Grace and Labor
12th Sunday after Pentecost.
1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Matthew 19:16-26
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Brothers and sisters, today in both the Epistle and the Gospel that are appointed for today, the 12th Sunday, we hear about grace and about labor.
Saint Paul declares to us that he preached the Gospel unto those who he was writing to. Then he explains the beginning of the Gospel, only the beginning, because he said to them:
“I delivered first to you that which I received.”
The Gospel — the word means Good News — begins with the Resurrection of Christ. One might say that it ends with Christ. It begins with Him being resurrected so that we could be resurrected. And the ending or the fulfillment of the Gospel is that we become perfected: we come to know God because we become like Him; the Incarnation of the God-man has made us capable of becoming like Him, to be without spot or wrinkle, as the Church has described.
So this is the Gospel: That Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and, because He is the God-man and in His humanity rose from the dead, we can rise from the dead. We’re not talking now just about our limbs being made alive again flowing with blood and having sinews and muscles. We’re talking about the soul being alive eternally with God.
Now, how does this occur? Just knowing about the Resurrection does not make the Gospel effectual in your life. Many people know about the Resurrection; it’s part of our culture. And yet many people, most people, do not live according to the Resurrection. The Gospel is powerful when it transforms us to become full of grace, to become perfected so that we know God.
Now, the beginning is that Christ died for our sins and then resurrected according to the Scriptures. Saint Paul says this.
“I delivered unto you, first of all, that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.”
The Scriptures he’s talking about, by the way, are the Old Testament Scriptures, every page of which refers to Christ.
“And that He was buried and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures. And that He was seen of Cephas“ that is, Peter, “then of the twelve.”
And then He was seen by five hundred brethren and James and the rest of the Apostles. He stops explaining about the Gospel there. He explains in great detail about the Gospel in all of the other Epistles, including First Corinthians of which this is an excerpt. The beginning of the Gospel is that Christ is risen from the dead and, like I said, the end of it is that we become like Christ.
Then he describes himself and in describing himself we should see ourselves also. He says that He was seen, that is, Christ was seen by him, and he was as one born out of season, on the road to Damascus, he saw Christ. But then he says:
“I am the least of the Apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God. But by the grace of God, I am what I am. And His grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain, but I labored more abundantly then they all.”
Here we see how the Gospel is fulfilled in a man. What a powerful statement, to say by the grace of God I am what I am. It’s true. By God’s grace we do everything. Anything that we do that is good is by God’s grace helping us. We breathe by His grace. We know Him by His grace. We have holy thoughts and feelings in our hearts by His grace. Everything is by His grace.
But inherent in his statement is not just: By His grace I am what I am right now; but, “I will become what I should be by His grace.”
It’s good for a Christian to notice, to know what he is now; what is good about you, what is not good about you; what needs to be improved. It’s good to know these things. But in knowing these things you should also have the sure confidence that you will become what you should be.
In another place, the Gospel speaks of us being predestined. This is what I am speaking of now. That we, although we are what we are right now – and sometimes it is not a pretty picture – we will become what we should be.
He says in another place: I am confident of this very thing that He who began a good work in you, will perfect it.
But this perfection comes through labor. Grace with labor. Grace alone does not cause a man to be saved.
Because the rain falls on the evil and the good. Grace is always available to everyone. God’s love, God’s energy, is available to all of mankind at every moment, and yet all of mankind does not follow Him. So grace alone does not save. Our reaction to grace, our labor because of grace, is what causes our salvation.
It is not that any labor we can do will make us able to know God; but God, when He sees even the smallest labor in us, helps us and we become able to do things that we weren’t able to do before. By the grace of God right now as we stand we are what we are, but we will become what we should be by His grace, but only with labor.
I’ve told you before, many times; the greatest heresy of all is that salvation can be had without labor, that believing can be done without labor. To believe is also to do. And so Saint Paul says that he labored and not in vain or the grace bestowed upon him was not in vain because he labored, he says, more abundantly then they all.
I tell you, we should try to labor more abundantly then them all. Most of the world doesn’t labor at all or labors very, very little. And if we look at our lives we see that there is very little labor in our lives. I’m not talking about the labor of work or cutting the grass or doing the dishes or of the things that we do in mundane life. I’m talking about the labor for our soul to become perfected. Now, many times that includes doing the dishes. But that’s not the labor that I speak of.
We should labor because of a desire to become perfected and holy – to have the Gospel fulfilled in us because, as I said, the Gospel is of no power whatsoever to us, no good to us whatsoever, unless we do it. The Gospel is not some static thing. It is to become.
Saint Paul was a persecutor of Christians. That’s why he says that he’s the least of all the Apostles. He killed many of them, probably some of them with his own hands, and he always remembered that to the end of his days. That’s why he says he is the least of all Apostles, born out of due time. But then he labored when he had the grace of God visit him, and he became what he became, the holy Apostle Paul.
And we must become what we are to become also, by labor. The Gospel today is really about labor.
Now, the rich man comes to Christ and says:
“What good thing can I do to inherit eternal life?”
And the Lord tells him that he must do the Commandments. And this man, he’s a careful man, he’s not a hypocrite. The Fathers speak of him as someone who wanted to be saved but he had a fatal passion, and for him it was riches. But beyond that, behind his desire for riches, was that he would not labor completely for God. In his case he needed to give up everything that he had and to labor by being with Christ and following Him. In our case it might be something different.
Without labor there is no salvation, brothers and sisters; it just doesn’t happen. It is not that labor alone will save us; Labor with grace, assisting us, will save us.
The Lord said to him:
“If you want to be perfect, go sell all that you have and give to the poor and thou shall have treasure in Heaven, and come and follow Me.”
And that applies to us just as the words of Apostle Paul apply to us when he says, “I am the least of the Apostles. I am not meet to be called an apostle.”
We should say:
“I am the least of all Christians.
I am not meet to be called a Christian because I don’t live like a Christian.
I don’t think much like a Christian.
I haven’t become much like a Christian should be.
But by the grace of God I am what I am and God will help me to become what I should be if I follow Him.”
There’s no substitute for labor, brothers and sisters. Labor with grace.
Labor without grace is only digging a hole and filling it back up it and has no meaning whatsoever. Grace without labor for us has no meaning either. God’s grace falls upon those, all of those in mankind. But only those that labor retain this grace. Only those that struggle to become what God has put in our hearts. Because remember, we’re made in His image, right? We should become made in His likeness. That is, to become holy like He is holy. It’s in our hearts, this knowledge of what we should be. But we must labor to obtain it. That’s what the Gospel and the Epistle are saying in their essence.
Now certainly there are many other things. The thing about speaking about the Gospel is, if you say it says one thing, is basically a lie, because it says many things. This Gospel also speaks about riches and about passions and about not knowing who God is because the man had a misconception about who God was, who Jesus Christ was.
But the essence is that there is no salvation without labor.
If it means selling all you have and giving to the poor and following the Lord, then that is the labor you must have.
If it means humbling yourself and not slandering those that you’re angry with, swallowing your bitterness, not being dissatisfied with what your lot in life is or what your job is or family situation or whatever, then that is your labor.
The Russians have a beautiful word: Podvig. It really doesn’t translate. But if you live as a Christian, whether you know Russian or not, you know what this word means. It is to labor with the grace of God within you, to have a spiritual struggle, to fulfill the Gospel in you.
That’s what Saint Paul did. Even though he considered himself the least of the Apostles, he became among the greatest of the Apostles because he knew that, although he had sins in his life and he was in that condition at that moment, that God by His grace would fulfill in him this Gospel that he preached, his eventual perfection, and it is the same with you. There is no different Gospel for different people. It is the same Gospel. The same Good News.
The reason this Gospel is fulfilled so little in our life is because there is little labor. So brothers and sisters, if there is any way that you can labor more, may God help you to do it.
If you’re not praying much, then you can pray a little bit more.
If you don’t fast very well, then you can fast a little bit more.
If you’re giving in to your passions in anger or jealousy or lust or laziness, then you can in some way become a little bit better, and labor a little bit more against these passions.
Then, by the grace of God, you will become what you should become. It doesn’t happen all at once, but it does happen but only if we labor.
May God help us to labor with the grace of God within us and to fulfill the Gospel. Amen.
Priest Seraphim Holland 2010.
Transcribed by the hand of Helen; may God save her and her loved ones.
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