“…from this minute…”
A homily on 2 Corinthians 6:1-2 and the significance of the present moment
We then, as workers together with him, beseech you also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain. (For he saith, “I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succored thee”: behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Time impresses itself on our attention most frequently when we realize that it will come to an end. At these moments, what comes to the fore is the vanity of much of what we do, the pettiness of our likes and dislikes, and the impermanence of all that we hold dear. It motivates us to change, to become better, to live our life differently. Yet, this surge of enthusiasm wears off. How is it that a near-death experience, a bout with cancer, or the loss of a loved one draws us into such an atmosphere without our consent, the value of which is evident to us but seems so fleeting as time moves on and we become forgetful of those moments?
In the Epistle which we have read today, the Apostle Paul speaks to us of an aspect of time, not the succession of moments but the instant and immediate, the present moment, in which we need to make a decision. The decision is to not take the grace of God in vain. We should note here the difference between the common notion of “living life to the fullest” or “making the most of each moment” and the many other clichés which belie what is at the root of life: by the grace of God we are given life, those of us who are Christians have been given a life that is to be lived in Christ and for Christ.
Suffering with Contentment and the Transcience of Life
Throughout the first five chapters and into this sixth one, which we have just listened to, the Apostle Paul intertwines his instructions to the Corinthians with two other strands of thought:
- the sufferings of the Apostles (3:5; 4:7-12; 6:5-10); and
- and a reminder to the Corinthians of the transience of life (4:17, 18; 5:1, 10).
The suffering of the Apostles for the Salvation of the Corinthians
He is not grumbling about hardships or that he wanted the Corinthians to acknowledge his sufferings but that alongside these trials divine consolation was present with them at all times. As with our Epistle reading today, he continues this list noting the afflictions and distress, stripes, imprisonments, tumults, longsuffering, dying, chastening, sorrow, and poverty related to his calling. Later in this epistle, the Apostle Paul enumerates even more hardships that have come his way for the sake of the Gospel. In chapter eleven, he tells them how he was whipped, beaten with rods and stoned; shipwrecked and stranded at sea; in perils, weariness, pain, hunger, thirst, cold, and naked (Cf. 11:24-27). He wrote that the sufferings of Christ abound in us (1:5) and that they were troubled on every side, yet not distressed; perplexed, but not in despair (cf. 4:8-9). “I take pleasure,” he says, “in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”(12:10)
The Apostle emphasizes his sufferings but may we note another meaning here that the Apostle is responding to fear of suffering which keeps some of the Corinthians from struggling more, from not giving more of themselves because they fear poverty, sickness or ill repute. But as the Apostles lists his hardships, it is not all darkness. Instead there is consolation amidst these trials for himself and all who travel this path, as he says, “our consolation aboundeth by Christ” (1:5); “As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things” (6:10). And what is more, he says of the Corinthians themselves that they are the praise and glory of the Apostles, having their teachings written on their hearts (1:14, 3:2).
The trials do not mean a life unfulfilled or of bitterness and resentment. Instead, just the opposite, suffering produces love, love for God and love for neighbor. As he writes, “O ye Corinthians, our mouth is open unto you, our heart is enlarged” (6:11); “And I will very gladly spend and be spent for you” (12:15f).
Therefore, O Corinthians, do not receive the grace of God in vain.
How is it that they could have received the grace of God in vain? By continuing in trespasses and sin and the impurity of the flesh (7:1) since they have been reconciled to God as he has said in the previous chapter (5:18-19). But he fears for them, he says, lest they become beguiled and of a corrupt mind as Eve was by the serpent (11:3). He says, “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves” (13:5). Or, as he says elsewhere, “I… beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called” (Eph. 4:1).
Why would the Apostle even raise such a topic? Do I need to worry if I do not examine myself or show myself worthy? But note that the Apostle is not threatening, is not intimidating, not trying to frighten the Corinthians. Showing how much he has loved them and suffered for them and as a father for his children, he says, “do not receive the grace of God in vain.” Why? Because you will lose it.
At this point, many people outside of the Orthodox Church are apt to ask, “Once we’re saved, aren’t we always saved?” And the flip side of that comment is equally just a bit off-center, “God sounds like a tyrant if you always have to be worrying about whether you’ll make it to heaven or if He will toss you into Hell because you didn’t work hard enough.” Yet, the Gospel and the Epistle readings for today address these two comments.
If you could never lose the grace of God, if you could never damage that relationship, or use your freedom to choose God and then turn away, why would the Apostle here say, “do not receive the grace of God in vain?” If you could do nothing to change that, then what the Apostle is saying is superfluous, is unnecessary. Instead, it is not superfluous or unnecessary because it is true because you can make the grace of God futile and useless though that was not God’s intent.
The grace of God has come down upon you and you realized it and were filled with zeal and joy but like the Sower and the seed your gift was whisked away by birds of passion or you were scorched by the sun of tribulations and the gift dried up or the thorns of the material world have sprung up and choked you. Or, like the Unwise Virgins, you haven’t been filling your lamp with the oil of working for Christ and your light is growing dim, soon to be extinguished and the Bridegroom is calling.
In the Gospel reading today, these questions are also addressed. The talents are given to a man’s servants - five, two, and one. Upon the master’s return, the servants present the master with what he has given them plus having earned more. The master responds by saying that they are “good and faithful” except for the one who did not trade his talent and earned nothing with it and therefore he was cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth because the measure of grace which was given him was in vain because the servant earned nothing with it.
The Apostle Paul warns us, “do not receive the grace of God in vain. Do not waste your time in idle pursuits but nurture the grace that is in you.” God does not arbitrarily reward or condemn we who are His creation and made in His image. Instead, God gives us His grace to which we are to add our work and therein grow in this grace and knowledge of God.
The Transience of Life: Now is the day of salvation
The Apostle Paul then says, “Behold, now is the accepted time, behold, now is the day of salvation.” The Apostle has been building up to this point throughout the previous five chapters contrasting life’s hardships but with divine joys, the struggle of the Christian life with consolation in Christ, the temporal with the eternal:
…but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal (4:16-18).
One day, time will run out. Our eyes will not be able to look upon the holy icons or the life-creating mysteries of Christ, our ears will grow deaf to the beautiful chant of the Liturgy, our hands will not be able to make the sign of the cross anymore nor touch holy things, our tongue will not taste the body and blood of Christ, our lips will not kiss the saints. No, we will grow cold, and our muscles will contract, and we will stiffen, we will be laid in the casket with our faces covered before we are covered by the ground from which we came.
On that day, the Apostle Paul says, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.” (5:10).
May we recall the grace that we have been given, and recall that “[Christ] died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again”(5:15) and therefore not receive the grace of God in vain.
“Prepare your heart for your departure,” St. Isaac says. “If you are wise, you will expect it every hour. Each day say to yourself, ‘See, the messenger who comes to fetch me is already at the door. Why am I sitting idle? I must depart forever. I cannot come back again.’ Go to sleep with these thoughts every night, and reflect on them throughout the day. And when the time for departure comes, go joyfully to meet it, saying, ‘Come in peace. I knew you would come, and I have not neglected anything that could help me on the journey.”
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us. Amen.
 St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 65