Tom Wright on ‘The Grace’

Being a Christian starts, of course, with ‘grace‘. The reason we are what we are at all is because the living God has reached down to us in sheer undeserved mercy. That’s what Paul celebrates in his gospel, again and again. But we’ve also seen, not least in chapter 8 of 2 Corinthians, that Paul can also use the word ‘grace’ to describe not only what God freely and lovingly does for us, but also what he does in us and also through us; more particularly, to describe what God did in and through the churches in Macedonia when he stirred them up to give generously, even beyond their means. There is solid sense to this second meaning, because the primary thing ‘grace’ referred to was the totally generous and self-giving love of God. We shouldn’t be surprised if those whose lives are transformed by grace become, in turn, generous and self-giving people.

So why does Paul speak of the grace of Jesus, the King, the Lord, rather than simply of God? Well, that’s what he spoke about in 8.9: in urging the Corinthians to give generously, he used the example of Jesus himself, leaving the riches of his heavenly existence and choosing to become poor and humble on our behalf. We could put it like this: Jesus is the person the generous and self-giving God became. Jesus embodied the grace of God. In Jesus grace became human, because that’s what grace needed to do to be fully itself, to give itself for the world. We can properly speak, therefore, of ‘the grace of the Lord, King Jesus’, and we can pray, as Paul does here, that this grace will be powerfully active in the life of the church. That sums up one entire train of thought in this letter.

But behind and around this specific active power is ‘the love of God’. In the New Testament, God’s love is not simply one aspect of his character; it is the very heart, the essence of who God is. Love is, of course, a deeply personal quality, perhaps we should say the highest personal quality there is. And it is noticeable that the Jewish and Christian declaration of belief in a God of love as the only true God stands out a mile from most other views of God ancient or modern. The ancient pagan world certainly didn’t believe in a God of love. Some of the gods and goddesses might show love, of a kind, for certain people, but that world was full of the anxiety that comes from a fear of superhuman forces that are precisely not loving, but are instead capricious, malevolent, and needing to be pacified or placated. None of the multiple options in that most pluralist of religious worlds spoke of a single God whose innermost nature was love.

This is hardly surprising, because the experience of life that most people have is hardly one of unmixed happiness; and, if there is one God who made the world, most people who think at all about the world will conclude that this God can hardly be loving. But what Judaism clung to as hope, and what Christianity announced as fulfilled at last, was the belief that the one God who made the world was indeed a totally loving God, who would demonstrate this love by acting within the world, at enormous cost to himself, to put everything right at last. And in gazing upon that loving God, and learning to trust and love him in return, the early Christians found themselves embraced in a new kind of spirituality, an intimacy of trust like that of children with a father, a warm security of knowing that they were loved with an everlasting love. That is what Paul means by ‘the love of God’.

But those who are grasped by this love, who have the grace of the Lord Jesus in their bloodstreams, are thereby joined together in a family which the world has never seen before. It is a family not at all based on physical or ethnic descent or relation; anyone and everyone is welcome in it, which was just as challenging to most ancient people as it is to most modern ones. It is a family called to share a common life, and the word Paul uses here, koinonia, can be translated ‘partnership’, ‘association’, ‘participation’, ‘sharing’, ‘communion’, or even ‘inter change’, as well as the familiar ‘fellowship’. This koinonia has been under enormous strain as Paul and the Corinthians have struggled to work out their relationship through visits, letters, reports, rumours, sorrow, joy, despair and hope. It is because Paul believes passionately that God’s own spirit is at work in both his life and that of the Corinthians that he cannot let them go, cannot walk away and found another church somewhere else, cannot simply bask in the happy relationship he enjoys with his beloved Macedonian churches, but must thrash things out, must let partnership, participation and fellowship have their full expression. Indeed, if you want to know what ‘the fellowship of the holy spirit’ means in practice, a slow and serious reading of 2 Corinthians is a good, if sobering, place to start.

Each aspect of this threefold life, then, has been seen in the letter which is now drawing to a close. But Paul has not just provided a neat shorthand summary of the Christian life, the life in which he and the Corinthians share. He has provided an astonishingly brief yet complete picture of the God in whom Christians believe. Though he uses the word ‘God’ here as one of the three, his understanding of Jesus and the spirit elsewhere in his letters (and indeed the way in which, in this phrase, the three come so naturally together as the source of the blessings) forces us to see the whole phrase as describing the one God whom the earliest church came to see in threefold form. It would be over a century before theologians, greatly daring, began to use words like ‘trinity’ as a shorthand way of expressing what Paul is already articulating. But if such shorthand expressions hadn’t been coined, it would be necessary for us to invent them if we were ever going to understand what Paul was getting at.

Taken from 2 Corinthians Paul for Everyone by Tom Wright.

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