A Sermon preached to my fellow seminarians at Duke Divinity School last March 4, 2008
Text: 1 Peter 2: 19-25
For it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, where is the credit in that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
22‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’
23When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
It is the season of Lent, a time for us to journey with Jesus, a time to follow the steps of Christ. This is a time for us to reflect on ourselves, and allow God to transform us, to right our wrongs, to correct our mistakes and to restore our broken relationship with God, that we may be shaped more closely into Christ likeness.
As good and faithful Christians, we want to be like Jesus. We want to think like him, we want to act like him and we want to be like him. And so, in everyday of our lives, when we have decisions to make, when we are caught up in tight situations, when we do not know what to do, we pause for a moment, look at our wrist and ask, “What would Jesus do?”
Today’s passage from the scriptures is a letter to the early Christians telling them what Jesus would do if he were in their situation. The early Christians at that time were being persecuted, maligned and criticized. They were being accused of being disobedient to the civil authorities and disrespectful of the social order. Our letter sender, Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ instructs the early Christians to look up to Jesus as their example and that they may do what Jesus would do.
Our letter sender tells the early Christians to endure their sufferings because Christ also suffered, setting this as an example for Christians to follow. But the letter sender is also careful to remind them that they can endure their suffering because they are doing what is right, they are doing what is good and pleasing in the eyes of God.
Our letter sender tells the early Christians that they are doing what is right if they obey those who are in authority. They commit no sin if they respect their masters. The premise here is that God ordained the structures of order and authority in the world. Although they submit to the authority, they are slaves only of God, for they are subject to earthly masters only in account to God. Christians must therefore conduct themselves in a way that they won’t be criticized as disobeying authority. But our letter sender reminds them that even if they are good and faithful Christians they may still be subjected to hostilities from unrighteous people. And if that happens they must always look to Jesus as their example, and endure the sufferings as Jesus endured them.
For us Christians today, we may not face the same hostilities and persecutions the early Christians did. But that does not mean we are exempt from the difficulties and challenges of life. We still face difficulties and problems. And our letter sender reminds us to look up to Jesus as our example. And so we look at our wrist and ask, “What would Jesus do?”
As Christians of today, we face difficulties and challenges from this world. We are always tempted to the dark ways of the world. We are tempted not to love our neighbors, not to forgive our enemies, to threaten to those who hurt us and to retaliate to those who abuse us. These temptations are the difficulties and challenges that we suffer. As seminary students, we face the challenges of school. No, I’m not talking about the midterm exams on Thursday or the ethics paper deadline. For most of us here, we face the bigger challenge of juggling schoolwork and family, the challenge of meeting our financial needs, and even the vocational challenge of where we are headed after graduation. And so in the face of these challenges we ask, “what would Jesus do?”
What Jesus did was to endure the sufferings that he faced. What Jesus did when he suffered was not to retaliate, not to threaten but to continue trusting in God. Therefore, with Christ as our example, we can also endure the challenges that we face. If Jesus endured cruelties to him, then we can also endure the difficulties that confront us, the problems that we encounter and the trials that come our way. Because we know Jesus endured in his passion the trials, pain and suffering we know through his example that we can also endure our difficulties.
But why do we need to know what Jesus would do? What does the example of Christ mean for us any way? The word “example” in Greek is hupogrammos. It means an underwriting or copy for imitation. The more literal interpretation for this Greek word is a pattern that one can trace. This would be similar to a figure traced by a dotted line in a children’s workbook; the trace forms a figure if connected. Jesus is like the dotted line and we follow his example by connecting the dots together. The example provided by Christ involves an outline of behavior or moral guidelines. Christ’s example includes innocent behavior, suffering without retaliation, and commitment to God’s will in the passion and obedience. The example of Christ is an assurance for us Christians that we are able to do things in the name of Christ Jesus.
The French theologian, Peter Abelard, explains to us the moral example theory of the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. Abelard explains that Christ’s suffering shows us how much God loves us and therefore inspires us to be more loving and lead better lives. But our letter sender does not only present the suffering of Christ as just an example. He is telling us that Christ is more than just our example and model.
The danger of wanting only to know of what Jesus would do – of just looking at the life and suffering of Jesus as a model, is that it makes Jesus merely a model rather than emphasize what the work of Christ accomplishes for our salvation. This is the reason why our letter sender emphasizes both the example of Christ and the saving work of his suffering. Our letter sender tells us that the suffering of Christ is not just a model but also a work that transforms us.
Models can only influence our behaviors. The media feeds us with different models that influences and shapes our character. As kids growing up, our role models are Superman, Batman, Spiderman or Barbie. When we grew wiser and became teenagers, our role model became Michael Jordan, Dan Marino or Tiger Woods. Thus, we ask ourselves, “What would Batman do? Or what would Barbie do? Or what would Jordan do?” we look up to these people as our models and they influence and shape our character. So we cannot just ask ourselves “What would Jesus do?” and look up to his example because Jesus is not simply a model that influences us. Jesus transforms us.
How does Jesus transform us? Irenaeus describes our transformation as the recapitulation of our sins. Christ undoes the sin of Adam and humanity. For Gregory of Nyssa, our humanity is transformed “because Jesus, who is divine, became human and so humanity was united to God.” Humanity is now “deified.” For Karl Barth, Jesus transforms us by making our utter “no” into a resounding “yes.” This is what our letter sender is telling us, that Christ is not just our example but also our Lord and Savior. That is the good news, that in the suffering of Christ, in his example, he transforms us into better Christians.
Our letter sender wants to remind the Christians of his times and us today, that in the suffering of Christ we are transformed. Once we were straying sheep, but now have returned to our Shepherd. When we experience difficulties and challenges we remember how Jesus transformed us. In our suffering and difficulties, we are given the opportunity to be transformed. We are given the chance to move closer to Christian perfection. In our suffering, pain and misery, do not just think of what Jesus would do but rather be reminded that this is a moment Jesus Christ transforms us into his likeness. That Christ is shaping us into Christian perfection. So, my brothers and sisters, in this time of Lent, let us allow the example of Christ to transform us. For Christ bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might live for righteousness. For by his wounds we have been healed.