For a community like ours, in the place of promise that we're in, we have a fork in the road that's coming down the pike. There's a fork in the road that we have not yet faced. Maybe some of us have faced it on an individual level, but community-wide we haven't faced it just yet. It's not a doomsday fork in the road, it's just a fork in the road that every relationship, at some point has to face.
The fork in the road will be this: we will be hurt by each other. At some point along the way, the people that you're meeting and making friends with and really enjoying, at some point they are going to get knocked off the pedestal because they will do something to criticize, annoy, frustrate, or exclude you. As soon as we find ourselves annoyed, exasperated, or frustrated, we're going to find ourselves at that fork. The default path that most people take when relationships turn sour, when they get frustrating, is the path of disposable grace.
There's a movie called Fight Club, the narrator in this movie is played by Edward Norton, and he describes his life as an independent adult. This is what he says: "Everywhere I travel, tiny life. Single-serving sugar, single-serving cream, single pad of butter, the microwave Cordon Bleu Hobby Kit, shampoo-conditioner combos, sample packaged mouthwash, tiny bars of soap. The people I meet on each flight, single-serving friends." Now, the narrator in this movie wasn't just describing the fact that you meet people and they are acquaintances, which are good, normal, and healthy. He was lamenting the fact, when he was talking about single-serving friends; he realized all of his relationships had become disposable. This left him with a profound sense of emptiness and loneliness.
When we go on the path of disposable grace, we exercise the right to dispose of relationships as soon as they become an inconvenience, as soon as they become an annoyance, as soon as they become a source of pain. As soon as they become costly, as soon as they become painful, when there is neglect, when there is criticism, when we're dismissed, when we're wounded, we dispose of relationships. We leave them behind. That is the path of disposable grace.
'Peace Out' button
Every single one of us has a red button. And that red button is labeled "Peace Out." Now sometimes we have to press that button, because we're in a relationship that is unhealthy and is harming us. We need to press the red button of peace out and say, "I need to get out of this relationship, I need to disengage." In fact, if you want a really good book on that subject, there's a great book that I recommend called Necessary Transitions, by Henry Cloud. He says, there's a reason that you didn't marry your prom date, there's a reason you're not still at your first job, and that is that you have to go through necessary transitions sometimes. You have to leave behind your commitments and move on to the next set of commitments. That's normal and healthy and I affirm that.
But a lot of us are tempted to let our index finger hover over that peace out button, perpetually. At any hint of pain, at any hint of not being recognized, at any hint of criticism, we press the red button and we peace out. We disengage and we run, because it's our right. We have the freedom to do it. In the history of mankind, the history of civilization, people haven't always had that freedom. But we are mobile and we can create new relationships. We can join a different church. We can join a different small group. We can exercise our options. A lot of us are tempted to keep our index finger hovering right above the peace out button and press it as soon as things get rocky, as soon as things get painful. So on the path of disposable grace, we end relationships before they become fruitful. We press the button, and we disengage before the journey is complete.
For the first eight years of my life I lived in suburban Dayton Ohio. When we moved there, my parents started planting trees. They planted peach tree saplings in our front yard. For the first eight years of my life they pruned those trees and they cared for those trees, and eventually, it came time for the peach trees to start really bearing fruit. Up until that point, they were really in preparation. Right as they were about to bear fruit, my parents and our whole family felt called to move to a different part of Ohio and take up a new calling. As a result we had to leave those peach trees behind right about the time when they were about to bear fruit. The people who bought our house, didn't like the idea of peach trees and so just ripped them out of the ground.
Right about the time that relationships get fruitful in an environment that is centered around Jesus, a lot of us are tempted to rip out the trees. To uproot ourselves, to go somewhere else, to peace out. That's the path of disposable grace, and if we go on that path, our relationships will not bear fruit like God intended them to bear fruit. See we can stay at the level of politeness, and as long as the level of politeness and good vibes and high-functioning relationships work, we're in. As soon as that level of functionality breaks down and you actually have a human encounter, where there's fallenness and frustration, if you disengage you miss out on the full fruit that God has to offer relationships in the church. That's what happens when we go on the path of disposable grace. We have a life of single-serving friends, and those single-serving friends never bear fruit.
The path of sturdy grace
Jesus laid out a different path for us in John 13. It's a better path, a richer path, and a fuller path. This is the path of sturdy grace. On the path of sturdy grace we see a miracle happen again and again. The miracle is this: the grace of God causes great fruit to come from relational failure. God's grace is durable. The grace we have to offer one another in our own strength can sometimes be little more than just politeness, or self-interested, self-serving grace. God's grace is durable, it's stronger, in fact, than death, it's stronger than criticism, it's stronger than failure. God's grace is like a tree that survives winter, that survives pruning, that survives injury. In fact, from that pruning, from that winter, from seasons of barrenness, from seasons of frustration, comes great fruit, comes rich and abiding fruit.
God's grace takes cuts and turns them into compassion. God's grace can take failure and bear the fruit of forgiveness. God's grace can take treason and bear the fruit of tenderness. God's grace can bring great fruit from relational failure. When we walk in the path of durable grace, which is made available to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God can bear great fruit in our relationships. On the path of sturdy grace we experience and see that miracle over and over and over again. We see the grace of God bring great fruit through relational failure.
There's a great phrase in John 13, and it's the end of verse one. It says that Jesus loved his disciples to the end. The phrase here refers to fullness. He loved them to its very fullness. His love had a rich, abiding, and lasting quality to it that was so much deeper, richer, and better than a single-serving friend. So that means that Jesus didn't peace out when things got messy. There were many people that came into Jesus' life, he called them to follow him, and they decided it was too costly. They checked out, but he never checked himself out from people that were willing to follow him. So he let the grace of God run its full course. He had incredible peace and confidence that the Father's grace would work through the pain of the relationships that he endured, and he would cause great fruit to grow.
Here is what that looked like. Jesus called his twelve disciples, who receive the fullness of his attention, care, and leadership. He knew all along that one of these disciples would betray him, this man named Judas. He referenced it from time to time, and even earlier in the Gospel of John, makes reference to the fact that Jesus knew one of his disciples would betray him. Yet Jesus did not press the red button as soon as he found out that would happen. He did not react in fear. He did not flee from the relationship with Judas. He actually stayed engaged in the relationship with Judas and used the opportunity to show him great love. He shows us a beautiful way that he even offers Judas an opportunity to receive the grace of God and to even turn around, to turn from his betrayal and receive the grace of God.
It says in verse two that during supper, the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus. Jesus knew this, but he also knew that the Father had given him all things. What Jesus knew and what he chooses to focus on is the hinge point of this text. It is also the hinge point of Jesus' mission. What will he act upon? What will he dwell on? What will he anchor himself in? This is a moment that many of us find ourselves in when we are hurt, betrayed, or frustrated by our family members, by our spouses, by people in our small groups, by people on our ministry teams, by people who we extend the love of Christ to. What will we choose to focus on? Will we focus on the fact that we've been betrayed, hurt, or criticized, or will we anchor our hopes in God's great love for us in Christ?
God's durable grace
Jesus knew that God had put all things into his hands, and he knew what his mission was. He knew the durability of God's grace. He let that anchor him, even when he experienced the betrayal of Judas. His response reflects where his hope was. Then Jesus responds. He rose from supper, he took off his outer garments and took up a towel and tied it around his waist. He poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He's going around to each disciple, and he's washing their feet, and they're aghast, and they're quiet, they don't exactly know what's going on, but he's showing them love. This is the heart of God for you.
I imagine that in that moment Jesus did not feel exactly at peace. I imagine that in that moment, Jesus did know hurt, he did know betrayal. He knew that Judas was going to betray him, and he also knew that Peter was going to deny him. Yet each of these men, he knelt before them, because he was so anchored in God's love for him, and he took their feet. Feet were incredibly smelly and messy, but necessary to wash, and he took the role of a servant. Nobody else wanted to wash feet. He did it to show them, this is how durable my love is for you. This is how durable God's grace is for you. It is so durable that I can wash the feet of the one who is about to betray me and the one who is about to deny me before men. I'm going to scrub away the dirt because I am so anchored in God's love for me, and I am so anchored in God's love for you. I don't imagine that Jesus felt complete peace in that moment, but nevertheless he was anchored in the durability of God's grace. He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God's grace could penetrate through him, actually bear fruit through Judas' betrayal of him.
Now right before, it's not in our gospel reading, but later on in John 13, there's this really poignant moment where Jesus says to all his disciples, "One of you is going to betray me." It even says that he was troubled in his spirit. Now imagine if you were in that position. You knew that someone was basically going to hand you over to a cruel death, and it was someone that you loved. It was like a family member, someone you had covenanted with. He says, "One of you is going to betray me." Then Jesus hands Judas a piece of bread.
Now some commentators think that Jesus is handing him a piece of bread to tell him to go away, and this is basically a sign to you that you should be gone. But that's not the pattern of Jesus' life. When Jesus hands someone a piece of bread, he says, "This is the bread of heaven. This is the life of the world. This is God's love for you." When we read the Gospel of John in its context, we know that when Jesus hands Judas a piece of bread he's saying this is God's love for you. This is how durable it is. You can turn around now. Even in the moment when he knew Judas would deny him, he gives him the opportunity to turn around. That is how durable God's love is. That is what it looks like when someone is so anchored in God's love and God's durable grace. They can extend an offer of love, they can wash the feet of their betrayer in the moment when their heart is most troubled.
Now when Jesus would eventually be betrayed by Judas, Judas brought the authorities to Jesus. They would take him, strip him down, not only of his outer garments but of his undergarments as well, and they would shame him before the world. They would whip him, they would beat him, he would bleed, and he would hang on the cross. On the one hand you could look at that and think, Failure is the last word in this relationship. Betrayal, failure, and human sin has taken over. But if you look at it from the perspective of the grace of God, you see Jesus' arms outstretched for the life of the world. You see the Bread of Life being offered to the entire world from that place of betrayal. You see the blood of the New Covenant being displayed and poured out for the life of the world. You see love being offered not only to Judas, but offered to the whole world. You see God's love, you see God's durable grace, and from that cross came God's incredible durable grace which gives us the resources we need to endure our relations, to bear fruit in our relationships. There's great fruit that is born from Judas' betrayal, but it was born from the grace of God, which is more durable than the grace of politeness. This is more durable than disposable grace.
Let's say you're back in your small group. Your leader hasn't recognized your gifts. You're doing menial tasks that feel insulting. Maybe there's even another person in the small group who says some immature things to you, and you're frustrated. Instead of finding ways to disengage from the group, you stay in. You continue to engage, and you let people know who you are. You find that God's grace is actually transmitted through those frustrations, and your relationships actually go deeper because you were honest about your feelings with your leader, and you shared your frustrations, and you got through to the next level of relationship and to the next level of partnership.
God's durable grace keeps us in those relationships. Over time, what it looks like when our church practices this and anchors itself in God's durable grace, there's a profound sense of safety. We're loved despite our faults. We have freedom to fail, and as a result our relationships go deeper and they're richer as a result. You're free, when you're walking the path of durable grace, to confess your sins and to hide the sins of others. When you have a disposable grace, it's the opposite, you're eager to hide your own sins and expose the sins of others who hurt you and criticize you. God is calling the church to walk the path of sturdy grace.
Archbishop Cranmer, an Anglican bishop who had a profound, shaping role in the Anglican church, said that to do him hurt was to beget a kindness from him. He also said that his heart was made of such fine soil, that if you planted it in the seeds of hate, they blossomed love. Now Archbishop Cranmer didn't blossom love from hate because he was a really good person trying really hard. Archbishop Cranmer knew the love of God displayed in the cross of Christ and he anchored himself in it. Over time, God made him a man that actually gave the kindness of God when he got hurt, got criticized. And God is calling the church to nothing less.
Aaron Damiani is the pastor of Immanuel Anglican Church, a church plant in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of The Good of Giving Up: Discovering the Freedom of Lent.