The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

FOLLOWING JESUS

Delivered 4/28/02
Text: I Peter 2:21-25
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

This is the passage that so struck the fictional minister, Henry Maxwell, in that wonderful old Christian classic, In His Steps(1). Are you familiar with it? We have it in our library. It is a wonderful story.

Henry Maxwell, the pastor of the First Church of Raymond, Kansas, was working at home on a Friday morning, trying to put the finishing touches on his message for Sunday. He had been interrupted several times and was growing nervous as the clock ticked away. Finally, he had to ask his wife to "run some interference" for him, and let anyone else who called know that he was exceptionally busy and could not be disturbed. But she said she was going over to the church kindergarten and he would have the house to himself. So he kissed her goodbye, went back to his study and closed the door.

He began once again to concentrate on his sermon. It was based on that text in I Peter: "For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps." He was about to flesh out his outline when the door bell rang. Henry looked out the window to see who was there. It was a young man, very shabbily dressed.

Maxwell went to the door. The one who looked like a tramp spoke first: "I'm out of a job, Sir. I thought you might put me in the way of getting something."

"I'm sorry," said the minister, "I really don't know of anything. Jobs are scarce right now."

But the young man persisted. "I thought you might be able to give me a line to the city railway or the superintendent of shops, or something," as he shifted his hat nervously from hand to hand.

But Maxwell replied, "It would be of no use. You'll have to excuse me. I'm very busy this morning. I do hope you find something. I would offer something around here, but I'm afraid I do all the chores myself, and there really isn't that much. I do wish you the best though."

Slowly the man turned to go and Pastor Maxwell shut the door. As he went back up to his study, he looked out the window at the man going slowly down the street - his hat was still in his hands, looking so dejected, so forlorn, so hopeless. He really felt for him, but there was nothing he could do. Finally, Henry sat back down at his desk and resumed his work. There were no more interruptions, and when his wife returned two hours later, the sermon was finished.

Two days passed...Sunday morning...a bright, clear day in the town of Raymond, one of those perfect days that come after long periods of wind and rain and mud. It was the kind of day that seemed to draw you to church, and on THIS day, it DID - when Henry Maxwell came into the pulpit, he was greeted by the sight of a packed house. The music was magnificent. The choir and organist were at their best. It was truly inspiring.

Finally, it came time for the sermon. No one had ever accused Henry Maxwell of being a dull preacher. On the contrary, they had often charged him with being sensational...not in what he said, but in the way he said it. But the people of First Church liked that - they enjoyed the distinction of having a spectacular preacher.

Henry was terrific today. The sermon was interesting...full of striking sentences that were spoken with a passion for dramatic utterance that had the good taste never to offend with the suspicion of ranting and raving. It was an effective message.

The sermon had come to an end. Pastor Maxwell closed the large pulpit Bible on his manuscript. There was a rustling among the congregation as they prepared for the closing hymn, when suddenly, they were startled by the sound of a man's voice. It came from the rear of the sanctuary, from one of the seats under the balcony. In the next moment, the figure of a man came out of the shadow there and walked down the aisle. Before the startled congregation realized what was happening, the man reached the open space in front of the pulpit and turned to face the people.

"I have been wondering since I came in here, (those were the words which had come from under the balcony, and now he repeated them)...I've been wondering if I should say something at the close of the service. I'm not drunk and I'm not crazy and I'm perfectly harmless. But if I die, as there is every likelihood that I shall in the next couple of days, I want the satisfaction of thinking that I said my say in a place like this, and before this sort of crowd."

Henry Maxwell had not taken his seat, so he remained standing there by the pulpit looking down at the man. It was the same one who had come to his house, wearing the same clothes he had on now. He had that hat in his hands again, just as he had had it two days before. He had not shaved; his hair was not combed. It was doubtful that anyone like this had ever confronted the people of First Church in their sanctuary before. Of course, they had seen men like him on the street and down by the railroad yards, but they would never have dreamed of being addressed by one in their own house of worship.

There was nothing offensive in the man's manner or tone. He was not excited, and he spoke in a low distinct voice. He was almost reminiscent of someone walking and talking in his sleep. The whole congregation watched him intently, no one making any move to stop him.

"I'm not an ordinary tramp," he said, "though I don't know of any teaching of Jesus that makes one kind of tramp less worth saving than another, do you?" He put the question as naturally as if the whole group had simply been a small Bible class. He paused a moment...[yielding to a painful cough]...

"I'm a printer by trade, but I lost my job ten months ago. The new mechanical advances in the printing business are beautiful specimens of invention, but I know of at least six men who have killed themselves on account of those machines. I don't blame newspapers for getting them, but what can a man do? I only learned one trade and that's all I can do. I've tramped all over the country trying to find something. I'm not complaining; I'm just stating facts. There are hundreds of others just like me. But I was wondering as I sat there under the balcony, if what you call FOLLOWING JESUS is the same thing as what he taught. What did he mean when he said, 'Follow me?' The minister said that it's necessary for the disciple of Jesus to follow IN HIS STEPS, and he said the steps are obedience, faith, love and imitation. But I did not hear him tell you just what he meant that to MEAN...especially the last step...IMITATION. What do you Christians mean by following the steps of Jesus?

"I've gone all through this city for the past three days trying to find work...and in all that time, I have had not a word of sympathy or comfort except from your minister here. I suppose it's because you get so imposed upon by the professional tramp that you have lost interest in any other sort. I am not blaming anybody, just stating facts. I know you all can't just stop what you're doing and start hunting jobs for folks like me. I'm not asking you to. But what I feel puzzled about is what is meant by FOLLOWING JESUS. What do you mean when you sing, "I'll go with him, with him, all the way?" Do you mean that you are suffering and denying yourselves and trying to save a lost, suffering humanity just as I understand Jesus did? What do you mean by it?

"I see the ragged edge of things a good deal. I understand there are 500 men in this city who are just like me. Most of them have families. My own wife died four months ago. I'm glad she is out of trouble. My little girl is staying with a printer's family until I find a job. Somehow, I get puzzled when I see so many Christians living in luxury and singing, 'Jesus, I my cross have taken, all to leave and follow Thee,' and remember how my wife died in a tenement in New York City, gasping for air, and asking God to take the little girl too. Of course, I don't expect you people can prevent everyone from dying of starvation and tenement air, but what does FOLLOWING JESUS mean?

"It seems to me that there's an awful lot of trouble in the world that somehow would not exist if people who sing such songs went and lived them out. I suppose I don't understand. But what would Jesus do? Is that what you mean by following in his steps? It seems to me sometimes that the people in the churches have good clothes and nice houses and get to go away on vacations while the people outside, the ones walking the streets for jobs, never have any really nice things and end up dying in tenements."

Suddenly, the man lurched forward in the direction of the front pews and stretched out a hand toward them. His hat that he was holding fell on the carpet at his feet. A stir went through the congregation, but no one spoke. In a moment, the man fell heavily forward, unconscious.

Henry Maxwell was the first to speak. As he hurried down the steps to where the man lay, he said, "We will consider the service closed." A doctor in the congregation moved quickly through the people, hastily examined the stranger, and said, to everyone's relief, that he was alive - he had only fainted. So it was decided that they should carry him to the couch in the Pastor's study.

Mr. Maxwell and a group of his church members stayed with the young man for quite some time. There were several offers to take him to various homes, but the minister insisted that he be brought to the manse. He remained unconscious throughout.

The event caused quite a sensation in the parish during the week. There was the impression that the man had wandered into the church in a somewhat delirious state because of his fever and general condition, but they noted that there was no trace of anything bitter or angry in what he had said. He had been almost apologetic in tone, almost as if HE were the one seeking light on a difficult subject.

By the time the following weekend came around, there had been a change for the worse in the man's condition. Pastor Maxwell, on the basis of some letters found in the man's pockets, had sent off for his young daughter. Sunday morning, just before 1:00 AM, the man rallied enough to ask for his little girl, and the minister was able to tell him that she was on her way. "I shall never see her in this world," the man whispered, and then, with great difficulty, he turned his face to his host and said, "You have been good to me. Somehow I feel as if it was what Jesus would do." After a moment, he closed his eyes, and almost before anyone realized it, the doctor said, "He's gone."

As it came time for church that morning, the sanctuary was jammed. Henry Maxwell came into the pulpit bearing the strains of the previous week - he looked haggard from sitting up with the man each night. It had been many years since he had gone into church on a Sunday without any notes or manuscript. It could not be said that his sermon this morning was striking or impressive. He talked with considerable hesitation. It was evident that some idea was seeking expression in his mind. Finally, near the end of the sermon, he stepped off to the side of the pulpit desk and began to talk to them of the events of the week.

"Our brother passed away this morning. I have not had time to learn all I would have liked about him. His daughter is with us now and will remain for a time. The appearance and words of this stranger in the church last Sunday made a very powerful impression on me. I am not able to conceal from you or myself that what he said, followed as it has been by his death in my house, has compelled me to ask as I have never before asked, `What does FOLLOWING JESUS mean?' I am not in a position yet to utter any word of condemnation to you people or, to a certain extent, to myself either in our Christ-like relations to this man or the numbers like him in the world. But all that does not prevent me from feeling that much that the man said was so vitally true that we must face it in an attempt to answer it or else stand condemned as Christian disciples. As such, I do not know any more appropriate time than right now to propose a plan which has been forming in my mind as a satisfactory reply to what was said here last Sunday.

"What I am going to say now is something which ought not to appear unusual or at all impossible, yet I am aware that it will probably be so regarded by many members of this church. I will state it plainly. I want volunteers who will pledge themselves, earnestly and honestly, for an entire year, not to do anything without first asking the question, `What would Jesus do?' And after asking that question, each one will follow Jesus as exactly as he or she knows how, no matter what the result might be. I will, of course, include myself and shall take for granted that this church will not be surprised at my future conduct, as based on this standard of action, and will not oppose whatever is done if they think Christ would do it. At the close of the service, I want all those who are willing to join such a company to remain and we will talk over the plan. Our motto will be, 'What would Jesus do?' Our aim will be to act just as he would if he were in our places, regardless of immediate results. In other words, we propose to follow in Jesus' steps as closely as we believe he taught his disciples to do...and we will begin today."

The minister's words made a powerful impact, and many stayed to join the venture. The First Church of Raymond, indeed, ALL of Raymond, was never the same again, all because a few people began to take seriously this whole idea of FOLLOWING JESUS. I haven't time to give you all the details this morning. I can simply highly recommend that you go and read the book.

What do you think of such a standard for Christian discipleship...before acting, asking "What would Jesus do?" In recent years, some Christian friends have discovered that century-old mantra and adopted it as their own - "WWJD." Henry Maxwell did not call his people to be perfect imitators of a sinless Savior - that would be clearly impossible. No, he was simply suggesting that we try to live according to a standard, a standard set by the one whom we SAY is Lord of our lives.

Here is one that strikes me as even better - WWJHMD. What would Jesus Have ME do?

Eighty-one times in the Gospels Jesus says, FOLLOW ME, and if we take his call to discipleship seriously, we will note that his road is anything but easy. It can cost us sleepless nights as we wrestle to rid ourselves of old assumptions and old habits; it can cost us friends as we find ourselves called to do things in the name of Jesus that they would rather we did NOT do; it can even cost us our lives when society can no longer tolerate faithfulness to anything but itself. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, himself martyred by the Nazis, in his most remembered sentence says, "When Christ calls [us], he bids [us] come and die."(2)

But then we remember what Jesus said: "Those who want to SAVE their life will lose it; those who lose their life for my sake will find it."(3) That is what comes from following Jesus. Are you ready? Are you ready?

Amen!


1. Charles M. Sheldon, (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1935)

2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (New York : Macmillan Publishing, 1963), p. 7

3. Matthew 16:25

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