2 Corinthians 6:1-10; Luke 6:31-36
Today’s epistle reading begins with a very interesting statement: “Brethren, since we are fellow workers, we entreat you also not to receive the grace of God in vain.” Right before this statement, St. Paul refers to his apostolic ministry as one of working together with God “as ambassadors of Christ” who call the confused Corinthians “to be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor. 5: 20-21) He addresses them with urgency, for “now is ‘the acceptable season’; behold, now is ‘the day of salvation.’” These words will confuse those who think that grace is merely a gift of forgiveness by God that precludes us from being judged guilty for our sins. When grace is understood in such legal categories, it becomes hard to see what it would be mean to receive it in vain, for grace would by definition bring about forgiveness.
Orthodox Christians view grace quite differently as the divine energies of God. While we do not know or participate in God by nature, those who are in Christ may become radiant with the divine energies like an iron left in the fire of the divine glory. To know and share in God’s life by grace as “partakers of the divine nature” is not a passive matter of benefiting from a legal decree, but a process of the healing and fulfillment of the human person as a living icon of God. It is entirely possible, then, “to receive the grace of God in vain” by refusing to participate in the divine-human synergy that is necessary for us to share personally in Christ’s salvation. St. Paul teaches that we are all fellow workers with God who must “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Philipp. 2:12-13).
As St. Paul stressed against the Judaizers, such healing does not come merely as a reward for good behavior in a legalistic sense. We cannot make ourselves brilliant with the divine glory any more than we can raise ourselves from the dead by obeying even the best code of behavior. We must, however, use our freedom to receive the Lord’s gracious mercy by faith and faithfulness as we persistently reorient ourselves in thought, word, and deed away from corruption and toward healing. The deep calling of our lives is to find the fulfillment of our potential as those created in the divine image to become like Him in holiness. The God-Man has fulfilled this vocation and made it possible for all to share personally in His restoration and fulfillment of the human person. That is why our calling is nothing short of becoming “perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48)
A clear indicator of whether we are responding faithfully to our calling is how we treat other people, who are living icons of God every bit as much as we are. That is why the Lord taught that we must treat others as we want others to treat us. How we relate to them manifests how we relate to Him. That is true not only for how we relate to our friends, for there is no great virtue in being good to those who are good to us. For example, even the worst criminals help their partners in crime. Likewise, lending money to people likely to repay their loans is simply business as usual, for “even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.” Christ calls us to something much higher: “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
Our Savior is certainly the perfect model of love for enemies, as He went to the Cross for the salvation of the world without responding in kind to those who rejected, tortured, and killed Him. Even as He was dying, He prayed “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Throughout His earthly ministry, Christ resisted the temptation to become the kind of nationalistic, militaristic Messiah expected by the Jews to liberate them from Roman rule. The diseases of soul that make people slaves to vengeance, anger, and domination have no place in Him, and if we are participating personally in His gracious healing, they must have no place in us either. We will “receive the grace of God in vain” if we somehow convince ourselves that anything justifies embracing such passions, for they will block us from being “merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
As fellow workers with Christ, we must become neither religious legalists nor those who reduce grace to mere forgiveness for breaking laws. Neither of those perspectives heals the soul and helps us to become more beautiful living icons of Christ. The Savior calls us to become nothing less than true “partakers of the divine nature” who manifest personally His fulfillment of our vocation to become like God in holiness. Like an iron left in the fire until it becomes literally red hot, those united personally to Christ will become radiant with the divine energies such that the holiness of the God-Man permeates every dimension of who we are as embodied persons.
The fact that we seem inevitably to fall short of loving our neighbors, and especially our enemies, as ourselves indicates that we have a truly eternal vocation that we should never think that we have completed. The struggle that we all have in treating other people, especially our enemies, as we would like to be treated, reveals that we have not yet embraced fully the Lord’s gracious healing of our souls. St. Silouan the Athonite saw the love of enemies as a clear sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. He taught that when the soul “grows humble, the Lord gives her His grace, and then she prays for her enemies as for herself, and sheds scalding tears for the whole world.” These words reveal our need for ongoing repentance as we turn away from fueling the passions that make it so appealing to condemn others and turn humbly toward cooperating with the Lord’s gracious healing of our souls.
Our hope is not in our own virtue or accomplishments, but in the infinite mercy of the Lord Who offered Himself fully on the Cross for our salvation, even though we had made ourselves His enemies because of our sins. (Rom. 5:10, 8:7) As St. Paul wrote, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8) The depths of God’s mercy are unfathomable and we must never allow ourselves to despair when we fall short time and time again in loving as we are loved. Instead, we must use our failures to fuel our humility, mindfully calling from the depths of our hearts for our Lord’s gracious healing mercies. Rather than obsessing about the offenses of others, we must focus our minds on the words of the Jesus Prayer as we lift up our hearts to receive the healing of the Great Physician for our own diseased souls. We must pray also for God’s blessings upon those who have offended us and ask God to forgive our sins by their prayers, for we are each “the chief of sinners.” By responding to our own struggles to love in spiritually healthy ways, we will grow in patience with our neighbors, especially those who struggle to be merciful to us. We may even begin to see how we have tempted them to see us as their enemies.
Even as we do not ask for what we deserve from God, we must not attempt to treat others according to what we imagine they deserve from us. If we have received the Lord’s mercy, we must extend that mercy to our neighbors, especially those we are inclined to hate, condemn, or otherwise disregard. Our only hope is in the God-Man Who shares His healing and restoration of the human person with us by conquering death and corruption in all their malign forms. The more that we unite ourselves to Christ in humble faith and obedience, the more His mercy will become characteristic of us and the more we will live in a manner befitting the sons and daughters of God, for “He is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish.” Doing so is absolutely necessary, if we are not to “receive the grace of God in vain.”