What Would Jesus Do?
By Sarah Pomerantz
August 9, 2009
Mark 1: 14-15
(mp3, 3.0Mb) ]
remember the very first time I ever saw a “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelet. I was trying to catch a bus at Rutgers University on a very busy afternoon. I was desperately trying to get from one end of New Brunswick to another and I was not alone because it seemed like the entire population of Rutgers was attempting to get across New Brunswick at the same time, and trying to get on the same bus that I was trying to get on. Just as I was about to get on the bus to get to my next class, I was elbowed out of the way by another student who happened to be wearing a “what would Jesus do” bracelet and a patch on their back pack.
I remember being completely stunned, first
that I was shoved out of the way, and second by someone wearing that
bracelet. I stood there as the bus door closed in my
face, totally late to my next class, and completely infuriated. Later on when I finally got home to my
apartment, I relayed this story to my friends. We all laughed and agreed that
Jesus probably would have let me onto the bus unless he too was trying to get
across campus in 20 minutes. At the
time, I chalked up this incident to one of those commuting moments at Rutgers
but it has always stayed with me, and as I have entered seminary and begun to
do ministry, it has recently come back up in my thoughts.
I knew nothing really about the
phrase “What Would Jesus Do” so I decided to look it up. A quick Google search brought up over a
thousand links with that phrase. The “What Would Jesus Do” merchandise is
everywhere. There are bracelets,
t-shirts, books, games, bags, etc. This
question has now been expanded to include, “what would Jesus buy?” or “What
would Jesus wear?” It has become a
propaganda tool for political agendas and there are sites that sell shirts that
ask, “What would REPUBLICAN Jesus Do?” I had not even considered “What Republican
Jesus Would Do” but I had a great time looking at that site. After a looking through a few sites, I finally
landed on one that gave me the full story on this phrase. This is a brief excerpt.
The phrase “What Would Jesus Do” came
from the book, In His Steps, written
by Charles Sheldon, a Congregational church pastor and one of the leaders of
the Social Gospel movement in the late 19th into the 20th
century. Sheldon began a series of
sermons that centered on a theme of Christian Socialism, and posing the
question, “What would Jesus do” when faced with moral questions. [i]
“The theme of the sermons was later
fictionalized into the novel In His Steps. The central ethos of the
novel was not about personal redemption but about moral choices related to
encountering circumstances of poverty and deprivation. Sheldon's theological
motif reflected his socialist outlook, and it helped to inspire the theologian Walter
Rauschenbusch who is generally credited with creating the Social Gospel.
However, Rauschenbusch acknowledged that Sheldon was the source of his ideas.
Sheldon's own parish work became identified with the Social Gospel, an
expression of early Liberal Christianity.”[ii]
The novel In His Steps “…takes
place in the railroad town of Raymond, presumably located in the eastern U.S.A.
(Chicago, IL and the coast of Maine are mentioned as being accessible by
train). The main character is the Rev. Henry Maxwell, pastor of the First
Church of Raymond, who challenges his congregation to not do anything for a
whole year without first asking: “What Would Jesus Do?” Other characters
include Ed Norman, senior editor of the Raymond Daily Newspaper, Rachel
Winslow, a talented singer, and Virginia Page, an heiress, to name a few.[iii]
“The novel begins on a Friday
morning when a destitute vagabond appears at the front door of Henry Maxwell while
the latter is preparing for that Sunday’s upcoming sermon. Maxwell listens to
the vagabond’s helpless plea briefly before curtly brushing him away and
closing the door. The same vagabond appears in church at the end of the Sunday
sermon, walks up to “the open space in front of the pulpit,” and faces the
people. No one stops him. He quietly but frankly confronts the
congregation—“I’m not complaining; just stating facts.”—about their compassion,
or lack thereof, for the homeless like him in Raymond. Upon finishing his
address to the congregation, he collapses and dies a few days later.
“That next Sunday, Henry Maxwell,
deeply moved by the events of the past week, presents a challenge to his
congregation: “Do not do anything without first asking, ‘What would Jesus
After reading this, I got to
thinking about what it means to ask that question, and how to go about
answering that challenge. It led me to pick this particular passage
from the Gospel of Mark. In the Gospel, Jesus Lives as if the Kingdom
of Heaven is happening now. Right after
his baptism, Jesus heads out on the road and begins to proclaim the nearness of
the Kingdom of God and urges everyone to turn away from sin and towards God.
Jesus preaches a simple and direct
message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and
believe in the gospel.” [v]
This is a call to re-think our behavior
and our attitudes towards ourselves and each other. In other words, Jesus says to us, "Wake
up; look sharp; the time is now. Repent. Re-examine your presuppositions and
attitudes and perspectives and behavior. Open your hearts and minds to the good
news I am proclaiming."[vi]
Repentance usually is associated
as a Lenten theme, where we are urged to frantically pray to God to forgive us
of our sins so we can avoid a fiery and painful afterlife. But repentance is
meant to be a tool of self examination and taking a self-audit.
Self examination is not easy, not
by a long shot. We may find there are things about ourselves
that are not so nice, patient or kind. We may see that we have fallen short of
our own expectations and the ones that others have set for us. These are the things that we have to face
though, if we are to live the way that Jesus lived. Yet I
do not want you to feel as if this is a punishment because it is not. Repentance is nothing for us to fear. In fact, taking an audit of ourselves leads
us to get closer to living the way Jesus lived. By doing this, we find out what our stumbling block are that would keep
us from answering Sheldon’s challenge.
we leave this place today, I ask you to consider the challenge placed before
you, to do a spiritual and emotional self audit, but I am also going to up the ante a
bit. When faced with a moral dilemma,
ask yourself, “What would Jesus Do” but also think about “What it is that YOU
will do” with that moral dilemma? When
you are on a packed train during rush hour, will you give up your seat to
another tired commuter? Will you help out your neighbor if they find themselves
facing hard times?
Repentance is a gift that God gives
to us to help us to grow and become spiritually whole. And as Jesus tells us today, the time is now.
How will you life your life?
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