Sermon: Tenth Sunday after Trinity, 25 August 2019, St Mary Magdalene, evening

Reading 2 Corinthians 9
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes

To get full value from this evening’s reading we need to bear in mind one of the major aspects of early Church history, namely that there was major dissension in the Church between those Christians who thought that newly converted Gentile Christians should be subject to the Jewish law, including circumcision, and those Christians like St Paul who thought that this was unnecessary, that it was in fact positively harmful.

There was a real rift between Gentile believers and at least some Jewish believers.

So controversial was this issue that a Council was held in Jerusalem in around 50AD to find a way forward. The Council decided that Gentile Christians, fundamentally, were not subject to the Jewish Law. A victory for St Paul and those who agreed with him.

In his account of this meeting – in the letter to the Galatians – Paul and his companions, having achieved victory, are exhorted by the other apostles to remember the poor.

Now, I have to confess that up till a few days ago I’d assumed that this was a rather vague exhortation to care for the poor in general but, as I prepared for this evening, I became convinced that the poor in this context means the Jewish church in Jerusalem – the mother church of all Christians – who were apparently existing in more straitened circumstances than their counterparts elsewhere.

Paul took this exhortation to remember the poor of the Jerusalem church as a kind of instruction to make a collection on their behalf, especially as remembering them was the very thing that he says he was eager to do. It seems that he regarded this collection as a kind of olive branch to the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem who has suffered defeat at the Council.

So Paul took the collection very seriously and it’s this collection that he’s trying to persuade the Corinthians to support in our reading.

But why precisely did he take this collection so seriously? It’s mentioned in several letters. It became something of an obsession.

As I said just now, it’s an olive branch, but more specifically Paul wants to bring about a reconciliation between these two previously warring parties within the one Church of Christ.

Reconciliation is fundamentally what the gospel is about – reconciliation between God and humanity, and reconciliation among humanity.

Now, I think we can see from our own lives that a gift can often have the effect of softening the antagonism between, say, two individuals who have previously been at loggerheads. There’s no guarantee of reconciliation. Given human nature, giving and receiving in a human context is fraught with the danger of things going awry.

There may be condescension on the part of the giver or pride on the part of the receiver. I’m sure we could think of any number of other possible failures of attitude or perception. After all, we are as imperfectly human as anyone else.

But at the very least, when we give, there’s the potential that reconciliation and a greater mutual valuing will be established.

At the end of our reading Paul predicts that the church in Jerusalem will long for the Corinthians and pray for them because of the gift they have received. That is the power for reconciliation that the act of giving contains within itself.

At one point in the Book of Acts Paul reports Jesus as saying that it is more blessed to give than to receive. I think that must be true but there’s a danger that the giver is extolled as the paragon while the receiver can seem like a mere adjunct to the giver’s virtue.

That’s an active danger but the truth is that we are all givers and receivers. That is how a community works, if it works at all. That is how a society works, if it works at all. If there were no-one in some form of need, if there were no reconciliation to bring about, if there were no unity to confirm, there would be no gift. The receiver is as essential to the process as the giver.

We are all in need in one way or another and we all have the wherewithal to give in one way or another.

Giving has more to do than with just money – essential and strangely demanding though the giving of money is. It includes also the gifts of our time, of our energy, of our creativity, of our skill, of our compassionate action, of our prayer. The church in Jerusalem will become the giver when, as Paul anticipates, it prays for the Corinthians. We give, we receive. We receive and we give. Giving and receiving make for unity. That is how life is or, rather, it is how life is meant to be.

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