When I was in seminary I played on a church softball team. In one game I was playing second base and the other team had a runner on first. The batter hit the ball to shallow center field. I went to second to take the throw for an easy force out. Now this was a league of rural churches. We didn’t always have the best fields and equipment. In this game, second base wasn’t a bag; it was a piece of carpet – not big, thick shag carpet – thin, flat carpet. I couldn’t feel it with my foot. The runner was safe because I didn’t get my foot on the base. My teammates responded – you would have thought I just lost the 7th game of the World Series! Everybody stayed on my case the rest of the game, even though we won by about 18 – 2. Epic fail!
I’ve failed a lot worse than that, of course. We all have. What does failure do to us? It gives us a sense of being unacceptable, rejected, condemned. We live with regret, if-only, and trying to do better or just giving up and pretending I’m okay.
The need to be accepted begins early. It starts in the family – as a child you need desperately to know both parents accept you unconditionally. It continues through life. We put in a lot of work, spend a lot of money, and put on a lot of performances trying to make ourselves acceptable.
There’s a level in our personalities where acceptance makes it possible to accept ourselves and to handle all the other levels of acceptance and rejection. That level is where we experience unconditional acceptance. See it in action in John 8:2-11.
Early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people were coming to Him; and He sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?” They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground. But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court. Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”
No one really finds total acceptance until they experience what this woman did. This is a real life drama with a surprising and powerful ending. We’ll stand at the edge and watch the drama unfold. Occasionally we’ll move in for a close-up view and we’ll step back to look at ourselves.
Early one morning during the Feast of Tabernacles when the city was overflowing with religious pilgrims, Jesus comes into Jerusalem and goes to the Temple. Soon a crowd gathers around him and he begins to teach. He’s interrupted when a committee makes its appearance: the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees. These guys are genuine spiritual snobs. They carry their noses so high they would catch on power lines. They are holy and they know it. They have God and people all figured out. Have all the answers. This is the official Sinner Stoning Committee, and they’re ready to fulfill their assignment.
Two of the biggest men drag in a young woman. She may have been an unmarried teenager or a married adult. They throw her to the ground in front of Jesus and everyone else. The committee chairman calls the meeting to order and loudly announces: “This woman was caught in the act of adultery!” He looks around the crowd like an arrogant prosecuting attorney with an air-tight case and fixes his stare on Jesus: “The Law says she must be stoned. What do you say?”
The Law – yeah, right. What they’re really after is to catch Jesus doing something they can use to accuse and condemn him. To do it, they’re willing to step on this woman and grind her into the dirt.
But let’s be honest. The Committee is right. The woman has been caught in the act; she’s guilty and legally deserves death by stoning. She knows it. She’s not denying her guilt. She’s not blaming someone else for her actions. She’s not making excuses or claiming she’s misunderstood. She’s been caught. Epic fail.
So, there the Committee stands, killing stones in their hands and satisfied smirks on their faces. Each one is thinking “We’ve got him now.” If Jesus says, “Yes, stone her,” the people he’s teaching will lose confidence in his message of love and forgiveness. If he says, “No, don’t stone her,” he’ll be seriously violating the Law of Moses and condoning adultery, so they’ll arrest him.
But Jesus doesn’t say anything just yet. Instead, mysteriously he bends down and writes something in the dirt with his finger. I don’t know why he did that or what he wrote. Maybe he’s getting his anger under control. Maybe he’s taking some time to work this out. He’s dealing with 3 kinds of people: the teachable crowd, the self-righteous Sinner Stoning Committee, and, most crucially, the woman, embarrassed and trembling in fear.ea
He looks into the eyes and soul of each Committee member and makes one short statement: “The one who has no sin can throw first.” He stoops again and writes some more in the dirt. This is all he has to say.
The Committee is dumbfounded. They drop their rocks and their jaws. Not even they, as righteous as they think they are, have the audacity to claim to be sinless. The members look to the chairman: “what now, boss?” Beginning with the oldest, they tuck their tails and run home to mama. You can hear chuckles ripple through the crowd.
But the woman is still there. Still right out there in front of everybody – everybody knows! And she’s slowly suffocating in her shame. Even though the Committee is gone, she’s still guilty, still unacceptable. Nothing has really changed about her. Her epic fail hasn’t been undone.
Then Jesus straightens up and faces her. He acts surprised: “Where’d they go? Doesn’t anyone condemn you? Didn’t anyone throw a stone?” She answers, “No one.” There’s no one left to condemn her. No one to reject her. No one to stone her. No one has the right. Well, wait, there is one. The one who is without sin. Jesus. He can condemn her. He can reject her. He can stone her. And Jesus picks up one of the rocks and throws it – away. Maybe he didn’t do that, but I have no doubt that Jesus put his arm around her shoulder when he said, “I don’t condemn you either.” He doesn’t condone her adultery at all. He tells her, “Leave your life of sin.” She has failed. But he doesn’t condemn. He doesn’t punish. He doesn’t kick her while she’s down. He gives her mercy. He gives her unconditional acceptance and a chance to start over.
I’ve been where that woman was. I’ve felt the scorn, as painful as rocks, from the self-righteous when I made mistakes. Jesus never joined them. I’ve been where that woman was: epic fail. Guilty, ashamed. Jesus never stoned me. Never condemned me. Never threw me out. Never gave up on me. Always accepts me and picks me up to start over.
What this is all about is grace from Jesus the King. Here in the shadow of the Temple, the center and power of the Law-controlled way of life, Jesus shows that the power of the new life he’s bringing is grace. His Kingdom is powered by grace. People who fail are not treated with a sweet, marshmallowy softness, to be sure. But they are not rejected and condemned because of their failure. No one has to desperately try to make themselves good enough and acceptable. No one has to make sure they never do something wrong. No one has to live in shame and fear. With Jesus as King, nobody gets stoned.
What’s happening with this woman caught in the act? What’s happening when Jesus says to her, “I don’t condemn you; leave your life of sin”? Jesus is changing her with grace.
People don’t leave their lives of sin when they’re condemned; they keep on sinning. People don’t change when they’re stoned; they die. People don’t start living differently when someone points out how wrong they are and demands they do better; they find something to cover up their guilt. People change when they have unconditional acceptance from Christ.
One day when I worked in a residential treatment center, one of our girls was throwing a tantrum in school. She was in a rage. She kicked a garbage can over and pushed books and papers onto the floor. She overturned a folding table. She screamed and cussed the staff. Finally she squatted and stared at the floor, still seething with anger. I walked over and stood to her side. I said her name and held my hand to her, palm down. Many seconds passed then she reached up. She didn’t take my hand, just brushed her fingers over mine. She relaxed and stood up and asked if she could take a walk with one of the staff. But before she did, she cleaned up the room she had trashed.
Grace changes people. Christ’s grace takes people with epic fails, unconditionally accepts them, and starts them on a new way of living.