Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. (2 Co 6.1)
May I be a little self-indulgent, and begin with a (mild) whinge? Believing Christians have become used to mainstream media giving air to obscure theories purporting to dispute a well-accepted belief or teaching, writes Bishop Peter Comensoli, Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney.
What was really in that ‘vinegar’ put up to Jesus lips?, conspiracy theorists knowingly ask. And hey-presto, a so-called documentary appears on our TV screens asking the question: Did Jesus actually die in the cross or did his followers drug him to fake the resurrection.
This tendency of the media to give credence to the loopy, the inane and the salacious when it comes to an orthodox Christian faith was played out again this past Easter. While more than a quarter of a million Sydney-siders thought it quite reasonable to attend the Easter Services recalling the true passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it would appear that none of our TV stations bothered to run a movie or a documentary in sympathy with this history.
Instead, all I noticed was a program peddling the intellectually tired claim that Jesus was secretly married to Mary Magdalene. (Where are the academics defending her personal integrity?) In these sceptical times, what was once considered reasonable about the Christian faith is now considered fair game, by cynically giving credence to personal philosophies and unreasoned conjecture.
Why bother with the tried and true story of Jesus Christ when you can get away with presenting a Dan Brown conspiracy as ‘rigorous research'?
You, the reader, might be wondering what this has to do with the question of grace. The answer is this. If, as Christians believe, grace is truly a gift from God for human beings – a gift we are ‘not to receive… in vain’, as St Paul puts it – then it needs to be able to stand up to the test of human reason. Grace is always for human beings; it is something properly ours to receive from God with understanding and trust. Grace is not serendipity or fate or blind luck, which inexplicably happens to us. Grace must be reasonable if it is to be ‘grace’ at all.
Unlike the ancient Greeks and Romans (and many a modern ideology), Christians have good reason to believe that God is not some arbitrary or capricious Being, completely erratic in nature. To believe in the God of Jesus Christ is to believe that God is purposeful in all things; God has a plan in all that he does. After all, Christians hold that “God is love” (1 Jn 4.8) by nature, and love is always purposeful; love has a reason for loving.
Therefore, we can say with assurance that the one, true God needs to be entirely reasonable in himself and in what he does, if he is truly the God-of-love who communicates that love to us as grace.
Of course, to be even able to say that something is reasonable means that it is reasonable to us as human beings. We humans are rational creatures; by our nature we are designed to make order of, and bring reason to the world in which we live. Christians believe that everything God has done for us – and is doing for us now – must likewise be reasonable to us if it is to be truly good for humanity, including grace.
This is because we acknowledge that we are made in the image and likeness of the Creator; we are the kind of creatures who reason and love like God. Grace, therefore, is something that is just as proper to our nature as it is to God’s. This is why St Paul could say that we can “work together with him”, in the order of grace, for the good of the world. Human beings are made to participate in the purposeful life of God, and grace is the means by which this happens.
When Jesus said to those he loved to the end: ‘Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends’ (Jn 15.13), he was showing us how grace – the communication of God’s love – is also ours to give. Friendship is the kind of love that needs to be chosen, so as to be given.
We choose our friends (and they choose us), and we choose to be participants in the order of grace when we live for the sake of friendship in the way of Jesus. In friendship we truly become co-workers with Christ, who is ‘Grace Incarnate’.
Acknowledging that grace is reasonable, and that we are made for grace, and that we can cooperate with grace, does not mean that grace is pre-determined. Since when has love been predictable? We can live with an openness to love, we can learn to read the signs of love, we can even prepare ourselves for love, but we cannot manufacture love.
Love is unpredictable, without being arbitrary. It remains a gift to be received, even when its presence is totally unsurprising in hindsight. This is exactly what grace is: unpredictable – yes; arbitrary – no.
Think back to the recent election of Pope Francis: truly a powerful moment of grace, prepared for in the reasoned discussions in friendship of the cardinals, cooperating with God. Yet, the outcome was delightfully unpredicted, a wonderful surprise, a blessing beyond expectation. Grace at her best.
Grace speaks lovingly to our hearts because she speaks reasonably to our minds. Thanks be to God we are made for grace!
Peter Comensoli is Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney