In an oft-quoted, but little understood passage, Paul tells the Corinthians:
As we work together with Christ, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,
“At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”
See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
His appeal raises three questions, each of which requires an answer, if we are to make sense of Paul’s logic:
- What is salvation?
- What does it mean to accept the grace of God in vain?
- What does the answer to both questions have to do with life in the church?
What is salvation?
Contrary to popular belief, it has more to with life than moving our names from the “damned and going to hell” column to the “saved and going to heaven” column. That’s for sure.
As you will have already gathered from this series of articles, the definition of salvation on those terms is both trivial and a distortion of the Gospel:
- It reduces the work of God to eternal fire insurance.
- It trivializes the lives we have been given.
- And it reduces the Christian life to a single transaction after which we cower in fear, hoping that we won’t screw things up.
And because that definition of salvation trivializes life, people often do screw it up. They screw it up because they haven’t been given anything to live for or anything to live by. So, out of boredom, desperation, or a simple lack of direction, they experiment with destructive behavior that hurts themselves and does harm to others.
Properly understood, salvation is about finding God’s healing purpose in your life. It’s about the Holy Spirit guiding you in letting that healing purpose shape your choices minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. That’s why, early on, Christianity wasn’t described as a religion, it was described as “the Way.”
Whether we wonder if life has purpose or whether we want to know what healthy relationships look like, whether we wonder how to resolve moral challenges or we seek peace and fulfillment, whether we seek to be wise or long to be loving, whether we want to transcend wounds from the past or we long to accomplish something that will contribute to the wellbeing of others, the Christian journey is a journey into God that offers a path forward.[i]
Christianity is not a philosophy, but it offers truth to live by. It isn’t an ethic, but it provides a way of discerning what is just and right. It isn’t a political philosophy, but it teaches us how to live in community. It isn’t a psychology, but it describes what it means to be whole and to be at peace. As good as those things might be, substitute any of those things for a relationship with God and their inadequacy is immediately evident.
Try though they may the atheist and agnostic have no convincing reasons for arguing that life has meaning without God. Sure, you can talk about St. John Lennon and the power of love (or is that Huey Lewis and the News?). You can talk about the importance of social order, you can talk about being remembered by your loved ones. But, in truth, if there is no God and if we are here purely by accident, then our greatest efforts are nothing more than nothing more than pictures drawn in the dust.
The difference becomes apparent at the end of life. I’ve noticed the difference over the years between Christian funerals and the funerals of people who believed in nothing. The Christians celebrate lives invested in the larger work of God’s grace. They and their relatives think of themselves as people who have lived out their lives in deep connection with God’s purposes for us. They see their struggles and failures as points along the way where – inspite of the circumstances – they learned to put themselves back into God’s hands, not unlike the experience Paul describes in this morning’s reading. And they see their deaths as continuation of a journey into God that will be marked by still greater light and joy. A place where anything of importance that was lost along the way will be rediscovered.
To live life and to end life in that way are the hallmarks of salvation: The experience of being rescued from the desperate search for meaning and connection, of having arrived, of being embraced by God.
How much better that is than the gnawing sense that life has been an empty exercise, and the realization that affirmations that look back at life and try to tie meaning to some limited and ephemeral bit of life: a high school football record, a strategic plan set in motion, the difference that made in a company that no longer exists, or even a life of good works and care for others? In the end, even these things do not last.
Such things aren’t bad in and of themselves, of course, particularly if they are the arena in which one’s relationship with God and others is hammered out and refined. But lifted to the level of ultimate purpose, you can feel them groan under the weight that they were never meant to bear. That is why in a Christians funeral there are almost always eulogies – a good word about someone who has died – but whether there are eulogies or not, a Christian funeral always includes a sermon that declares the power of the Resurrection – because it is the Resurrection life into which we are baptized.
If we understand salvation in this way, then the answer to the question, “What does it mean to accept the grace of God in vain?”, is relatively obvious.
Accepting the grace of God in vain, is to acknowledge that God “is” or even to be baptized and then to live as if God doesn’t matter.
To be clear: This doesn’t mean that you necessarily need to be “a big-time sinner” to accept the grace of God in vain. A lot of people think that’s the case, of course. You hear it, when people say, “Well, he was a good guy, hardworking, loyal, fair, and honest.” The implication being, he surely couldn’t have missed the point. But from the Christian point of view, “being good,” isn’t the point. The point is belonging to God. Sure, our journey with God might result in being good, but only because God is good. Only because the only place where we can find true goodness is in God.
Some years ago, my wife – who is also a priest – taught an adult Sunday School class. After one session a man came up to her and told her, “I’m not coming back, and I thought it was only fair to tell you that I’m not coming back.” When Natalie pressed him for an explanation, he went onto say: “Because I know what you are trying to do. You are trying to get us to fall in love with Jesus, and if I do that, my life is going to change and I don’t want that.” That is the essence of accepting the grace of God in vain or turning your back on it.
And – minus his honesty – that pattern is repeated over and over again across the church, every week of the year. The great pity of it is not that people are failing some moral standard, that they are failing the church, or that they aren’t doing what the church’s clergy would like for them to do. The great pity is, to paraphrase Mother Natalie’s friend, they are turning their back on the love of Jesus. And they often do it, taking their spouses and children with them.
So, what does the answer to both questions have to do with life in the church?
Well, that should be pretty obvious by now.
If you are wondering why we spend time in church worshipping, if you wonder why we receive the body and blood of Christ week after week, if you wonder why we pray and preach from Scripture, if you wonder why we devote time to Christian formation, if you wonder why we resolved as a parish that it was worth our while to spend more than one or two hours a week in church on Sundays – if you wonder why we bring our children to church on Sunday or why we come together around food, movies, and mission to our community, the answer is simple. It is because we believe that activity of that kind is what it means to accept the grace of God. As Paul notes elsewhere, in gathering, praying, and receiving the sacraments, we are “working out our salvation.”
Put more simply: We can’t fall in love with God, if we don’t spend time in God’s presence. We can’t discover what God wants to teach us as the body of Christ, unless we are participants in the life of Christ’s body. And we can’t enter into that journey, sitting at home.
It is unfortunate that we have talked about life in the body of Christ in such misleading ways. We have been deeply distracted by conversations about the church that emphasize its role as a social institution, alongside other social institutions. We have been allured by the televised images of large congregations with theatrical productions. We have peddled visions of the church as a consumer product and, as Episcopalians, we have been deeply enthralled by our social influence over the centuries.
Those detours from the healing work of Christ have spawned a wide array of alternatives that are reactions to those distractions, and – as is the case with all reactive models – those alternatives are just as misleading as those distractions themselves. God is present to us in nature, but God is not one with nature and nothing that nature can teach us, surpasses the knowledge of the creator, who is perfectly known in Jesus Christ. We can search for authenticity, but if our authentic selves – good, bad, and indifferent – are only accurately known and evaluated in the light of Christ. We can look for inner peace and integration, but apart from the act of repentance, amendment of life, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the search for inner peace is a feeling without grounding outside ourselves.
And a whole new range of customized approaches to the Christian faith are now flourishing in the wake of Covid-19. The pandemic gave everyone a socially acceptable reason for not going to church. In fact, for much of the pandemic, it made people who insisted on worship look like nut-cases, who wanted nothing more than to run childish risks with the lives of others.
But here we are, mostly on the other side of that experience, and there are still those who are habituated to staying at home, auditing church services, and holding the experience of Christ’s body at arm’s length. I don’t doubt the value of online communities, but lives without a flesh and blood engagement with the body of Christ will have a predictable result.
People who choose that path will not be Christians in any meaningful sense of the word. Their children will be less likely to become Christians. And the deep fabric of meaning and significance that is the Christian vision of salvation will be lost to a generation of Americans.
My dear friends, avoid the desperate search for meaning and healing that is sure to follow. Make the journey. Embrace your salvation.
[i] Christians talk about “sanctification” and “theosis” to identify the on-going dimensions of this journey, but it would be a mistake to understand this as a discreet event. Though it often is, thanks to poor catechesis.