A sermon preached by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor.
Sunday 21 August 2022, the Tenth Sunday after Trinity, Choral Evensong.
Isaiah 30.8-21; II Corinthians 9
The apostle Paul was a trailblazing founder of Christian thought and behaviour in a great number of ways, and in today’s passage, from chapter 9 of his second long letter to the Christians in the Greek city of Corinth, we encounter him doing something very recognisable in church life – he’s raising money.
And here’s why. Paul’s background and position among the early followers of Jesus was unique. Whereas most church leaders were people like Peter, James, John, who’d met Jesus, heard him, followed him, and were continuing his work in the light of his resurrection, Paul was an outsider, an interloper. Worse – he began his career by hunting down people who proclaimed Jesus as ‘Lord’, having them persecuted and imprisoned. After a conversion so dramatic that he changed his name, he too began proclaiming Jesus. He took on a special role, going far and wide around the Roman world – you might imagine that, because he was a tricky customer, the other apostles were happy for him to go as far as possible. He took that mission to everyone he encountered; most of these weren’t Jewish; and his version of the message made it easy for non-Jews to join this burgeoning movement.
Here we are in this letter, several years on. The Christians back in their place of origin, in Judea, are going through hard times. Paul takes it upon himself to demonstrate that his brand of converts doesn’t constitute some dangerous threat to the church of Peter, James, and the rest, but really are part of the team – and so he sets about a massive collection from all round ‘his’ churches to support them. The gentile Christians of Corinth, Achaia, Macedonia, are to come to the rescue of the original followers of Jesus.
So there’s a bit of an agenda here. Paul really wants this collection to succeed, because it will strengthen the bond between his (largely gentile) churches of the diaspora, and the (still largely Jewish) church of Jerusalem. But you will remember that for Paul, what made his faith in Christ life-changing was the sense of freedom – liberation from religious rules and obligations. This was a key part of his gospel message, proclaimed all round the Mediterranean world.
Which means that in this particular passage we hear Paul treading a fine line. On the one hand he wants these Corinthians to stump up generously; on the other, he can’t make it a religious rule, such as, (and please forgive the anachronism here) zakat, the giving of alms, which is one of the 5 essential pillars of Islam. So instead Paul resorts to some other familiar techniques of the fundraiser: encouragement, flattery, pointing to the example of generous giving by others, and the suggestion that he (as well as the Corinthians) will be humiliated if they don’t stump up. He comes ever so close, but doesn’t quite say: ‘You risk letting the church down, letting me down, and worst of all, letting yourselves down’.
But there’s a lot more to what Paul writes here than that familiar moral blackmail. For at the core of Paul’s understanding of God is the experience of overwhelming, and undeserved, generosity; he is loved; we are loved; the last sentence in this passage is ‘Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!’ And Paul believes that believers are ‘in Christ’, that we share the very being of God’s supreme act of generosity. To follow Christ, to be in him, is to love, to give.
Paul may be twisting their arms, but far more importantly, he is pointing them to God. God has given everything, and all we are asked is to imitate that. For giving, not acquiring or holding on, is real life; it has the maker’s hallmark on it. Which is why Paul can quite legitimately promise his readers that
‘You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity’. To hoard is ultimately to lose; to give is to gain. It is, you might say, a virtuous circle.