Methodism's theology in the form of a Jerusalem Cross by the North Carolina Annual Conference
This is a follow-up to the last post on what a Disciple of Jesus looks like. It came out of a discussion in a clergy study group where a colleague asked these two questions in tandem:
- What does a disciple of Jesus look like?
- How do you nurture their discipleship?
It was a great discussion and it got me to thinking. A lot. I think my friend is getting to the essence of the Christian journey. As a pastor of a church, he wants to be able to cast a vision so that people can see themselves growing as disciples, can know when they are on the correct path AND can have an idea of how to get there.
I’ve been thinking about this for several weeks and here is my answer to the second question: The means of grace.
I’m not being flippant. I believe that growing as a disciple of Jesus is simple. Avail one’s self of the means of grace. I’m not saying it’s easy to do. But it’s not rocket science.
Before we go there, let’s define GRACE. This is my favorite word in all of theology. To me, it’s the key to everything. Grace is God’s unmerited favor for us. It is God’s unconditional love. It’s God loving us even though we don’t deserve it. It’s God loving us even though we can’t earn it.
To me, grace IS the power of God in our lives. When I experience God’s grace, I am more likely to be grateful, to be less selfish, to be more outwardly focused and to be more centered on God. To me, grace is a very real experience that brings us to God, reconciles us to God and molds us in the image of God. It is about nothing that we do and everything that God does. So we can’t take credit for it. We can only give thinks in awe and wonder.
When we pray for, love and forgive our enemies, that is God’s grace working in us. When we love others unconditionally, the way God loves us, that is grace working in us. When we are caring for the least, the last and the lost, that is grace working in us. So, going back to the last post, when we recognize a disciple of Jesus by her actions and her character, what we are recognizing is God’s grace working in her.
This is all nice, theological, theoretical stuff. But how does it work?
The means of grace.
This is why I’m such a United Methodist geek. Our Wesleyan tradition is built on this understanding and it continues to be relevant today. Let’s unpack it.
The means of grace are not grace. They are ways that grace is experienced. They are time-tested practices and rituals that Christians throughout the centuries have found to result in an experience of grace.
Here’s how the means of Grace break down in our Wesleyan tradition.
Works of Piety
These are inwardly focused practices intended to help us grow in our relationship with God. We can do these individually (private) or communally (public).
Acts of Devotion: Individual works of Piety include studying scripture, prayer and meditation, fasting, healthy living and sharing our faith with others.
Acts of Worship: Communal works of Piety include congregational worship, sharing in the sacraments (Baptism and Communion), Christian conferencing, which holds us accountable to others, and group Bible Study.
The individual works are self-explanatory. You might find a few thoughts on the communal works helpful.
In Communion, we experience the real presence of Jesus. Part of that experience is that we are doing this together with others and God is present in our midst. This is grace upon grace.
Why is Baptism a means of grace? My own experience has been that the longer I have journeyed with Jesus, the more my blessings have come from seeing how God is working in someone else’s life, not my own. When we do a Baptism in church, I am filled with joy and what God has done in the life of the person before us. That is grace.
Finally, Christian conferencing is a fancy way to say that we cannot journey alone. According to John Wesley, support without accountability promotes moral weakness. Accountability without support is a form of cruelty. Christian conferencing provides both support and accountability. In Wesley’s day, the primary way this was done was the class meeting. The modern day equivalent would be an effective small group.
Works of Mercy
These means of grace are outwardly focused and help us to grow in our relationship with others, as well as God.
Acts of Compassion: Individual works of Mercy include doing good works, visiting the sick and those in prison, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and giving sacrificially.
Acts of Justice: Communal works of Mercy aim to end the systemic causes of injustice and oppression that cause the need for our individual works of Mercy in the first place. Working to end poverty, homelessness and discrimination of any kind are communal works of Mercy.
If you are a United Methodist geek, you may recognize that this format is used in Covenant Discipleship (CD) groups. CD groups are specifically focused on the means of grace in the Wesleyan tradition. I have participated in CD groups and can testify to their value. Although, I will say that any small group that is well-designed and well-led can help you to avail yourself of the means of grace.
Back to my friend’s question. How do you nurture mature disciples of Jesus?
The means of grace.
Here is the caveat. It’s difficult to nurture the means of grace in another. You can definitely have an impact on others when journeying together. But you can’t give them the desire for grace. That’s between each person and God.
You can lead a person to the well, but you can’t make them drink the living water.
As a church, we can share what a mature disciple of Jesus looks like. We can teach people about the means of grace. We can encourage people to grow in grace. Ultimately, the best thing each of us can do is grow in grace ourselves.
Questions for Reflection:
- How are you growing in grace?
- What individual practices would you like to start?
- What communal practices would you like to start?
The Rev. Jack Shitama serves as executive director of Pecometh Camp & Retreat Ministries in the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference. He blogs at Christian Leaders, from which this post is republished with the author's permission.