In the chapter from Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians that we heard this evening we see Paul’s persuasive fund raising techniques laid bare. He had boasted to the Macedonians how eager the Corinthians were to send support to Jerusalem. Now he warns the Corinthians that it won’t look good if some Macedonians accompany him to Corinth and find that their fund raising is not well advanced. There’s clearly some peer pressure at work here.
As the theologian EP Sanders notes “despite this rather coercive argument, he insists that each must give as you make up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver”. Paul encourages the Corinthians to recognise that God has provided them with material benefits in order that they may share them with others. God will bestow gifts on them, and their contribution to the saints will constitute thanksgiving to God and glorification of him. Paul says that “through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the Gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others”. In these passages then Paul makes clear that sharing what we have received is a matter of obedience.
I find this challenging. I recognise my lack of generosity and I question the extent to which I am obedient to the Gospel of Christ. It is useful to reflect on that notion of obedience I think because it is so often misunderstood. Religious obedience does not imply any kind of diminishing subservience. In explaining what it is, it is useful to introduce another counter cultural idea, namely the Christian conviction, indeed celebration, of our dependence on God. Christianity rejects the ideas of the self-curated identity and of any ultimate material security. We are infinitely precious, but we are in ourselves incomplete because we are made for relation. We become more fully human, more fully alive and more fully what God calls us to be through relationships shaped by God’s commandments. This is what obedience points to. It is a call to fullness of life and to the acceptance of inevitable vulnerability that goes with it. That fullness of life is in no way dependent on our material comfort and security; indeed they can easily become a barrier to it.
Eric Varden former abbot of the Mount St Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire comments on the nature of religious obedience. He says – Our vow of obedience is above all about how we obey Christ’s commandments – Love the Lord God with all your heart, honour everyone, never do to another what you do not want done to yourself, visit the sick, console the sorrowing, do not repay a bad turn, love your enemies. If we do not obey these passages of the rule, and others like them, taken straight from the gospel, it will profit us little if at the last we protest that we have never spoken a word after compline. Compline being the last office of the day that ushers in the great silence. Varden makes clear that obedience has nothing to do with the external rubrics of religious life. Of course, this is what Jesus objected to so strongly amongst the religious authorities – they cared only for outward observance of religious obligations.
Paul’s call to obedience then is a call to live in ways that run contrary to secular norms. To live in ways that Christ modelled and which of course in his case ultimately led to his death. The point is this, Paul says, the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.
We can understand this in financial terms of course and the parable of talents provides an obvious illustration contrasting the servants who are praised for investing their Lord’s money with the one who buried it in a whole in the ground. Our decisions about money reflect our broader convictions though. It is not only in the financial sphere of our lives where we have to learn to tolerate some element of risk. Our relationships, involve a degree jeopardy, particularly when we expand our regard beyond the boundaries of our friends and family towards those at the margins of society. We understand that to love another carries an inevitable possibility, indeed likelihood, of hurt. If we didn’t care we wouldn’t feel that hurt. When we look to Christ’s example, and to his teaching, though, we see an acceptance of an entirely different order of vulnerability.
As we walk this path, the encouragement of others, and even a little peer pressure, is hugely significant. Our personal prayer lives are crucial but so too is our gathering and sharing in worship with others.
I’ll end with a quotation from the Pilgrim Prayer book of Gilbert Shaw where we see his petition to be drawn into a love that is at once joyful and costly:
Jesus, my love, my God, breathe into me the desire of loving thee only before all things, before myself. Let it be my joy that thou reignest the eternal, that thou art all perfection, that all things are thine, that I am thine… In thy heart hide me that I may share thy grief, and loving learn to love thee. Give me but one desire, one task, one end, just to love thee Jesus, my Jesus.