We then, as workers together with him, beseech you also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain. (2 Corinthians 6:1)
St. Paul has fallen out with the church in Corinth. They have doubted the efficacy of his preaching and the authenticity of his teaching. Other preachers have caught their attention and they are in danger of being led astray. St. Paul refers to these opponents scornfully as ‘the very chiefest’ or ‘superlative’ apostles. In reality none has his vocation or his track record in the proclamation of the gospel – they are in it for themselves and are in some way or other preaching ‘another Jesus’. These ‘super-apostles’ may be Judaisers seeking to turn the faithful towards a more rigid observance of the Law or they may be Gentiles following a so-called path of enlightenment based on a mystery religion – the sort of approach that would lead them away from Christianity to Gnosticism in the Second Century. We know too from 1 Corinthians that there were issues of morality that were a cause for concern. St. Paul wants to keep those in his charge focussed on Jesus as the only way to salvation. He urges them not to receive God’s grace in vain.
And they were recipients of God’s grace. The church in Corinth was one of St. Paul’s chiefest glories and he devoted a great deal of time to them. The conversion of Greeks who were both pagans and frequently hedonists was no small task, but it was one St. Paul had achieved. We know nothing of numbers – the size of the congregation or congregations – but that hardly matters. The church in Corinth was flourishing and it was the fruit of much labour by the Apostle and his team. Some of St. Paul’s teaching has survived and we read it in two epistles today. Just think of the messages in 1 and 2 Corinthians. The Corinthians were the first to hear St. Paul’s teaching on love and the gifts of the Spirit and many other aspects of the Christian life which we follow today. What a privilege!
The Corinthians were full of the Spirit, but St. Paul was still worried about them. He worried that things might go wrong, that their ears may be open to a different gospel. Not only would his, and others’, sacrificial work be wasted, but the salvation of the church in that place would be endangered. Do not receive God’s grace in vain. That would be like amassing a wonderful collection of beautiful treasures, putting them away in the cellar and never looking at them or sharing them. It would be like having the key to a useful computer programme, but never activating it. We can possess many things that are potentially useful, but never take advantage of them. St. Paul is saying, ‘Don’t waste your opportunities – make the most of them.’
Religion is like that. It needs to be used, put into practice and only then does it become faith. It is more than intellectual assent. I know lots of things, but they don’t change my life or even affect it. I know that some things are true, but I don’t take much notice of them. For example parliamentary democracy is understood to be a good thing, but it is only practised by voting. It can easily be something handed down from previous generations, but received in vain. There are no doubt many other examples. Faith is more than a cultural acceptance of religion – the recognition of something which is just there as a part of society. At its heart faith is something which is alive and bears fruit, both in the life of the believer and in society. Note the parable of the talents and other teachings of our Lord.
In order for faith to make the difference it should we should recognise three things. The first is the transformative power of God. I could have said, ‘the transformative power of the gospel’ which wouldn’t have been wrong, but in the present context I don’t want to move away from persons to ideas – and the gospel can too easily be turned into just another idea. That is what those who want to change Christian teaching do because ideas can more easily be manipulated and changed than people. As Jesus stills the waves we are face to face with the power of God in creation. This is not the fruit of prayer which might be passed off as a natural event. This is something which Jesus did. Recognising this power is fundamental to the life of faith. Christians recognise that Creation in all its magnitude is the work of God and see that work continuing both in Jesus and through the presence of the Holy Spirit. So faith is not primarily about ideas or culture – it is about power operating through the will of God.
The second thing to recognise is the need for an infusion of virtue. St. Paul has already written to the Corinthians about this. He has written about faith, hope and love. These and other virtues determine the nature of Christian lives and relationships. They are more than characteristics, more than descriptions of what Christians are like. Virtues are the beating heart of the community of faith – the Church. Virtues are principles which are properly of divine origin, derived from the revelation of Christ in the New Testament. A Christian society knows of virtue. A secular or pagan society knows only of value. At their best values are merely about intentions. The Christian virtues are the application of God’s power in our lives and relationships. They make a devout and Godly life possible.
The third thing to recognise is the infilling of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul knew that it was the Spirit who made the Corinthians the people they were. He was behind their successes and their joys. Without the Spirit, who is the spirit of Jesus, the presence of God himself, they would be no more than good people – a nice bunch of folk doing their best. Without the Spirit they would have no sense of discernment and no cutting edge for the proclamation of the Gospel. Blunt knives. Discernment is critical a time when Christian teaching and practice are threatened. This was part of the life of the early Church just as it is a part of ours. Discernment by the Spirit and the prophecy by which God’s will is known go together. The Spirit who comes in power gives to Christians a cutting edge to witness to Jesus in the right way at the right time. It is not always easy to know how best to speak to someone of the faith, but the Spirit makes it possible. Living in the Spirit multiplies life’s possibilities.
One of the themes of 2 Corinthians is commendation. St. Paul commends himself to them, detailing all the ways in which he has lived up to his calling.
But in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses. (2 Corinthians 6: 4)
In turn, the Corinthians commend themselves to him by their enthusiasm for the Gospel. If we determine not to receive God’s grace in vain, we too will commend ourselves to others because our faith and practices will reflect the loving and merciful purposes of God. This is the apostolic commission and it is why we are here: to enjoy God’s presence and to recommend it to others that the whole world may be reconciled to God.
Father Andrew Burton SSC
20th June 2021
Image by Barth Bailey on Unsplash