I came to know Christ through a parachurch ministry when I was a freshman in high school. To help me grow as a disciple, I was handed a copy of Charles Sheldon’s 1896 classic “In His Steps.” This also was right around the time the What Would Jesus Do? movement erupted, and I wore my WWJD bracelet proudly. My friends and I were determined to try to be like Jesus in everything we did.
While I am grateful for those who challenged me to a life of discipleship, the problem with this approach is that the focus was on my own ability and effort to imitate Jesus and to share him with others. I was putting myself at the center of the action. My success. My failure. It was about me.
While the WWJD? craze seems to have fizzled out, its approach to discipleship is very much alive and well. I see it in my parishioners who, submerged in a performance-driven and therapeutic culture, so often hear the call to discipleship through the filters of “Try harder. Do more. Improve yourself.” I see it in myself, often feeling exhausted from the demands of ministry, all the while being taunted by the inner critic that whispers, “You’re not doing enough.”
Matthew’s Gospel famously ends with what we refer to as the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). Much attention is given to Jesus’ assignment to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded to you.” And this is right.
What gets overlooked, however, is the “Great Assurance” that brackets and undergirds the Great Commission. “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me,” Jesus begins. And then he closes with these words: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Discipleship, then, is not about asking, “What would Jesus do?” and then trying to carry it out to the best of our own ability and skill. The Great Commission is not an assignment that we strive to fulfill by our own strategies and programs. We can only become disciples and make disciples of others because of the assurance that Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us” and “God for us.”
To follow Jesus is to be united with his very life, engrafted into his body by the Holy Spirit, what John Calvin called a “mystical union.” In baptism, we are buried and raised to new life “in Christ,” caught up into communion with the Holy Trinity, and it is now God’s power that transforms us into Christ’s image and enables us to fulfill the Great Commission. This means that we can only become like Jesus if we are first and foremost abiding in Jesus.
So instead of asking, “What would Jesus do?,” we should instead ask, “What has Jesus done?” and “What is Jesus doing?” The Holy Spirit opens our eyes through Word and sacrament to see where the living Christ is present and active all around us. The goal then is not so much to imitate Jesus as to participate in who he is and what he is already doing. The triune God is at the center of the action, not us.
As it turns out, the gospel is even better news than we think! It is no longer about our successes or failures — what we do or don’t do. The burden is ultimately not on us to make disciples and redeem the world. This job belongs to Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, who alone is the Redeemer. Our job is to live as those who belong to Christ, joined to him by the Spirit and sent to join up with his ongoing mission to gather the nations and make all things new.