Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 1: 3)
Following a brief, conventional note of the senders of the epistle and its addressees, St. Paul offers his greetings to the Corinthian church, wishing them grace and peace. This is something which will be granted to them by God himself so the greeting has the nature of a prayer. This goes beyond the conventions of letter writing in the Roman world, but characterises the practices – the beliefs and intentions of the first Christians. The Corinthians are greeted with a prayer that they will be granted two special gifts from God.
First, St. Paul is making a statement about the nature of God. God is a God of grace who is always seeking the good of his people: he wants the best for us. In the Old Testament grace tends to mean ‘favour’, especially that shown by a superior to an inferior and in particular when there is no obligation to be kind. The New Testament uses the word slightly differently. Here it refers to favour as a pleasure and to the pleasure that favour gives, to kindness shown and to gratitude on the part of the recipient. In other words grace refers to the gift itself, the giving of the gift, the receipt of the gift and the thankfulness that the gift engenders. In the New Testament it is possible to live a ‘graced’ existence!
God’s grace is shown most notably in the act of salvation. In general terms God shows his love towards his people – in the Old Testament, his ‘loving kindness’ – by offering his forgiveness when they err and stray from the covenant he has made with them. He comes to their aid in time of trouble because he is always faithful to his covenant, but the key to understanding God’s grace is to note that although God is justly angered by our sins he is patient, giving people time and opportunity to repent and return to him. This is grace. In specific terms God shows his love by sending his Son at the Incarnation to offer his life for the sins of the world. This too is grace. Because Jesus is now present with his people, the fullness of the Godhead dwells amongst us (see Colossians 2: 9) and we can refer to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ (see 2 Corinthians 13: 14).
Secondly, the Apostle is making a statement about the benefit of belonging to Christ: the fruits of faith. In this greeting he refers to peace. This is the primary fruit of God’s grace as it is received in faith. In the Greek world ‘peace’ usually meant the absence of war, but in the Old Testament it has a much broader application. Peace (shalom) is a state of well-being which is experienced when men are living in harmony with God and with each other. It is truly experienced in a restored community in which the righteousness of God is sought. In the New Testament the restored community is the Church in which both Jew and Gentile live in harmony, the barrier between them having been broken down on the cross.
For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. (Ephesians 2: 14-17)
The new covenant established by Jesus is an eternal one. A fruit of the new covenant is that all the powers at war with God and his people are defeated (Colossians 2: 15) and, as the Apostle makes clear, ‘the last enemy to be destroyed is death.’ (1 Corinthians 15: 26).
As an Advent discipline we might try harder to be in a state of grace. This includes both the need for repentance and also to the need to accept God’s gifts which are so graciously offered to us. Accepting a renewed discipline of faith we will be better prepared to greet the Lord at Christmas and in a more worthy state to meet him when he comes again in glory – or at our death, whichever is soonest. Particularly during this time in which we are living we might learn to be at peace, putting stress and anxiety in their proper place: a useful biological reaction to the world around us, but not the determining factor in our lives. It would be a very good result of our Advent prayers if we could learn to make good use of stress to deal with our situation whilst recognising that all factors, whether they be powers or principalities are made subject to Christ. In doing so may grace and peace be yours.
Father Andrew Burton SSC
29th November 2020