am sure glad I did not leave any more money in that checking account.”
Which of us when we have chosen to do the opposite of what we know Jesus would do walks away from that and says, “I am so thankful I didn’t do what Jesus would do”? I don’t think many of us do. Which one of us, having rejected what Jesus would do, was better off? Which one of us had a better heart? Which one of us felt more connected to God? Which one of us felt that our spirit was strengthened and encouraged? Which one of us could pray more easily because we had rejected what Jesus would do? See, it just doesn’t work, does it? The reason why the moral example of Jesus is part of the total picture of what the New Testament and all the writers have to say about atonement is because when Jesus saves us from our sin part of that includes saving us from ourselves. Think about it. When Jesus saves me from sin, part of that is Jesus saving me from myself because left to make my decision without Christ to guide me and without Christ as my example or the power of the Holy Spirit to help me choose the right thing to do, do I come closer to God or do I drift further away? I can’t ever be good enough and doing right doesn’t save me, but if this is the way of Christ over here and this is the way I am left to myself, doesn’t it bring me closer to God, doesn’t it bend my life in the right direction to ask what would Jesus do and to do it?
Jesus is our moral example. Jesus is guide and trusted image. We can look at Jesus and know the right thing to do. We know what the heart of God is, and what we should do. When we do it, it bends our lives where we are certainly in the direction of healing our souls. We are there as a part of what God is doing in this world. God wants us to become his children, to be free from the shackles of sin, and to enjoy all that is waiting for us in the kingdom.
It is not enough to be good. Don’t ever mistake what I am saying for that. We need to understand that Jesus shows us, fully and completely, what God intended for all of us to do. His is example is there for us so we can do that and we know that in some way our lives are better and we are more at peace with God because of it.
What would Jesus do? It just seems too corny on a T-shirt sometimes, but it really is the answer to peace of atonement, this peace where being like Jesus helps us see, know, and express our love for God.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.