Buffy Summers is having a hard time adjusting to college. Her courses are hard, her teachers are tough, somebody stole her stuff and her roommate is a demon. After all, the town of Sunnydale is built over a Hellmouth. And Buffy is the Slayer, the one girl in her generation chosen to fight evil supernatural beings. With all this going on, Buffy runs into her high school friend Xander, who just got back from a disappointing cross-country trip to find himself. Unlike her other friends, Xander has no superpowers but he's good at sizing up situations and keeping his eye on what's important. Seeing that Buffy's really feeling down on her life, Xander shares a thought with her. "Let me tell you something: when it's dark and I'm all alone and I'm scared or freaked out or whatever, I always think, 'What would Buffy do? You're my hero.'"
Of course, that's a reference to the popular question, "What would Jesus do?" The question isn't that new. It originated as the subtitle of the 1896 book "In His Steps" by Charles Sheldon. In the novel, a homeless man asks the question at the end of the service at a well-to-do church. Various characters in the story wrestle with how to act like Jesus in their different lives and careers. The book has been translated into 21 languages and sold 30 million copies making it the 9th best selling book of all time. It inspired theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, who was instrumental in the Social Gospel movement.
The sentiment, if not the question, goes way back. It was the central concept of the 15th century devotional book, "The Imitation of Christ" by Thomas a Kempis. Certainly imitating Christ was central to the life of St. Francis. But ultimately it can be traced to the New Testament. In 1st Corinthians 11:1 Paul says, "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." It's echoed in 1st Thessalonians 1:6 and 1st Peter 2:21. In Romans 13:14 Paul states it this way: "clothe yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ." And indeed most critics of the church love to point out that they'd be more inclined to believe if we Christians acted more like Jesus.
One of the things that has led to the sudden drop-off of people identifying themselves as Christians has been the decades-long yoking of evangelical churches with one political party. This has committed them to endorsement of policies about which the Bible is silent as well as some that are antithetical to biblical ethics. God is neither a Democrat, nor a Republican, nor a Tea Partier, nor a Communist, nor a Capitalist, nor a Tory, nor a Mugwump! He does not sign onto our platforms; we are to sign onto his. He is not indifferent either to personal sexual ethics nor to social justice. He does not say that all the rich are evil nor that all the poor are lazy. He does not promise all of his followers riches nor require poverty from all of his followers. He does not exempt bad behavior based on your class or circumstances. He requires us to love one another as Christ loved us and to treat everyone in need as if that person were Christ. That means no name-calling, no violence, no malice, no promiscuity, no greed, no envy, no arrogance, no refusing to help, no refusing to forgive.
Those are high standards to be sure. And Jesus knows we will not always meet them. In the prayer he taught us we ask God to forgive us. But we ask forgiveness in the same proportion that we forgive others. And we are to forgive them however often they ask. After all, how often do we ask God to forgive us?
If you are trying to follow the ethics of Jesus, figuring out what that entails is pretty easy. Jesus discussed a lot of topics, such as marriage, taxes, honesty, forgiveness, violence, children, stewardship, the poor, immigrants, prisoners, priorities and more. And to fill in the gaps, he articulated 2 commandments on which everything else depends. One would have to adapt some of these to specific modern problems but that is true of any ethical system. None spell out everything. But if you study Jesus' words and actions, what you should do in the vast majority of ethical situations should be clear.
The problem as always is not so much what Jesus would do but would you do the same? Jesus is explicit on the matter of not retaliating. We are to turn the other cheek. But that is hard. Many of us, if hit, would hit back without even thinking first. In addition, we are to give freely to those that ask, visit those in prison, offer hospitality to immigrants, deny ourselves and take up our cross. The way of Jesus is the way of sacrificial giving. The most generous of us rarely give that much. The more we have the less we tend to give.
A few years ago there was a scandal when it was disclosed that big-time celebrities are often paid a lot to appear at charity fundraisers, so much so that the fundraisers don't make much for the charities. I heard a news report of how odd it was for Beyonce and Jay-Z to post pictures of their baby online rather than get 5 to 10 million dollars from the tabloids as other celebrities do. When one makes enough from one movie ($20 million for the top male stars) or one recording contract (as much as $80 million in a year) to live comfortably for the rest of one's life, it seems greedy to exploit charities and one's own children for more. And it seems hypocritical to thank Jesus when winning an award unless one is planning on being as generous to the less fortunate as he would be.
For most of us, the sacrificial following of Jesus is more a matter of how much of our time and talent as well as treasure we spend on doing his work. And I don't just mean for the church but in other ways: tutoring the illiterate, building houses with Habitat for Humanity, working at a food pantry or a women's shelter, volunteering at a hospital, adopting a handicapped child, or helping others in any number of ways. What would Jesus do about the homeless or the sick or the hungry or the oppressed? There are many organizations, many of them Christian, which will allow you to do the kind of things Jesus would do.
But what if you were faced with the problem Jesus and the prophet Elisha dealt in this week's Old Testament and Gospel readings? What if what Jesus would do takes a lot more than you have? What if what Jesus would do is miraculously cure someone?
Leprosy in the Bible was probably not the disease we call leprosy today. In biblical times, it probably covered all kinds of skin diseases like favus, psoriasis, ringworm and lupus as well. And as bad has having one of those diseases were, they also made you unclean and excluded you from living among others. The ostracism added to the person's suffering. So when Jesus healed a leper, he was also restoring the person to the community. They could worship with others, touch and be touched.
As a follower of Christ, while you may not encounter leprosy, you will run into people with other serious diseases. You can pray for them but odds are you won't be able to heal them instantly with a touch. What would Jesus want you do to if you can't do what Jesus would do?
Buffy's friend Xander faces a similar dilemma when he confronts the Big Bad, or ultimate threat of Season 6 of the show. Normally, super-strong Buffy would do it aided by her best friend Willow, a powerful witch. But in a major plot twist, Willow is the Big Bad. When a bullet meant for Buffy kills her lover, Willow channels all her power into hunting down and flaying alive the guy who fired the gun. Buffy tries to stop her friend from becoming a killer and finds out that super-strength doesn't trump magical powers. Now in her pain and rage Willow is trying to destroy the whole suffering world. With Buffy sidelined, it's up to Xander to face his oldest friend from childhood, now turned into a scary all-powerful bundle of rage-fueled black magic. And all Xander can do is tell Willow that he loves her. He tells her he remembers when she was crying over breaking a crayon in kindergarten, and he loved her then as he loves her now. And if she wants to end the world, she can start with him. Willow buffets him with magic and tears at his face with invisible talons but ultimately, in the face of his unconditional love, she collapses against him and cries out her pain, regaining her humanity.
When we can not do something miraculous that Jesus would do, we can do what he wants us ordinary disciples to do. We can love others. We can empathize and offer a shoulder to cry on. We can listen to them. We can be a loving presence, a reminder that they are not alone, an assurance that we will stick with them no matter what. But can't anyone do that? Yes. But, let me tell you as a nurse, not everyone does do that. The sick are still isolated. I cannot tell you how many times at the nursing home a relative from out of state arrived to see a patient only to let slip that there is a relative in town who never comes to visit. I have seen men so afraid of hospitals that they could not bring themselves to visit their injured wives. And often when people are bereaved or terminally ill, they find that friends cannot bear to discuss death with them, even when that's what they want to talk about. Even Jesus listened to and wept with Mary and Martha when Lazarus died.
Under the scene where Willow clings to and cries on Xander, they played Sarah McLachlan's haunting rendition of the St. Francis Prayer. And if you think about it, the prayer covers most of the situations we encounter along with the prescription for dealing with them.
"Where there is hatred, let us sow love." This may seem obvious, but it's difficult to do. When someone hates you, it's tough to show them love. Unless it's your child, in which case, you let them say they hate you and you continue to love them. And you realize that even if they hate you, what you're doing is for their own good. As Christians, that is how we are to respond to those who hate us. We are to repay evil actions with good.
Notice that the prayer does not say to obliterate hatred with love. It says that we are simply to sow love. We are to plant the seed. It may take time to bear fruit. We may not see the result. But we are to seed the situation, implant the idea, get the ball rolling and then leave the outcome to God.
"Where there is injury, pardon." When someone is harmed, the hardest thing to fix is the psychological damage. What is often needed is forgiveness. It's comparable to pulling out a thorn, or to stopping one's picking at a scab so it can heal. It doesn't mean forgetting but deciding to let go of anger, bitterness, and resentment. It means not letting what happened to you in the past distort or narrow your future. It's the first step to a new beginning.
"Where there is discord, union." Not all versions of the prayer have this clause but it seems appropriate because a lot of the grief in the world comes from discord. And while we are trying to sew the seeds of union that doesn't mean uniformity. After all in marriage we strive for the union of the 2 different halves of humanity, the male and the female. Marriage also brings together different races, languages, cultures and personalities. Jesus aims to bring different people together into one body of Christ. As Christians we are entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation which is not only reconciling people to God but to each other.
"Where there is doubt, faith." Faith of course is central to Christianity. But too often it's defined narrowly, as believing in God as one would a fact about the planet Saturn. That kind of belief really doesn't affect your everyday life. The kind of faith Jesus looked for is complete trust in him. That kind of faith changes lives. When people doubt God's goodness and love, we as the Body of Christ try to give them a reason to trust him again. And we can only do it if we trust him in that same manner. And we can only find that faith when we act on it and experience his trustworthiness.
"Where there is despair, hope." Hope goes hand in hand with faith. Trusting in God's goodness helps us see past the trials and sorrows of the present to the time when God will make things right and fulfill his promises. Lose hope and you lose a lot of motivation for going on. Despair drains one's energy and joy in life. We must remember that with God, your past or present need not determine or limit your future. It will be better.
"Where there is darkness, light." Darkness hides both bad things that can hurt us as well as good things that will encourage us. The light of the gospel can give us knowledge and insights into the nature of the fallen world we inhabit as well as the Kingdom of God that is growing within and among us. And we must always act as if all we do will come to light. Because it will one day.
"Where there is sadness, joy." At times our life may be understandably sad but if we let that determine our attitude and approach towards life in general we miss out on God's gift of joy. Life is not meant to be a grim march from birth to the grave. Though our sins have had a negative effect of our world, that is not its ultimate destiny. This world does not get the last word. God does and it is one of joyful redemption.
We are to focus then on providing the world what it often denies us. We seek to console rather than demand consolation. We try to understand others in as loving a light as we can, rather than always demand that others understand us. And we seek to be the one who initiates love, rather than wait for others to give us love first.
The final petitions in the prayer remind us of the paradoxes of the Christian life. Giving, not getting, brings you the most blessings. Being pardoned will, as we learn in the Lord's Prayer, require we have done the same towards others. And trying to hold onto your life will insure that you lose it, whereas not clinging to it too tightly will open you up to true and unending life.
Following Jesus is not easy but neither are most of the things worth having in life. You most appreciate those things that are hard won and the stuff you acquire without effort is the least prized. Though God's grace is free, the salvation it offers requires constant tending and nurturing. It requires us to see things God's way and to do things his way as well. It starts by asking "What would Jesus want me to do?" but it only yields results when we follow through.