Know thyself – July 1, 2018
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
How do you excel? What area could use some work?
When I was weight lifting a couple of weeks ago, my trainer kept offering corrections to my technique, as usual. I kept working to follow his instructions and implement his corrections, as usual. At one point he was slightly frustrated with my lack of understanding, my interpretation of his words, so he finally asked me to just do exactly what he said, to let him be the boss of my movement. I managed it and found a new way to do a lift, engaging my muscles differently. There was also a point in the session, however, when he commented: “it’s really exceptional.” When I responded with something like “huh?” He said: “What you’re doing is really exceptional… You know, I just always think there can be improvement… there’s always something else to work on.” “I know,” I replied. And on we went.
Today we hear a similar strategy from Paul, as he urges the Corinthian Christians to ever greater ministry in Christ. “Now as you excel in everything,” Paul writes, “in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness and in our love for you…” Or “in your love for us,” depending on what translation you read. From earlier writing, we have learned that the Corinthians “are dedicated to, passionately committed to, ‘excelling.’” One commentator reflects that “their zeal for ‘excelling’ has not always been considered a positive attribute by Paul; in fact, much of 1 Corinthians is devoted to countering their tendency to use nearly every occasion to see if they can one-up each other… Whether positive or not, ‘excelling’ is a characteristic of the Corinthians as Paul understands them, and in 8:7 he attempts to turn it to positive ends…” (NIB, 121) The Corinthians “excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness and in love…” and now Paul urges them to excel also in one more thing: “in this generous undertaking.”
How do we excel as a community of faith? What area can use some work? At Parish Council the other week, we talked about a potential new way of organizing ourselves that focuses on 3 aspects of parish culture: being relational, reflective and action-oriented. Relational. Reflective. Action-oriented. Without much discussion or definition of those concepts, we went around to individually identify where we thought we excelled and which area needed the most work. I wonder what you think here… when you think about us together as a parish community, of these three areas: Relational. Reflective. Action-oriented; Where do we excel? [show of hands] Where do we need the most work?
At parish council, individual answers spanned the gamut. At least one person identified each of the 3 areas as one where we excel and one where we need work. Maybe this means we’re a well-balanced community. Or perhaps it means that we don’t know ourselves as a collective very well… that our communal identity is not as strong as it could be. Why does one person think we have a lot to work on around being action-oriented and the person next to them thinks it’s our strongest area? We didn’t pursue the conversation, which was an opportunity I missed engaging. But neither did anybody ask someone with opposite answers to engage further. I didn’t witness much curiosity among the group to understand someone else’s, perhaps opposite point of view. This kind of conversation is, however, how we could develop a stronger and clearer collective identity. It’s how we arrive at something closer to the truth. If we want to work together in a particular direction, on a particular aspect of parish life, mission or ministry, then we need some sense of the direction that is most needed, most important, most meaningful to us together. Arriving at such understanding requires honest, gracious and sustained conversation amongst ourselves.
“Now as you excel in everything” Paul encourages the Corinthians “… in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you – so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.” (8:7) This “generous undertaking” is otherwise known as the “Jerusalem collection.” It is a key part of Paul’s mission and ministry. Early in his work, Paul travelled to Jerusalem to gain the approval of Peter and the other church leaders there for his mission among the Gentiles. In his letter to the Galatians Paul writes a report about this important meeting and its positive conclusion: “… James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor.” (Gal 2:9-10) In other letters it becomes clearer that “remembering the poor” means contributing financially to a collection to be sent to “the saints,” or “the poor,” in Jerusalem. One commentator concludes that “at its heart, the collection symbolizes for Paul a reciprocal partnership between Jewish and Gentile believers.” (NIB, 114) Giving to the Jerusalem church is how Gentile believers can express their gratitude and indebtedness to Jewish believers who preceded them in faith. It is meant to demonstrate cooperation between Jewish and Gentile believers – groups who have previously been two solitudes, but who are now working to be one in Christ. The collection is a symbol of this unified people of God.
Different Gentile communities have responded differently to this Jerusalem collection. The churches in Macedonia – the Thessalonians and Philippians are the stars, having collected a large amount, even in difficult circumstances. Immediately before the passage we heard this morning, Paul writes of the Macedonian churches that “during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part… They voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints…” (8:2-4) The churches of Corinth on the other hand, started strong, with much enthusiasm for the collection, but a year has passed and they have fallen off the bandwagon, so to speak. With this letter, Paul is encouraging them to get back on the bandwagon, to finish what they started.
At parish council, it was also observed that we have started some things together, but that initiatives get stalled. We accomplish one thing, but then don’t press on to build on that work. There is a lack of stick-to-it-iveness. Like the Corinthians, perhaps we too need to ask ourselves, and ask each other, what really matters. What will we commit to as a community? What will we stick to for the long haul? What mission or ministry is God calling us to that we have begun but that has stalled? The questions are as much personal to each of us individually as they are to us as a community of faith.
In building his case for the Corinthians to finish what they started so well, Paul takes pains to identify the undertaking of the Jerusalem collection as optional: “I do not say this as a command,” Paul writes, “but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others.” Paul emphasizes the voluntariness of the collection while outlining its connection to Jesus. He goes as far as to express Jesus’ work on the cross in the economic categories of wealth and poverty! The Jerusalem collection may be an obligation based on moral, theological and communal factors, but the decision to participate or not is left to each believer as completely voluntary. The collection is not a tax, it is a gift based on love, on a desire for unity and on a belief in fair balance. The question, therefore, of what really matters to the Corinthian Christians is at the forefront. Paul urges them to finish what they started, “so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.”
How do we excel? What area could use some work? Maybe you could share your perspective with a fellow parishioner at coffee today. Maybe you could ask a fellow parishioner about their perspective and stay curious about it. Ask follow up questions and dig down to gain better understanding, perhaps even to be surprised by an individual you thought you already knew. It is, however, completely voluntary. Being a Christian and a part of this parish may include some obligations based on moral, theological and communal factors, but the decision to participate or not is up to each one. How do we excel? What area can use some work?
May the conversation itself be a sign of our unity and a gift, given and received, based on the love among us.