Posted on July 16, 2018 | Posted by Annie Saunders
There was this brief period when they were everywhere. It seemed like every kid at school had one. Some were homemade, carefully woven from thread. Others were plastic. Most were bright and colorful. If it was today instead of the mid 90s, I’m sure they’d be those silicone bracelets like the yellow ones popularized by Lance Armstrong back when Lance Armstrong was popular. These erupted on to the scene just as fast and faded just as fast, too.
It was the “What Would Jesus Do” bracelet. WWJD written across every kid’s wrist, including those you never knew were Christian. Meant to be a reminder, to ask yourself that simple question whenever faced with a dilemma. What would Jesus do?
I never had one. In fact, I didn’t like them at all. I hated them. And I’m sure it had nothing to do with the fact that everyone else had one, including all the cool kids at school and also my friend Colin who used to be on the same popularity plane as I was but then his parents’ let him bleach his hair and suddenly he’s got a date to homecoming and isn’t interested in Math Bowl like the rest of us and he only got one because he goes to First Pres like all the other cool kids and they hand ‘em out over there like it’s candy. I was definitely not jealous of Colin. My hatred for the bracelet was purely theological.
I didn’t like the way it reduced Christianity to a moralism, this sense that the central truth was that Jesus is a role model. Wasn’t the point supposed to be what Jesus did for us, not what he’d wave his finger at us about?
Plus, it never felt like it was used for really important occasions. You might look to your bracelet and decide to be nice to a stranger or not cheat on a math test. That’s all well and good. But you didn’t see judges wearing the bracelet when issuing rulings or congress when passing laws. No one asked “what would Jesus do” as we were engaged in war in Serbia. No powerful leader looked down at this piece of plastic made in China before considering the ethical implications of international trade. I hated the bracelet. And I had good reasons to, even if I’m not sure which came first.
This little essay or letter called First John that we’ve been reading was written, in part, against some former community members who had different views on God and Jesus and what it meant to be a Christian. And these opponents, these defectors from the community, they also would have hated the WWJD bracelet.
We can’t say for sure what the opponents believed, but we have a sense. Most likely they believed that Jesus wasn’t a real person. They believed Jesus was real, for sure, but just not a person. He wasn’t made of flesh and blood.
So what was Jesus? I don’t know! This isn’t my cockamamie idea. Some sort of spirit or something, I suppose. Just not a human, not made of earthly material. Because for Jesus to be a human – that’s just too messy. What with the skin and blood and poop. The pain and heartache. That’s too messy for God, they figured. The death? That’s beneath God.
And this all matters because it led these opponents to have a very spiritual faith, for lack of a better word. For them, Jesus didn’t die for us – you can’t die if you were never alive. Instead, Jesus showed us God and united us in spirit to God. And Jesus wasn’t a role model for living in this world, either. In fact, this world was looked down upon. The point was not to find ways of true life here, the point was to ascend to new heights out of this world.
So a WWJD bracelet? Forget about it! When faced with a poor neighbor or a guy down the street being oppressed by Rome – these opponents felt no obligation at all to help. Why? Because none of this mattered anyway. What would Jesus do? Who cares? We are already united in Spirit with God, just waiting this world out until we can fully live in our heavenly home.
Now this probably sounds far-fetched. Jesus not being a person, but just some sort of spirit who looked like a person. We don’t relate. But their sense that faith isn’t about earth or our mortal lives. This sense that faith is, instead, about connecting to God in a spiritual way and just waiting out this God-forsaken life and world. That’s not so far fetched. And the lure to pull away from the this earthly place, to ignore the plight of the annoying neighbors across the street and the starving ones across the world. The lure to ignore the mess of this world and focus instead on our coming heavenly home. The lure to not give a rip about WWJD and instead just be in union with God, while this mess a of place swirls around us. Well, I think we’ve all felt that lure.
Which may be why these spiritual-heavenly-focused folks who broke away from the rest of the community started to get a bit of a following. And the leaders of this Christian community noticed these head-in-the-clouds opponents, and couldn’t disagree more with them so they wrote this little letter. And, I’m reluctant to admit, I think the community leaders would have liked the bracelet.
See, these leaders believed Jesus was most definitely a person. God became a man. A man born like the rest of us. His life was messy and complicated and rife with emotion, just like the rest of us. God incarnate, in the flesh. It’s the topic of 95% of all Christmas sermons (the other 5% are usually tortured reflections on all eight verses of O Come, O Come Emmanuel – but don’t worry, I think I’ve learned my lesson).
For these early Christians, Jesus being fully human was important because it said something about God and it said something about us.
“We know love by this” they write, “that he laid down his life for us.” It wasn’t the divine mystical essence of Jesus that interested them. It wasn’t a sense of a spiritual connection with God that allowed you to transcend this world. It was Jesus’ love for us. His messy, earthly, emotion-filled love for us. His willingness to become human for us. His willingness to die for us. That he loved us this much. That he loved us in this way. That God, God incarnate would love us this much, like this. That’s what interested them. That’s what gave them faith.
Because this world is messy! You know it. I know it. The mixed up web of humanity means every move you make has some unintended consequence somewhere else. Throw in our fickleness, our defensiveness, our selfishness. Add a little sickness, grief, disaster and plain old mortality and you’ve got a recipe for a mess.
So for God to love us, to really love us in any way that truly matters, God’s gotta get messy. And God does. And God did. God dove right into the mess with us. Took it all on. That’s love. God died for us. That’s love. “We know love by this,” the leaders wrote, “that he laid down his life for us.”
“And,” they continued, “we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” These early Christians believed Jesus was a role model. Not in the Wheaties cereal box sort of way, but in that sense that the only response of faith to this amazing love, is to love as he did. The only faithful response to God’s love, is to give our lives in love. This isn’t a call to martyrdom – physical death is rarely God’s call. Instead it is to give up yourself. To give up your desires and comfort and time and wealth for the sake of others. It is to care for those in need. It is to call that hurting friend on the phone, even when you’re tired. It is to send your hard-earned money to the poor across the world and demand that those in power don’t take advantage of them. The life of faith isn’t waiting for our heavenly home, it isn’t transcending this messy world. The life of faith is diving right into the mess of this world, knowing you’ll get dirty. The call, the response of faith, is to love as Jesus loved, for that’s the love we know.
In other words, the faithful thing to do is to wonder, what would Jesus do?, and know that the answer is always: give of himself for the sake of the neighbor.
Which is terrifying. And that’s probably the real reason I hated that bracelet. What would Jesus do? Well, he’d give of himself, give his life for another. How am I supposed to live up to that?! How am I suppose to love with the kind of love Jesus had? How could I possibly live up to that standard?
And here is the other reason those early Christians believed it was so important that Jesus was human. Because it makes him like us. And it makes us like him. It means we can love like he did.
These early Christians really believed that. They believed that when we care for a neighbor in need, we carry God’s love in us. They believed that even when our care for another feels inadequate, even when it feels bundled and amateurish and half-baked and just as likely to add to the mess as it is to clean it up – ever felt like that? – they believed that even with that sort of imperfect love, we have the love of God in us. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be love.
Which for me is the best gospel message I hear in this little passage. Jesus loved us enough to die for us. Yeah, that’s pretty good, but we knew that. We should love one another with that same sort of love. Whew, that’s tough. But, we can. We can love with the love of God. We are able to love. You can love. That’s gospel. That’s good news.
So put on your bracelets, friends. They aren’t there to serve as a Jesus-waving-his-finger accessory. They are an invitation and a reminder to love like Jesus did, because you can. Amen.