A woman was in her car going to work. She was running late, so her level of patience with the other drivers was pretty low. She had to swerve around old man who wasn’t even going the speed limit. If she hadn’t honked at the car in front of her, they may never have realized the light changed.
Suddenly, she heard sirens behind her. “One more thing to slow me down,” she thought. Then she realized that it was her the officer was pulling over. She couldn’t think why she was being stopped. Sure, she’d been driving aggressively, but she hadn’t broken any laws. She asked him what she had done. “I saw the ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ sticker on your car,” the officer responded, “and assumed you’d stolen it.”
A self-professing Christian acting in a decidedly un-Christian way. It makes for a good punchline, but all too often it is the reality we see around us. The reality we live in our own lives.
At our women’s retreat in February, we discussed what the word “evangelical” means. It’s a part of our denomination’s name, a part of our own church’s name. And yet, we avoid saying it if we have to. Because evangelical has strayed far from its etymological roots—it technically means good news. It is associated with Lutherans, who became known as the Evangelicals in Germany as opposed to the Catholics. Lutherans in Germany today are still called the Evangelical Church.
But in the United States, it has come to mean such different things. It means knocking on doors and passing out tracts about being damned to hell. It means Jerry Fallwell and the Moral Majority. It means the Westboro Baptist Church preaching hate for everyone not a straight white Protestant. In short, it is a lot of judging and condemning, and very little of the love and care for neighbor that Jesus taught and lived.
These are large scale examples, of which you and I have very little control. But every time I see a “Christian” on the news spreading hate, homophobia, and misogyny, I cringe. It makes me ashamed of carrying the same name. And I know for some people, this is the only experience of Christians they have. The organizations that I am a part of, and the people I regularly interact with, spend their time empowering the poor and disenfranchised, advocating for justice and equality, and doing their best to care for all of God’s people and creation. It’s not as newsworthy.
But it functions on the small scale, too. When people wonder why millennials aren’t involved in church, answers typically fall along the lines of lack of belief, lack of commitment, too many activity options. But others have pinpointed what I think lies at the heart of it for a lot of us: hypocrisy.
Christians who spend worship and Bible study talking about love and helping others, then spend committee meetings being passive aggressive and pushing their own agenda at all costs. Christians who offer a hand of peace during worship, then spend coffee hour gossiping and judging. People see it, and like the police officer in the story, can’t mesh the profession of faith with the behavior that is being displayed.
We all fall into it from time to time. The fact of the matter is, no matter how often we ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do,” we’re never going to be Jesus. Thankfully, we’re not expected to be. Because of Jesus, because we know of God’s redemptive love and grace, we know we never, ever, have to be perfect in order to earn God’s love. We’ve already got it. Just like the father in the story of the prodigal son, God loves us even before we’re able to say we’re sorry. Thank God.
Even if we’re not expected to be Jesus, we are expected to be Christians. People who know the great and enormous gift of God’s love, and who have a calling to share that love with others. To speak out for those who have no voice. To seek justice and love. We try. And we’re not going to be perfect at it. I know that I’m not. Maybe a good touchstone to start is whether or not we’d get pulled over for driving a car with a cross on it.