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).