Sermon: God’s Grace and the Human Heart

“God’s Grace and the Human Heart”
Denson Staples
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
June 24, 2018

2 Corinthians 6:1-13
As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For God 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! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities,beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love,truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honour and dishonour, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.

God’s grace and the human heart. I invite you to join me as we follow God’s grace and the human heart throughout today’s passage.

Our text today comes from Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth. Paul has visited the Corinthians twice by now, and knows them well. Well enough to know they are a colony of freedpersons, those who were formerly enslaved but are now free, yet bear the social stigma of prior enslavement. Well enough to know how acquainted they are with the brutality of the Roman Empire under which they live, one of history’s largest ever slave societies.

The timing of this letter in Paul’s own career is also important. Second Corinthians is written between 54 and 56 CE, sandwiched between some of his most famous writings: the letter to the Philippians and to the Romans, for example. Paul is, in other words, writing at the height of his apostolic career. Second Corinthians is written in the most theologically productive period of Paul’s life.

So, what does Paul have to say at that moment, at the pinnacle of his theological reflections that we still have preserved in our Christian Testament? In today’s passage, Paul focuses on grace; more specifically, he is concerned that the Corinthians might “accept the grace of God in vain.” Now, let’s be clear: the reality of God’s grace is not under question—thanks be to God. Grace is.

But for Paul, there’s more to be said about grace. Grace is, and what we do with it matters. What happens after we accept God’s grace matters. Will we accept this amazing grace in vain? Or will we live a new way in light of that grace? Will our experience of grace be extended beyond ourselves? Will we pour out grace upon others? The famous German preacher and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed under the Nazi regime for his outspoken dissidence, shared Paul’s concerns. Bonhoeffer spoke of “cheap grace”: grace that does not entail discipleship. For Paul and Bonhoeffer, God’s grace is free and unearned and abundant—and it makes us accountable. Accountable to discipleship, accountable to creating a grace-filled world, accountable to extending grace to others—accountable to not accepting God’s grace in vain.

God’s Grace and the Human Heart. If you are like me, the idea of needing to respond to God’s grace in a particular way is daunting. What is the appropriate response? How do I align my response with the will of God? Sensing that the Corinthians might also be daunted by this call to live differently in light of grace, Paul reminds them that God hears and helps. Paul recalls the words found in the Book of Isaiah: “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” And then Paul places the Corinthians in the midst of Isaiah’s words: “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” God is already listening, Corinthians! God is helping you now. What good news for the people of God, from Corinth to Arlington: as we struggle to live anew with God’s grace and carry it into the world, God accompanies us. In the midst of our uncertainty about building a grace-filled life, God is already listening to our hearts. God is already helping us discover how to rightly receive grace, and extend grace to others.

Paul goes on to describe the trials and tribulations he has endured as a servant of God. Hardships, beatings, imprisonments, labors, hunger. He, like the Corinthians, is freshly acquainted with the brutality of imperial power, with the cruelty of governments and unjust rulers. Yet in the face of such cruelty, he recounts triumphs, too, like demonstrating patience, kindness, genuine love, truthful speech in the midst of the violence that surrounds him.  That litany of triumphs and trials culminates in Paul’s realization that the treatment he has received from the world is so often at odds with his truest nature. Though treated as an impostor, he maintains that he is true; though treated as dying, Paul and his compatriots are alive; treated as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; treated as though they have nothing, and yet Paul declares they possess everything.

Paul maintains that his service to God is commendable through it all. Perhaps this is one response to grace Paul reveals: commendable service to God through it all. To be good and faithful servants through it all. To build the kingdom of God here and now, even in the midst of injustice and cruelty. God’s Grace and the Human Heart.

I am struck again and again that the treatment Paul receives is so starkly at odds with the truth of his being. Paul’s words call attention to our own times: our treatment of each other is so often different from our true nature. How desperately we need to hear those words this week. This harrowing, horrific, historic week: a week that has seen the public return of internment camps to our country; a week that has seen teenagers beaten by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, and children drugged by our government to make them more docile, easier to handle like common chattel or livestock; a week that has seen refugees and asylum seekers fleeing inhuman violence in their countries of origin, but talked about as “illegal” immigrants, although no human can be “illegal” and all international standards recognize the legality of seeking refuge from persecution in one’s home country; a week that has seen the government that operates in our name separate small children—toddlers—from their parents, and then that selfsame government pass an Executive Order to keep families together as long as we detain them indefinitely. Even if families are together, we are holding them hostage without liberty, or opportunity, or work, or a life free from violence. Hardships, beatings, imprisonments.  How true Paul’s words ring today. How terrifying our treatment of each other. How remarkably we forget the truest nature of God’s beloved people, whatever their origins.

What can be done, Park Avenue? It is hard to know how to respond to such horror. Faced with treatment that defies his true nature, Paul turns to the human heart. “We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians,” he says, just as we must speak frankly about what has happened this week. My “heart is wide open to you,” Paul continues: “There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours.” “Open wide your hearts also.” Here is the word of God for us: grace requires an open heart. To make grace real for ourselves—and for others, for those who most need it—open wide your hearts also. In order to commend yourself in the service of God, be unrestricted in your affection for God’s people; open wide your hearts also. In order to see and know the true nature of all God’s children, we must open wide our hearts also.

Of course, opening wide our hearts can begin at home, too. I am told you recently adopted a “Why” statement: a declaration of Park Avenue’s identity as a beloved community that addresses your purpose and where God is calling you. Rev. Leah tells me the statement focuses on connecting with each other and God, and being neighbors to those around you by treating them as your own. By loving them as yourselves. By opening wide your hearts to the community around you right here in Arlington. By calling those around you your own.

So, what does opening wide our hearts require? What does this richly theological, yet amorphous Pauline phrase really amount to? That is, I think, for each of us to decide for ourselves. After all, only you can say where your own heart has been hardened, or where you have restricted your affections. Only you can say where, and when, and why you have closed your heart to others.

But if we hope to allow God’s grace to soften our hearts and open them once more, where better to begin than by following God’s own example? A God who first listens and then helps. Like Paul, we turn back to Isaiah’s words: “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”

We, too, must begin by listening. For me, that means this week I must listen to those most affected by our flawed, unjust immigration system. Listening to the most affected reveals that it is not enough to think that #FamiliesBelongTogether. Listening reveals that an Executive Order that keeps families together in interminable, indefinite detention is not a solution. Listening reveals that migrant justice activists are calling for the outright abolition of Immigrations & Customs Enforcement. Listening reveals that migrants seek asylum from the violence of their home countries—violence that the historical record shows is often funded by the U.S., which now denies them refuge. Listening reveals that those migrating to the U.S. across our Southern border are treated in ways that fall far short of their truest nature. Listening reveals a plea for grace: grace from persecution and the grace to live free of violence.

So, what will you find when you open wide your hearts to your neighbors in Arlington? How can you start by listening? What will you learn is most needed, most longed for, when you listen first?

God’s grace and the human heart. For Paul, only by opening our hearts can we build a more gracious world. I think we open wide our hearts by listening first, as God listens, and only then trying to help as God has helped us.

People of God, let us not accept God’s grace in vain. Like Paul, let us commend ourselves as servants of God through it all. Let us make grace manifest in a graceless age. Let us open wide our hearts also. The world cannot wait for grace. “See, now is the acceptable time.”