This is a sermon that I gave at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost (27 June 2004). The Scriptures for this Sunday were 2 Kings 2: 1 – 2, 8 – 14, Galatians 5: 1, 13 – 25, and Luke 9: 51 – 62.
There was, a number of years ago, a statement popular among Christians asking “What would Jesus do?” When I first read the Scriptures for today I was reminded of that phrase. And as I began working on this sermon, I came across something that might answer that question. There is a bumper sticker out today that essentially says, “When Jesus said ‘love your enemies’, he didn’t mean kill them.” (http://www.brethren.org/oepa/LoveYourEnemies.html)
Now I have never been particularly enamored with this phrase which asks us what Jesus would do. For no matter what the situation might be, I am pretty sure I know what Jesus would do; it is what you or I would do that I am interested in knowing. The problem is that, in wondering what Jesus would do, we remove any responsibility that we might have in resolving that particular situation.
In asking what Jesus would do, we conveniently find a way to get out of taking action. We are like the young man in the Gospel reading today, willing to follow Jesus but not on His terms. We don’t mind hearing that Jesus came to save us; we just don’t want to get involved in helping others to find out what Jesus is all about. And we want this meaning in terms of our rewards, not our responsibilities.
We often think of Christianity in terms of what it means to us. We look at what we will get out of being Christians but we are unwilling to share in other’s sorrowing and pain. We despise pain and suffering and regard them as something to be avoided at all costs. We associate God with the pleasant things in life; if there is agony, then God must be absent or such pain and agony is punishment for our sins. Too many churches, too many pastors present a message that focuses inward and not towards others. Too many churches and too many pastors present a message of the Gospel that is a feel good about one’s self when the real message of the Gospel is to go out into the world.
In looking inward, we are blinded to the responsibilities of claiming the faith. Note that what Paul condemns in his words to the Galatians are inward, selfish properties. All that Paul condemns are designed to serve the individual at the expense of others.
In calling for us to show kindness, love, and care, Paul gets individuals to turn outward, turn to others in the community. Paul already, through his own experiences, knows that Jesus would show love and kindness in everything He does; Paul wants to know what the Galatians are going to do. He is asking us the same thing. Where is the focus of our action? Do we do things for what we get out of it or do we do things so that others benefit?
We as Methodists should know the answer to that question. John Wesley showed by his own actions and failures what happens when you seek something for one’s self. Before that night in the chapel on Aldersgate Street, John Wesley’s action, his whole purpose was for himself. How could he be a better Christian? How could he find his place in heaven?
But, despite all the good that he might have done with his service and care for the poor and the downtrodden, he was a failure. No matter what he tried to do, he could not find the peace that he sought; he could not find the calm to soothe the storm that troubled his soul.
Now, I have to admit that many years ago I probably saw life in much the same way, though never with the same fervor and zeal that marked the Wesley boys in their ministry. I felt that if I did good works, went to church on Sunday, and cried out against injustice and hatred like others, the rewards of heaven would be mine. And while I thought that I was a good, hard-working Methodist, there was still a part of me that saw the work and effort that I put into being a Christian as being for myself. All the effort and thought that I might put into life was just as meaningless as the work John Wesley did before Aldersgate. And while I may not have plunged to the depths of depression and despair that marked both John and Charles Wesley at that time in their lives, my life was not easy.
I cannot say whether I have had the impact on others that John Wesley did, or will I ever presume to think that I have. Perhaps when I am finished on this earth, at some far distant time in the future, I will find out. But in the meantime, having accepted Jesus as my own personal Savior, I have to ask myself each day, “will what I have done today allow me to seek perfection in Christ?” It is not enough to simply say that I am a Christian. I have to make sure that my focus is on Christ and not on this world. That is why the young man in today’s Gospel reading could not follow Christ; he was unwilling to give up this world for the world of Christ.
Some might say that Elisha was also self-centered in asking for a double share of Elijah’s blessing. But the power that came from this blessing would only come if Elisha maintained his focus on God. In his statement that he found that he trusted God, Wesley realized that his focus had been on the wrong things. And, as has been said countless times before, once his focus went to working for God, the success of the Methodist Revival followed.
Like the young man of today’s Gospel reading, we need to be reminded that our focus is to the future and not to the past. We need to be reminded that a focus on Christ is central to the focus of our life.
We need to be reminded that the world around us is the place where we serve and give everything for Christ. We know that this world is not the only world there is and it is certainly not the final world. There is a future and it is found in God and we bank all our hopes and dreams on that very future. We do believe that the Messiah has come but we also know that the world where the lion lies down with the lamb, where there is no more war or injustice, where every knee bows and every tongue confesses Christ is a world that is yet to come.
We may never have enough time to accomplish what we have been asked to do and it seems that we often do not have the right solution. Often times it seems that we even lack the resources to accomplish those tasks. We are hampered by our vision of this world, our own limitations, and our own woundedness. (Adapted from material in the “Martyrs” chapter of Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs, James C. Howell)
It is times like these when we are quite willing to let others take on the task, saying that they are too great for us. It is times like these when we have to ask, “What would Jesus do?” But I already know what Jesus did and why it was done.
Jesus died on the cross so that I would not have to suffer. So the question is, was, and should always be, “what will you do?” If truth and justice depends on the mere goodness and perfection of mere mortals such as ourselves, then we are in dire straits. But if we are to strive for godliness, to be saints, if we are to bring righteousness and justice, fairness and freedom to this world, then we must act. We must be willing to look forward and not backwards; we must be willing to do things for others rather than for ourselves. If God is to be found in this world, then it is likely that He will be found in the places of suffering and sorrow, not in places of bliss and ease. And so that is where we must go.
I know that Christ died for me so that I might live. So I invite you to open your hearts and accept Christ as your Savior, knowing that is what He did for you. And I invite you, having accepted Christ as your Savior to reach out to others and invite them to come and know who Christ is. It is not what Jesus would do that you should ask today but rather what is it that I should do?