NextSunday Worship

April 29, 2012

What Would Jesus Do?

Sermon by Dr. Brett Patterson Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18 Year B: The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Every Sunday when we gather here for worship; we have certain expectations about how we are to spend our time together. We sing our hymns, we lift our prayers, and we study the Bible.

How would we respond to someone who interrupted the liturgy, the schedule that we follow each Sunday? What would we do if a stranger came down this center aisle and turned around in front of the altar to address our congregation? Would we be shocked, irritated, or curious?

If we noticed that the stranger was dressed in stained and tattered clothes, would our irritation turn to revulsion, or perhaps pity? When the stranger starts to speak, we notice that the voice is weak, that the words spoken are interrupted by deep-chested coughs. Do we wonder what germs this person has brought into our sanctuary?

We learn that the stranger has recently lost a job, that the stranger’s spouse has died, that the stranger has cancer. The stranger came to our town to look for employment, only to be turned away by a number in the congregation, including the pastor, who did so kindly, but without offering any lasting help.

If someone came into our congregation today, indicting us for not reaching out, claiming that we did not practice what we preached, that we were not truly following the teachings of Jesus, what could we say in response? Would we become defensive? Would we seek to help this person, if only out of a desire to fight off any guilty feelings?

We find a vivid presentation of what such an event might be like in an important and influential story. Some of you may have seen the recent Christian film WWJD, starring John Schneider. Others of you may have read, or at least heard of, the book on which the film was based, In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?, which was published by Charles M. Sheldon, way back in 1896. Since its publication, this book has sold over 30 million copies. The premise of the book is simple: a minister challenges his congregation, for one year to ask themselves before any important decisions, “What would Jesus do?”

The minister’s question is not innocent; he has been convicted by a stranger who wanders into a worship service and asks to speak after the minister’s sermon on discipleship. The drifter explains that his wife has recently died, that he has lost his job, and that he came into town looking for work. Several in the congregation, including the minister, turned him away, offering no help. The drifter asks them how they can claim to be followers of Jesus and treat him the way that they have.

He collapses, and the minister realizes that the stranger has spoken truthfully; he has dramatically voiced that there is a significant contrast between the way that Jesus lived and the way that the people in that church are living. The members of that congregation live lives of privilege, mostly isolated from the poor and needy in their community. Listening to the stranger’s critique, the minister realizes that he and his congregation all need to take up the challenge offered.

Newly inspired, the minister asks the congregation to pledge themselves to living under the question, “What would Jesus do?” As the story unfolds from this pivotal point, this simple question leads to significant changes in the lives of those who take up the challenge.

What would Jesus do? Perhaps you have heard this question. It has been part of Christian popular culture. Recently we have see WWJD as an abbreviation for it. A few years back we saw the popularity of bracelets that reminded us of the question.

The goal of this movement and the question itself was to have us Christians remember that we are to pattern our lives after Christ’s. We are to follow the example that he set for us. Before we make any important decision, we are to pause and imagine what Jesus would do in the same situation. Then we are to behave the way that we think and feel that Jesus would behave.

In His Steps has had a profound impact on the lives of millions of Christians. The question it asks is still with us today. Of course, Charles Sheldon was not the first to ask this question. Many influential teachers over the years have sought to show what it means to claim Jesus as a role model for the Christian life.

When we look to the past, we realize that we are part of an ongoing tradition; we join the story already in progress; we can learn from the examples of those who have gone before us. Yet today our generation must also ask how we are to follow Jesus in our world. How will our lives change if we take up the challenge too? What would Jesus do in our world today?

This morning’s Bible passages help us to center in on how we might answer this crucial question ourselves. Psalm 23 introduces us to the famous image: the Lord is our shepherd. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells us that he is the “Good Shepherd,” that he lays down his life for his sheep. And finally 1 John teaches us that we who claim to be his disciples should then be laying down our lives for others.

If we today are going to discern how Jesus wants us to spend our lives, then we should begin with the image of the Good Shepherd, who watches over his sheep. We are the sheep; we are to respond to our shepherd’s voice. We go where he goes. He nurtures us and then sends us out into the world.

Psalm 23 introduces us to the image of the Divine Shepherd: “The Lord is my shepherd.” It is a direct statement, one that we know very well. It is a powerful affirmation both of the Lord’s sovereignty and of the Lord’s generosity, for shepherds both protect and provide for their sheep.

In acknowledging this double role, the psalmist is also professing his own faith; he claims the Lord as “shepherd.” He praises the Lord for meeting his needs: “I lack nothing.” Just as a shepherd leads sheep to grass to eat and water to drink, so does the Lord provide for us; these promises counter the anxieties that beset us, giving us an anchor in this world, refreshing our souls. We all need this time to retreat and find nourishment, yet as sheep, we must also go out into the world.

The Lord leads us down the paths of righteousness. Do we understand what this means? God has given Israel the law, the Torah and is expecting the people of Israel to follow this law. They are to be holy as the Lord is holy. This journey is not easy, yet the shepherd leads his sheep, his people forward, even through the darkest of valleys, the valley of the shadow of death.

The shepherd’s rod and staff, symbols of the shepherd’s protection, comfort the sheep. The Lord watches over his people even in the presence of their enemies; he prepares a feast for his people while those who oppose them must watch. Others see how the Lord takes care of his people. There may be an opportunity for the enemies to change, to wish to be blessed as Israel is blessed, but that is left open.

The central image of the psalm is the graciousness of the Lord. In the final verses, the psalmist records the rewards of belonging to this Shepherd’s herd: the Lord honors those who serve him; blessings overflow. Goodness and mercy surround those who love the Lord.

We understand that Psalm 23 identifies God as the shepherd. When we turn to the Gospel of John, we move into the territory of Trinitarian theology. Here Jesus, the Son of God, identifies himself as the “Good Shepherd.” We learn that the themes of Psalm 23 apply here as well, that Jesus provides and protects for those who come to him. When we respond to Christ’s call to follow him, we first find healing. We take on the role of a disciple, a follower, one who needs to learn what God wants from us. We listen closely; we retreat from the world and our sinful lives.

We learn that our Shepherd has given up his life for us. He is not the hired hand who runs from the wolf because he does not care. No, Jesus knows us fully, as the Father knows the Son. Jesus’ call goes out first to Israel, but then goes out to all of us, to anyone who hears his voice and listens to his call. We are the other sheep who are invited to this shepherd’s pen; it is grace that grants us entry. The Good Shepherd voluntarily and willingly lays down his life for his sheep. Yet this shepherd also has power over death and sin, has the power and authority to pick up his life again. Our Shepherd is victorious over our enemies. We learn these valuable lessons when we come to Jesus.

There are those teachers in our past who have highlighted this path of spiritual devotion. In the fourteenth century, Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ, another Christian classic, answered the question “What Would Jesus Do?” by portraying the life of discipleship as one of retreat from the world to take up a life of quiet prayer and devotion to God’s will. Reminding us of our coming deaths and the Day of Judgment, à Kempis called us to prepare our hearts for union with God. Importantly à Kempis ties our experience of God’s grace to our participation in the Lord’s Supper: Jesus invites us to share in his death and resurrection. Here is the source of our new life.

As à Kempis emphasized, following Jesus does involve a movement from the world; we begin the Christian life by leaving behind our old lives. We cannot stop here, though, for the Good Shepherd also calls us out into the world, down the path of righteousness. The Good Shepherd opens that door to us by laying down his life for us. We must listen to his voice and follow his example.

1 John argues that we are not just to sit idly by while our shepherd does all the work for us. He invites us to action; we are to make sacrifices too; we are to lay down our lives too. 1 John here asks a crucial question: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” The question here is similar to what the stranger asked those in the church in Sheldon’s book In His Steps. It is a question that we need to ask ourselves on a regular basis. Are we using the resources that we have to help those around us who are in need?

If we are not, this passage tells us that we have not surrendered our hearts to Jesus. God’s love has not transformed us. If we take the leap, though, and reorient our lives around reaching out as Jesus did, we will put our love into action; we will live in the truth that Jesus preached. Then our hearts will find rest. Redeemed and sanctified, we will no longer run from God; we will confidently come–not in a prideful sense, but in a sense of belonging. God has claimed us as His children–God’s Spirit lives within us–and we will want to do what pleases God.

Other teachers over the centuries have emphasized the importance of following Jesus’ example of loving sacrifice. Peter Abelard in the twelfth century argued that our salvation is tied to imitating the life of Christ. Christ’s moral example, his choices, his life and death display God’s love to us in such a moving way that our hearts are convicted and we seek to return that love in sacrificing our lives. We find God’s forgiveness in living like Christ, who is the one calling us forward.

We know of others who dramatically highlight the sacrificial quality of Christian discipleship. St. Francis in the thirteenth century willingly took up a life of poverty, abandoning the wealthy life that his father expected him to inherit. Francis’ example of following in the footsteps of Christ drew others to this life of simplicity, poverty, and devotion. Other examples abound in the Orthodox tradition of the East: the monastic ideals of poverty and devotion originated in the deserts of Egypt with St. Anthony and found expression in the theology of the Great Cappadocians.

Today when we come to Jesus, when we listen to the voice of our Good Shepherd, we must first find healing for ourselves. We must leave our old lives behind as we pledge ourselves to the Kingdom of God. We learn to place God at the center of our lives; we learn to trust God and evaluate everything else in our lives in the context of this fundamental relationship. We give up our anxieties as we learn that God will supply our needs. When we come to Jesus, we learn about the simple life. We learn to live with less, which is no small task in our society, where we are surrounded with advertisements about things that we just cannot live without. Our Good Shepherd, though, will show us what we need.

Yet Jesus also has trained us to reach out to those around us. We need to ask where Jesus would go in our world today. Jesus took care of those around him who were sick, who faced poverty, who were the outcasts in their society. Jesus loved them. Jesus also called those who had resources to give to those without. When we come to Jesus, we learn about caring for the poor and the needy. We learn what the path of sacrifice is–how we are to lay down our lives for others, just as Jesus laid down his life for us.

Love is what defines us as his sheep, as God’s children. The Christian life, life in the power of the Resurrection, shows us that sacrifices do pay off. The Father Almighty did not let his Son’s sacrifice end in tragedy. When we live in the Holy Spirit, we discover that God will also bless our sacrifices.

Today we are the Body of Christ; we have been incorporated into God’s plan. If we are to honor that invitation, if we are going to claim the promises of the Gospel, we should daily ask, “What would Jesus do?” Each of us must answer that call; each of us must listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd, who provides and protects, who heals us and then sends us out into this world. Where is the Shepherd leading you today?

About the Writer

Dr. Brett Patterson is a South Carolina native, having grown up in the Low-country and pursued a B. A. in English at Furman University. After receiving an M. Div. from Duke University, an ordination from the Baptist Church of Beaufort, and a Ph. D. from the University of Virginia, he taught biblical studies, theology, ethics, and church history at Meredith College and Anderson University. In 2009, through encouragement from the CBF of SC, he entered into full-time church ministry. He and his wife Stephanie currently serve as pastors for First Baptist Church of Lake View, SC. He is particularly interested in ecumenical efforts and in theology and the arts.

Scripture

Psalm 23 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. {2} He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; {3} he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. {4} Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me. {5} You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. {6} Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.

Acts 4:5-12 The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, {6} with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. {7} When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” {8} Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, {9} if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, {10} let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. {11} This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ {12} There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

1 John 3:16-24 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us–and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. {17} How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? {18} Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. {19} And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him {20} whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. {21} Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; {22} and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. {23} And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. {24} All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

John 10:11-18 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. {12} The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away–and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. {13} The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. {14} I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, {15} just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. {16} I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. {17} For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. {18} No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

Music

Hymns

O Perfect Love
Faith of Our Mothers (Broadman Hymnal 1940)
With Grateful Hearts Our Faith Professing
Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us
Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth
Happy the Home When God Is There
The King of Love My Shepherd Is
Abide with Me

Anthems

Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation (Dale Wood)
My Shepherd Will Supply My Need (Wilberg)
Psalm 23
God’s Family of Love (Ruth Ellen Schram)

Solos

The Lord Is My Shepherd
His Name Is Wonderful
The King of Love My Shepherd Is

Posted in Dr. Brett Patterson on May 7, 2012.