A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent
February 26, 2023 at Holy Communion
2 Corinthians 6:1–10
“Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
As I sat down prepare a sermon this week, I was assuming that I would speak about the temptations of Christ, the classic text for the First Sunday in Lent. But then I was utterly arrested by the first few words of our Epistle reading. Pay attention when this happens to you: a passage of scripture that leaps off the page is ready to leap into your mind and into your heart.
Those first words were, “Working together with him.” I suppose that the reason I found it arresting is how different this is then the way we typically imagine our “working relationship with God.” On one hand, we talk about “serving God,” as if we were working for God. But then we swing the other way and talk about grace, about God blessing us freely, working for us. We rarely talk about the middle ground, the place where God’s grace and our work cooperate—but in fact this is precisely where our salvation happens.
In our reading, Paul is trying to stir up the Christians in Corinth. He first tells them that they are co-workers with God, encourages them to do their part by reaching out toward God for salvation, and then gives his own ministry as an example of what it means to work vigorously, empowered by God’s Spirit.
He appeals to them “not to receive the grace of God in vain” or “not to receive the grace of God to no effect.” Chew on that. Is it possible to receive the grace of God to no effect? Yes, it is possible! St Paul says so.
Remember that “grace” simply means “a gift,“ but specifically a gift that restores our relationship with God. The scriptures are a grace: they are gifts of God for the healing of our minds and hearts. The sacraments are a grace: they are gifts of God for the washing and strengthening of our spirits. Is it possible to hear the word and be unchanged? Yes! That is called hard-heartedness. Is it possible to receive the sacrament and be left cold toward God? Yes! That is called impiety.
What St Paul has in the crosshairs here is what Lutheran pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the 20th century would call “cheap grace,” the presumption that because God’s mercy is generous and free, it doesn’t matter whether we allow it to transform us.
But in fact, the only purpose of grace is to transform us—to flow through us and become our lifeblood, so that God’s work is realized in and through us. We’ve talked about this before, even recently. Last month we talked about Paul’s analogy of a vine in Romans 11. Jesus himself also uses the analogy of a vine to talk about his relationship with his followers in John 15. In both the point is the same: if we maintain a lively connection with him, God empowers us to bring forth the good fruits of holiness, purity, righteousness, and love. But he has no interest in blessing a fruitless branch which only wants to maintain the pretence of being connected to the vine. Such a vine, Jesus says, is “thrown into the fire and burned” (John 15:6).
That’s the warning. It’s stern. So what is the solution? “Working together with God.”
Now at this point I have to stop and clarify something. It is profoundly tempting to hear this kind of warning about the need for practical transformation and work, and to think that what the scripture is saying is “Work harder!” That’s not it either. This is about having more God in your work, not more work in your life; about doing more of your work with God, not doing more work.
The spiritual centre of this idea of “synergism”—that’s just the technical term for what we’re talking about; it literally means “working-together-ism”—the spiritual centre of synergism is intimacy with God as we pursue salvation. We desire to be whole people. We desire to be free from all the muck in which our spiritual boots are stuck: lethargy, despair, distraction, impurity. In short, we desire to be saved. And being saved is our work: we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). It is the only important task of our lives to achieve holiness, and with holiness, joy.
The meaning of grace is not that God frees us from that work, but that God comes into us and works with us, allowing us to achieve what we couldn’t achieve by ourselves. This work of holiness is too much for us, unless God comes and helps us. And so the language that Paul uses to describe working together with God is precisely this: salvation and help. He quotes the Old Testament: “In the day of salvation I helped you.” “Now is the day of salvation,” he says, the day when we want more than anything to get lifted up out of the mire of sin. And what does God do? He helps us. He enables us to do what we could not do without him.
Which part of that equation do you have more trouble with? Do you have more difficulty convincing yourself of the need to work hard in the pursuit of salvation? Are you a cheap-grace Christian? Or perhaps are you someone who works hard in spiritual things, and you need to be reminded that you share your work with God, and he is your helper. Do you cultivate intimacy with God as you work out your salvation?