This Lent we’re thinking about what it means to be disciples of Jesus, using the illustration of discipleship as being like membership in the School of Jesus, a school that is all about transformation into the image of Jesus, so that we truly become like him.
We’ve reminded ourselves that the word ‘disciple’ is the most common word for ‘Christian’ in the New Testament. The word means ‘learners’, or ‘students’, or even ‘apprentices’ – which may be a better word, because the School of Jesus doesn’t just teach intellectual truths, but lessons in the art of living as we were designed by our Creator to live. We’ve looked at two ways God shapes us as followers of Jesus: participating in the community of disciples, which we call ‘the church’, and hearing the Word of God as we read the scriptures. And we’ve looked at ‘assignments in the School of Jesus’ – specific tasks that God gives us, as we read the scriptures or as we go through the circumstances of our daily lives, to help transform us into the image of Jesus. This week is the last of our four sermons about the School of Jesus, and today I want to think with you about discipleship and grace.
As we’ve been talking about discipleship, I wonder if you might have been having this nagging little doubt: ‘But I thought Christianity was all about grace. Haven’t you often said that, Tim? Haven’t you said that God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are? Haven’t you said that there’s nothing we can ever do to deserve God’s love, and we don’t have to do anything anyway, because God loves us unconditionally? After all, that’s what the word “grace” means, isn’t it – God’s unconditional love for us? So isn’t this whole idea of discipleship just leading us right back into legalism? When Matthew has Jesus telling us, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21), isn’t he leading us right back into the idea of being saved by the good things that we do? How does this fit in with the good news of God’s grace?’
Back in the sixteenth century, when the Christian Church split into Protestant and Catholic wings, this controversy was right at the heart of the split. Martin Luther was a German monk who had gone through real torment in his soul because he despaired of ever being good enough to receive eternal life. He believed that in order to go to heaven you had to earn your ticket, and the way to do that was to obey the commands of God. This was a terrifying idea for him; the Old Testament commands were bad enough, but the teaching of Jesus just raised the bar by saying that mere outward obedience wasn’t enough; you had to be transformed inwardly as well. To Luther this was an impossible standard, and he spent months and years totally discouraged and intimidated. He was quite convinced that he was going to be damned to hell because of his many sins.
Then one day he came across two verses in the letter of Paul to the Romans, where Paul actually quotes from the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk. This is what it says:
‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith”’ (Romans 1:16-17).
As Luther read these words it was as if a huge weight fell from his soul. He had believed that righteousness was something we humans achieved by keeping God’s commandments, but now he suddenly saw that it wasn’t. Righteousness was a gift from God, and the way we receive it is by faith – by putting our trust in Jesus. As Paul says later on in Ephesians,
‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one can boast’ (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Those words ‘not the result of works’ became very important to Martin Luther. They made him very suspicious of another movement that was growing at the same time as his Protestant Reformation – the Anabaptist movement, which eventually led to what we call today Mennonite Christianity. The Anabaptists put a lot of emphasis on actually obeying the teaching of Jesus; “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”, as Jesus says (John 14:15). To Luther, this was a terrible idea; the teachings of Paul had set him free from the guilt and fear of legalism, and now those awful Anabaptists were building that prison all over again! ‘I was set free from the monastery’, he said, ‘but now you Anabaptists are trying to turn the whole world into a monastery!’
So, how do we resolve this contradiction? Am I saved by being good enough to receive salvation, or by trusting Jesus to do for me what I can’t do for myself? There’s no denying that this contradiction seems to be present in the Bible itself. Paul says that we’re saved by faith alone, apart from works, but the letter of James says no, faith without works is dead, so we need to be saved by faith and by works. Even Jesus seems to be caught in this contradiction. On the one hand, all through his ministry we see him reaching out to people who didn’t deserve God’s love, people who had failed to keep God’s laws – tax collectors, prostitutes and other disreputable characters. But on the other hand, he sets out these really high standards for us - “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20) - and challenges us not just to hear ‘these words of mine’, but also to act on them (Matthew 7:24).
How do we resolve this contradiction? Let me make four brief suggestions to help us resolve this conflict.
First, let’s get out of our minds the idea that the School of Jesus is about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. This was the preoccupation of both Protestants and Catholics during the 16th century Reformation – the Pope and Martin Luther were both equally preoccupied with it. And we can understand why. Medical care in those days was abysmal, and minimal. A huge percentage of children died in childbirth, and for those who survived, life was ‘nasty, brutish, and short’. Preoccupation with death, and what comes after death, was foremost in many people’s minds.
But I would like to suggest to you that the School of Jesus is not preoccupied with this issue. It’s not that Jesus isn’t concerned about it; it’s just that it’s not foremost in his mind. I’d like to suggest that the School of Jesus is more concerned with the answer to the prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven”.
What’s that prayer about? It’s not about escaping from this life and going to heaven, or being punished for our sins in hell. It’s about God’s original dream for us when he created us on the first place. I think we all realize that life on this planet today is not what God originally had in mind. Evil and sin have poisoned the world, and so we live in suffering and brokenness. But the Kingdom of God, the loving rule of God, is all about healing this world of evil and sin and restoring it to God’s original intention.
How does this transformation take place? It takes place as people are transformed, as you and I learn how to live in the way God originally planned for us. That’s what discipleship is all about: it’s a school of life in the Kingdom of God. The kingdom advances one heart at a time, as people commit themselves to following Jesus and learning to put his teaching into practice. It’s not about doing good deeds so that we get a ticket to heaven as a reward. It’s not about reward and punishment. It’s about learning wisdom, so that we can live according to God’s plan for us, because in the end this will be best for the world, and best for us as well.
That’s the first thing: the School of Jesus is not about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell; it’s about ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as in heaven’ – in other words, the transformation of the world into the place God originally dreamed. Here’s the second thing – and this is where grace really comes in: the School of Jesus is a school without an entrance exam. No matter what you’ve done, no matter whether you’ve been a success or a failure, no matter whether you’ve been a believer all your life or are just starting out, you are welcome to enroll in the School of Jesus.
We see this most clearly in the Beatitudes, those famous sayings of Jesus at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. We all know that the Sermon on the Mount presents us with some challenging standards for living: turn away from anger, don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth, love your enemies, and so on. This is the curriculum for discipleship, and it can be intimidating. We might even get the idea that only spiritual giants should attempt this!
But that’s not what Jesus intends; in fact, he starts his sermon by assuring us that everyone is welcome:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:3, 5-6).
You don’t ‘hunger and thirst’ for something that you already have! If you’re ‘hungering and thirsting’ for righteousness, that indicates that you are painfully aware that at the moment you aren’t righteous, and you are disturbed about the fact, and you want to do something about it!
What’s Jesus doing here? I think he’s looking around at the crowd on the mountainside: he sees rich and poor, successful and meek, sinners and saints, happy people and people who are in mourning. He’s saying, “Come one, come all! Whatever you’ve experienced in your life, whatever you’ve done, you will find the blessing you’re looking for in the kingdom of God. There’s no entrance exam. The only requirement for enrolment is a genuine desire to find the life that God planned for you when he created you. If that’s what you hunger for, come on in, because you’re going to find it as you follow me”.
The School of Jesus is about God’s will being done on earth as in heaven, and it’s a school without an entrance exam. The third thing is this: The School of Jesus is about transforming people so that we can be an influence for good in the world.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us that we are like salt and light. Salt has an influence on the meat: in the time of Jesus, it was used to preserve meat and stop it from going bad. Light also has an influence; if you bring a lamp into a dark place, it drives back the darkness and makes vision possible.
But notice this: salt and light are useful because they’re different. You don’t preserve meat by rubbing more meat into it; the salt has to be different from the meat. Light has to be different from darkness. And we, the disciples of Jesus, are absolutely no use to the world if we’re just the same as the world. We need to be different in order to have an influence. That’s what discipleship does for us: it teaches us how God wants us to be different.
This is tough for us, because deep down inside we don’t want to look weird – we want to fit in! We want to be accepted and liked by the people around us. We don’t want them to shake their heads and mutter about how crazy we are. But if we’re going to get anywhere as disciples of Jesus, we have to get over our obsession with being liked and admired. We have to live our life to please God, and do the things God is calling us to do, whether it’s popular in the world around us or not.
The School of Jesus is about God’s will being done on earth as in heaven; it’s a school without an entrance exam; it’s about transformation so that we can become salt and light for the world around us. Fourthly, the School of Jesus is a school of grace.
Think for a minute about the teaching of Jesus, and you’ll see that a huge proportion of it is about being transformed into graceful people. I mean ‘graceful’ in the biblical sense: those who live by the principle of generous, extravagant, unconditional love. If we give to all who beg from us, whether they deserve it or not, aren’t we learning to live by grace? If we forgive those who trespass against us, aren’t we learning to live by grace? If we love our enemies and pray for those who hate us, isn’t that all about grace? If, like the Good Samaritan, we stop to help the person in trouble by the side of the road, whether we know them or not, isn’t that about grace? If we invite the poor and needy to a meal in our house instead of just inviting friends and family members, isn’t that about grace?
Why does Jesus tell us to love our enemies?
“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44-45).
Here’s how it works. God is a God on grace, so he pours out his love and mercy and forgiveness on people who don’t deserve it. That’s the kind of God he is: a God who loves his enemies. This is the Gospel of grace. As Philip Yancey has expressed it, grace means that there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more, and nothing you can do to make God love you less. God already loves you infinitely, and nothing is ever going to change that.
But that doesn’t mean that God is happy for us to stay exactly as we are. God knows that grace is the most powerful force for change in the world. How is the problem of war and violence ever going to be solved? It can only be solved as people take the risk of forgiving those who have hurt them and loving their enemies. How is the problem of poverty going to be solved? It can only be solved as people learn to be less selfish and greedy, and more generous and giving. In other words, if God wants the world to be transformed, it is vital for people like you and me to learn to live by the principle of grace. And that’s exactly what the School of Jesus is teaching us. Lives will be changed, marriages and families, will be strengthened, communities will be transformed, the world will be healed, as followers of Jesus learn the way of grace.
Someone once said, “God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are – but he loves us too much to leave us there!” The gospel of grace tells us that everyone is welcome in the School of Jesus, whoever they are and whatever they’ve done. But the School of Jesus is a school for those who long to become the sort of people God designed us to be. In other words, God’s love for us has a goal in mind: that we also may become people who live our lives by the principle of love.
Let me close this sermon series on the School of Jesus with these words of Paul, which I’m quoting from the New Living Translation:
‘God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago’ (Ephesians 2:8-10).
That’s what the School of Jesus is all about.