I am currently reading Stephen Prothero's American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, which investigates the various constructions of Jesus in American history. He argues convincingly that what Americans have seen in Jesus has been a reflection of themselves. I haven't liked most versions of Jesus that Prothero sees in American cultural history—Enlightened Sage, Manly Redeemer, or Superstar—because they are mainly reflections of American ideals and hopes. While reading American Jesus I also read the Gospel accounts of Jesus and saw another interesting version: Jesus as Loser Lover (thanks to Steve Taylor for his brilliant song "Jesus is for Losers"). Jesus loved the spiritual losers: swindlers, whores, and drunkards. These were not people "achieving growth in noble virtues." Jesus told us what to think about his mission for losers: "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."
The good news is that we are all "the sick" who are in the scope of Jesus' mission. Luther explained the good news this way: "Although I am a sinner according to the Law. . . never the less I do not despair, because Christ lives and he is my eternal and heavenly life. In that righteousness and life I have no sin or death. I am indeed a sinner according to the present life and its righteousness, where the Law accuses me. But above this life I have another righteousness, another life, which is Christ, who does not know sin and death but is righteousness and eternal life."
The result of this good news being true might be freedom and joy—freedom because you're not God's enemy and joy because you don’t have to take yourself so seriously. When Jesus showed up on the scene, he said he brought the kingdom of God and it looked like the kingdom of God was a party and all the losers were invited. The blind received sight, the lame could walk, and the sick were healed. There was lots to celebrate! And many of his parables ended with celebrations and joy. Why do we see so little of this joy or freedom? Have the old Pharisees, with their dour legalism, scared us away from joy and freedom? Have we domesticated the extravagant grace of God by relying on moralist techniques and disciplines? Have we overlooked the fact that we are known and loved by God? Have we forgotten that we are accepted and we don't deserve it?
Undeserved acceptance—that sounds like grace. Borrowing from and tweaking some of Paul Tillich's sermon "You are Accepted": Grace is the acceptance of that which was rejected. It somehow changes guilt into assurance. It strikes us when we are weak, not strong. Grace strikes us in pain and restlessness, when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual. It strikes us when our disgust for our weakness and our lack of composure has become intolerable to us. It strikes us when the longed-for progress does not appear, when the old compulsions re-emerge, when despair destroys joy and courage. Sometimes, at that moment, a wave of light breaks into the darkness and you hear God say: "Because of what my Son did, you are accepted. You are accepted! Do not try to do anything right now. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!"