by Bruce Epperly
Paul is the theologian of grace. God’s grace transformed his life, turning him from persecutor to proclaimer, and assuring him that he was a new creation, despite his past behavior. Over the years, many who see themselves as Pauline theologically believe that God does everything and that we do nothing. Left to our own devices, we are lost, completely self-centered, and without virtue. We can claim nothing of our own but must attribute every good work to God. An example of this occurred when I congratulated a seminarian on her fine sermon. Her immediate response was, “It wasn’t me. It was all God.” I was tempted to say, “I thought I saw you preaching, not God.” And, I wondered how she would respond if her sermon was roundly criticized. Would she have given glory to God or cast herself entirely on God’s mercy, confessing her own sinfulness and inability to do anything apart from God’s grace?
I believe that Paul is the apostle of creativity as well as grace. In Philippians 2:12-13, Paul sounds much more Wesleyan, almost a process theologian, and not the more passive Lutheran or Calvinist he’s often made out to be. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” or, as I paraphrase these words, “Work out your salvation with awe and excitement, for God is moving energetically in your life, inspiring you to follow and embody God’s vision.”
Philippians 2:12-13 suggests a dynamic call and response. God calls us with possibilities, aiming us in each moment toward beauty and taking us from individualistic self-interest to world loyalty. God’s grace is prior but aims us toward creativity and freedom. God wants us to do more rather than less, and places the future of our planet primarily in our hands, though undergirded by divine possibility.
There is a divine-human dance of call and response. God is in the business of inspiring us to be more than we could have asked or imagined of ourselves. God seeks maximal creativity and freedom congruent with the well-being of creation.
God wants us to be active and is happy for us to be proud of our achievements in the same way as a parent wants her or his child to build on the upbringing he or she has received and go places the parent has not imagined. The world God is creating moment by moment is not a zero sum universe in which human achievement takes away from God’s power. It is an open system in which the more that we do positively, the more God is able to do in the universe. When we are faithful, we open up new possibilities for divine action in the world.
Grace is always prior, but our responses invite God to make new responses. Grace liberates, inspires, and activates new freedoms. We are more in line with grace when we become graceful creators ourselves. Accordingly, we can positively say about a sermon or any other achievement, “I’m proud that my sermon made a difference. God and I were working on this together, and we both deserve credit.” And we can imagine God in the congregation saying, “Atta boy, Atta girl, you did well. You have blessing to do more!”
Yes, God is working in all things. Yes, God wants us to affirm the fruits of our labors, giving thanks for grace, and making a commitment to do more for God’s glory and the well-being of the world. (For more on this theme, see Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God and Philippians: A Participatory Study Guide)
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