Have you ever known someone, either personally or second-hand, and said to yourself, “That’s the kind of person I want to be” like?
We make a habit of recognizing such role models. On All Saints Sunday and Memorial Day, we bring to mind those people whose extraordinary lives helped shape our lives.
Many of these were followers of Jesus who showed us by their example how to live a Christian life. We consider others our heroes for other reasons, too many to list here. What matters is that they matter to us, and we want to be like them. Not that we necessarily want to do what they did, but something about the way they lived inspires us and makes them our mentors and exemplars.
On this third Sunday of Lent, we continue a series of messages looking at some of the ways Jesus saves us. One of those ways is by offering us an example to follow.
1 Peter 2:21 calls us to endure suffering. Why? “Because Christ also suffered, for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”
Jesus himself fells us, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). He follows that up by saying, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
1 John 3:16 brings it full circle. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
So there we have it. Jesus loves us enough to suffer for us, and we ought to love others enough to suffer for them. It’s not a happy vision of the Christian life, and the suffering part of it can be emphasized way too much, but the essence of it is clear. As Christians, we are called to a life of sacrifice because Christ sacrificed for us.
What besides suffering is involved in the Christian life? What are the key elements to such a life? These are among the questions we’ll glance at this morning – and only glance at, I assure you, because our focus is elsewhere.
We’re in part three of a six-part series based on a book titled Savior by Magrey deVega. One of the foundations of our faith is the statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that “Christ died for our sins.” But what exactly does that mean? How does Christ’s death save us?
In previous weeks we’ve looked at two explanations. Penal substitution theory says that we deserve death for our sins and Christ died in our place. Ransom theory says that sin enslaves us and Christ pays the ransom for our liberation.
Both of these explanations involve a transaction in which Christ offers himself in exchange for us. The example theory involves no transaction. We are saved because Christ died, but his death buys us nothing. Instead, it offers us an example of the right way to live. We don’t have to go to a cross, but we do need to give ourselves for others as Jesus gave himself for us. We are so influenced by knowing him that we want to follow him and be more like him. We are changed by our relationship with him.
This moral example theory stands in deliberate contrast to the substitution and ransom theories, and in fact was created as a reaction against them. Its creator was the 12th-century French philosopher Peter Abelard. Abelard says that whether Jesus dies in our place or to buy our freedom, two wrongs do not make a right; one sin cannot correct another.
After all, if salvation is about God’s forgiveness, what can payment have to do with it? No, Abelard says. Jesus’ death is all about showing us the real, relational, cost of sin, showing us what love looks like and showing us how we ought to live and love.
It all goes back to the beginning, to the book of Genesis, where it’s said that humans are created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1.26-27). If God is love, as 1 John 4:7 says, then we are created to be loving like God. But sin makes us unable to be good image bearers who fully reflect God’s love to others. Jesus shows how to live and love and empowers us to follow his example.
Christ took upon himself our human nature, Abelard explains, because we need a spotless exemplar to show us how to be who we are meant to be so that our hearts are set ablaze with God’s love and we live as people who are marked with God’s imprint. Salvation involves becoming more able to love the way God loves and forgive the way God forgives.
So, for Abelard, the cross alone does not make salvation possible. It is simply the clearest revelation of how far God is willing to go to show God’s love for us. In fact, for Abelard, it’s not just the cross that saves us. It’s the very incarnation of Christ, his becoming human for us and everything about his life, from Christmas to Easter and beyond. It’s the whole story of Christ, not just the cross, that’s important.
Abelard’s understanding has some real pluses. It makes it clear that discipleship is about loving God and others, and that it can be cultivated by certain practices, such as prayer, study, and service. Abelard’s theory also refutes the lie perpetuated by other theories that salvation can be achieved only through violence.
But it has some weaknesses as well. It seems a little squishy where it ought to be rock solid. How exactly are we saved by Christ’s example? Can an example ever be enough to save us? Pretty much everybody knows the difference between right and wrong. Why do we continue to do what’s wrong rather than what’s right?
Jesus has been a sterling example of faithfulness to God for 2,000 years, and for all of that time most people have not cared one bit. If Jesus is saving us by example, it’s not working.
We need more than a good example. We need a savior. We are incapable of saving ourselves. We need someone to save us. Jesus does that, and offering a moral example for us is part of that, but it’s not all of it. Of course, none of the theories of atonement that we will look at tell all of the story. We need all of them together to provide a full picture of how we are saved by Jesus’ horrible death on a cross 2,000 years ago.
We Protestants prefer an empty cross, believing that Jesus has conquered death and sin. Roman Catholics prefer a cross with an agonized figure fastened to it, to remind us of the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf. It is hard not to be moved by such a sight. The longer I look at it, the more moved I am. But isn’t there more to salvation than me being moved emotionally?
What is there about Jesus that changes my relationship with God? How does it reconcile me with God? And how does it change me?
I am reminded at this point of Junius Dotson, the pastor and national United Methodist leader who died less than two weeks ago of pancreatic cancer.
He is remembered as a visionary leader who had a passion for justice and full inclusion in the church and yet who knew how to work productively with those who represented other ideals. He is praised for his spiritual depth and his great capacity for love, and he is fondly recalled as a loyal friend. Though he struggled for years with burnout and depression, he modeled a path to recovery.
But as good a man as he was, as faithful a follower of Christ as he was, as close to God as he was, I could never have looked at him as a savior, and he would have been horrified by the very thought.
So many of politicians today suffer from a great delusion. They think they are God’s gift to the world. But having a Messiah complex does not make you a Messiah. We’ve got only one savior, and his name is Jesus Christ. He is a great moral example to us, but he is far more than that. His death and resurrection save us. We’ll continue wondering how that works next week.
For now, let’s own what we’ve learned today by putting ourselves into these phrases from 1 Peter 2:21.
For to this I have been called, because Christ suffered for me, leaving me an example, so that I should follow in his steps. Amen.
This message was delivered March 7, 2021, to Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas, from John 15:12-17.