Random Discipleship Thoughts: Grace

If discipleship is about following Jesus, and following Jesus includes learning to become like him, then surely grace is at the heart of discipleship. After all, when St. Paul wanted to isolate a single characteristic of Jesus, he chose grace: ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all’ (2 Corinthians 13:13, italics mine).

Consider a story:

At dawn Jesus appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:1-11 NIV 2011)

Here is grace in action: Jesus does not join in the chorus of condemnation, but instead makes it possible for this woman to have a future different from her past.

Consider another story:

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:1-10, NIV 2011)

Zacchaeus was a notorious sinner in Jericho. As a tax collector he was a collaborator with the hated Romans; tax collectors were not allowed in synagogues, and religious Jews were supposed to avoid any social contact with them. No doubt the righteous folk of Jericho had scolded Zacchaeus for his sins many times over, but with no results whatsoever. But Jesus tries a different strategy, and it has a transformational effect on Zacchaeus’ life. He is transformed by the experience of grace.

What is grace? Grace is love that you don’t have to earn. You don’t get it because you’re good enough or beautiful enough, or successful enough, or any other ‘enough’. It comes to you as a free gift, because God is love.

Jesus lived his whole life on the principle of grace. Someone has described it as ‘loving the unlovely into lovableness’. Another person says it involves remembering that ‘the ground is level at the foot of the cross’ – in other words, Jesus died for sinners, and we’re all included. Philip Yancey says that grace means there is nothing I can do to make God love me more, and nothing I can do to make God love me less; God already loves me infinitely, and nothing is going to change that.

At the heart of the gospel is a story of a God who loves his enemies. Jesus says,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”. (Matthew 5:43-48 NIV 2011)

God continues to pour out his love on those who love him and those who hate him, and Jesus calls the children of God to imitate their heavenly Father. I thought about this today, as we continue to read stories about endless killings and reprisals in Gaza, and in the Ukraine the horrific story of an airliner shot down out of the sky in cold blood. When have reprisals ever worked in these situations? Surely the only hope is for people to learn Jesus’ way of forgiveness and grace. Continuing to be bound by the chains of the past will only lead to duplication of the events of the past. Only forgiveness and reconciliation offer hope for a different future, and they are predicated on an attitude of grace.

Jesus continued to practice the way of grace himself, even in the hardest moment of his life:

Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with Jesus to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:32-34 NIV 2011).

So the one who taught his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who hated them also practiced what he preached.

This is where discipleship starts. ‘This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 4:10). Discipleship doesn’t start with my efforts to be like Jesus; it starts with the joyful realization that God’s love for me doesn’t depend on the success of those efforts. That’s what grace tells me: God doesn’t give me what I deserve, he gives me what I need. And when I am transformed by God’s grace, this will be my attitude as well. ‘Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another’ (1 John 4:11 NIV 2011).

The Joy of Teaching Primary Sources

Excellent piece by Ben Myers:

For me, the most rewarding part of teaching is introducing my students to primary sources. Each of my classes involves a lecture period plus an hour of small-group tutorials in which the class works its way through a book that I have chosen. In the books that have come down to us from the past, we have access to Christian minds far more energetic and more accommodating than our own. It is a joy to find yourself in the presence of a mind that you cannot fully comprehend. This has always been one of the chief reasons for studying the humanities at all: to learn that the human spirit is larger and more interesting than one’s own poor spirit, or (this is the political benefit of studying the humanities) than the spirit of the age.

To read books from the past is also to encounter minds with their own prejudices, parochialisms, and blind spots. But students soon discover that they are able to discern these limitations and to address them. Such scholarly discernment is much more difficult (i.e. usually impossible) if one is reading contemporary authors, since in this case the blind spots of the reader and those of the author tend to be identical. (For more on this, see C. S. Lewis’ brilliantly perceptive introduction to Athanasius.) If students are given a book by Moltmann, they will simply absorb it; if they are given Augustine’s Confessions, they will be forced to argue with it. I have seen students walk away from my first-year theology class either infatuated with Augustine or infuriated with him; in both cases I am delighted to see that real learning had occurred. But when students read only contemporary authors – even if they are very good authors – something quite dangerous and enfeebling happens. The students come away feeling neither infatuated nor infuriated but only affirmed. Their own prejudices and parochialisms have been reinforced. Their blind spots have become even blinder.

Read the rest here.

A few years ago I read Augustine’s Confessions for the first time, and experienced exactly what Ben Myers talks about here. Previously I knew Augustine only second-hand, from other people’s summaries of his thought, and my Anabaptist reading had coloured my thinking about him. I saw Augustine as the first apologist for Christendom (fail!), one of the earliest defenders of a Christian just war position (fail!), the one who taught the rather strange view that babies are guilty of the sin of their forebears (and hence need to be baptized to wash away the stain of the original sin) (fail!). But I had not realized what a brilliant thinker Augustine actually was, or the depth of his spiritual insights into the human condition.

Reading the Confessions forced me to grapple with Augustine himself, not other people’s ideas about him, and I am grateful. I’ve had this experience with other old authors too – and not just Christians. Boethius’ The Consolations of Philosophy, Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Inferno, Plato’s The Last Days of Socrates, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, St. John Chrysostom’s On Wealth and Povertyand the writings of the Apostolic Fathers.

Reading Myer’s piece has reminded me of the importance of this sort of reading. I have a few other books on my shelves that I want to read or re-read: Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Son of God, Thomas Cranmer’s A Defence of the True and Catholick Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ, Bernard of Clairvaux’s On the Love of God, Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (the shorter 1541 version, not the voluminous 1559 version, which I’ve tried and failed to finish!), St. Francis de Sales Introduction to the Devout Life, William Wilberforce’s Practical View, The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, and Peter Riedemann’s Confession of Faith.

Which old authors have you read that have challenged and enriched your thinking?