The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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11am Holy Communion      21st June 2021
Accepting Grace
Andrew Penny

Accepting Grace. 2 Corinthians 6 and Mark 4.26 to 34 

If you are anything like me, then your religious life will be to a lesser or greater extent a matter of habit. That is not necessarily a bad thing; there are, after all, good habits and bad habits. The idea of a Rule of Life, generally thought a Good Thing, supposes a certain amount of surrender to regular patterns, which we may not positively desire all the time. Most of the time, it is good for us to suppress our superficial whims and perhaps moderate our deeper desires and passions with standards, principles, habits and rules 

This patterning or regulation of our lives may however get in the way of our response to the Gospel; Paul asks the Corinthians to open their hearts to God’s grace and not to accept that grace in vain. His appeal is self-confessedly frank with its passionate description of his own experience, and it demands an equally honestradical and spontaneous response. It is almost embarrassing, like those of those usually American, ultra-evangelical preachers. I find them excruciating, but we have to accept that our response to the Gospel, to the good news of the Kingdom, to God’s gracious love, must be personal and passionate. Ritual, the beauty of worship and community, all the paraphernalia of our regular religious observance are important but may also be hiding places or distractions from an honest and heart felt response to God’ love for each of us as individuals. 

So what does it mean to open our hearts, and how should we set about doing it? The question is a vital one; it determines the basis for our faith and our Christian living. It is decisive in how we accept grace and how we help to pass it on. Neither Paul nor Mark tell us how. Perhaps they could not give general advice on  such a personal matter, but both tell us something about the natue of the process. 

Paul’s guidance in the passage from his second letter to the Corinthianscomes by reference to his own dramatic experiences. He provides one of his lists of daunting virtues, which boil down it seems to submission, passive acceptance of what befalls us. We are not likely to suffer as Paul did, but we too will take a battering from an increasingly atheistic and materialist society. Paul says we must accept that battering in the knowledge, or faith, that even if what we believe seems preposterous, idiotic and irrational, it is the truth. We must allow God’s mysterious love to work. 

Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel, is I think teaching much the same message of passive acceptanceThe passage we have just heard comes straight after the parable of the sowerabout how we accept the word of God, which is like to seed which falls variously on the path, on rocks, among thistles or on good soil. We will all be familiar with Jesus explanation, provided to the disciples, but not his followers in general. This parable is not all Jesus has to say about seeds. We heard just now of the mystery of growth; the farmer works the ground and sows the seed but does not know how it sprouts and grows to bear fruitWe may now understand the processes of growth better, but our understanding does not diminish the mystery.  We may rationalise and analyse the Gospel and, as we grow, understand it with greater sophistication, but ultimately accepting God’s grace and love are mysteries, even esoteric and perhaps beyond our comprehension. Certainly, they are beyond our control, which is possibly why Jesus talks about this process so obliquely and even secretively. 

The mystery is also immeasurably bigger than us and if we will allow it, will grow out of all proportion to its beginnings, although it strikes me that Plane tree seeds are a better example than mustard seeds; they are much smaller and end up much bigger. They have the added quality of being very irritating-so can the Gospel on occasion. Even grace is sometimes hard to accept. 

So opening our hearts to the Grace of God seems to be a matter of allowing it to work, of submitting to its force, of trusting it and letting it take over our lifeIt is the same experience as that which lies at the heart of all the miracle stories; an encounter with God asking “What do you want?” It is passive and mysteriousnot to be regulated or made a habitbut that does not mean we have no active and structured  role to play. 

St John calls this acceptance allowing Christ to abide in us; it is as if Christ takes us over and enables us, ultimately to be like him. The takeover itself requires only the opening of our hearts and the passive acceptance of grace. Indeed, there is nothing we could do to promote it, and other than being open to itnothing that we need to do. 

Things do not, however, stop there having accepted grace we will be equally helpless in resisting its effects. Firstwill be the kindness and righteousness that Paul lists, but other good work bringing about the kingdom will follow and a desire to respond communally with gratitude, contrition and hopethat is, in what we call worship, with its beauty and ritual. These responses will sometimes become habits as our lives coalesce with Christ’s working in us. But this automatic and habitual Christianity will not be the result of intellectual laziness-as it certainly is in me, but genuine inspiration. It is that inspiration; that open hearted acceptance of grace for which we need to pray. Amen. 

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