I sat yesterday in a Sunday School class with the finest people I know. Our text was John 13 (just following the Last Supper) wherein Jesus washes the feet of His apostles and utters these defining words of Christendom: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35). He was saying, in essence, that the best way to tell who His true followers are is to watch how they treat others.
The scene there in the Santiago Creek Ward could not have been significantly different from the one you might have seen on the evening of June 17, at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. That is, until things became entirely different. About an hour into the Bible study that night, a visitor pulled out a gun and shot ten of the worshipers, leaving nine of them dead. The misguided ideas which drove him to that hateful act remain in stark contrast to the message of love inherent in the book they studied together that night.
Two days after the murders, survivors and relatives of some of the victims gathered at a legal hearing to confront the accused killer. But rather than releasing the full force of the anger and pain which surely they feel, they took the opportunity to extend forgiveness to the man apparently responsible for the deaths of their loved ones. To those who are not believers, what transpired at that hearing may have been entirely unexpected. But to those who have embraced the teachings of Jesus, they should not be. Remarkable still. Truly remarkable. But not unexpected at all.
How is such tenderness possible in the face of such heartbreak? Barack Obama explained it well on Friday, June 26, at the funeral services for The Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who led the Bible study that night. In his wise and moving eulogy of the senior pastor, the President evoked a truth that rests at the heart of Christian theology. “God works in mysterious ways,” he said. “Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group—the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle.”
Grace. God’s love extended to the undeserving. Not earned, but given freely. Not claimed by the entitled, but accepted—humbly—by the unworthy. Not just manifested in the face of tragedy, but triggered by tragedy itself. Amazing grace. That has saved a wretch like me time and again. That compels me to be my best today and enables me tomorrow to strive for even better.
“As a nation,” said the President, “out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other—but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.”
To do that, we must go and do likewise. We must follow the good example of the members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. “As I have loved you,” said Jesus, “love one another” (John 13:34). It’s what He asks of those He has loved. And it is the essence of discipleship.