Today’s sermon is brought to you by the letter P. The Greek P that is, which is Pi. Now, before you run screaming from here because I have conjured terrible memories of 8th grade mathematics, stay with me.
Everyone lick your lips, then say, “p”. Come on, say it with some gusto, P! P! P!
Has a distasteful connotation to it doesn’t it? Distasteful, dismissive, almost better-than-thou arrogance to it.
Ok Ingrid, that was fun and all, but I am here for a sermon, what does this have to do with Paul and this naughty church in Corinth?
I am so glad you asked!
If you have been here over the past few weeks, we have been going through the Biblical book called 2 Corinthians – the Apostle Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth. He was writing to them so much because they were fractured, behaving badly, and overall forgetting their call as disciples of Jesus. Last week Rev. Ryan shared about the brokenness that not only existed between the members of the church, but also between Paul and the church, pointing us all toward an examination of our own broken relationships. He noted that God’s primary work is about healing, and that through Christ we are made into instruments of peace, of love, working with God in partnership on the unfolding of God’s dream for the world.
Now, Paul says, now is the time to join in on this good thing God is up to.
And he urges that as they – as we – join in on this work we will be overflowing with joy, with exuberance – hey, he says, look at your friend Titus, Titus is so filled with the Spirit he just cant stop talking about it!
And then we come to our reading today – we have transitioned from the admonishing of the church – do that! Don’t do that! – and Paul has done his best to convince them to live in love and healing and made them promises that the Holy Spirit would fill them up beyond what they could even imagine was possible – then he starts to flatter them – wow, since you guys are so smart and great and all, let’s see if this amazing love you have can overflow into cash money. What?
Yes, that’s right, Rev. Ryan goes away and leaves me to preach on everyone’s favorite topic: giving money to the church. Thanks a lot.
So, Paul is travelling around, starting new churches, preaching the good news of Jesus and gathering together new communities of folks who want to live this way, and listen, we all know, it takes money for church to happen.
But who wants to talk about it? Especially in this way Paul is trying to do it. By buttering them up and then he says, I am not commanding you, noooo, I wouldn’t do that – I am testing the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the givings of other churches. C’mon Paul, give me something better to work with than this. Then, as if that weren’t enough, another layer – because, you know, Jesus – he was rich but made himself poor…for you…
Obviously Paul has not run enough stewardship campaigns in his life. Because this doesn’t work. This just makes people defensive. Can you imagine if I was like ohh, Rhoda, how wonderful you look, thank you so much for all that you do at St. George’s – you sure are generous, and so smart wow and beautiful. Now I know you are a faithful woman, but I just want to make sure that you are doing things for the right reasons here, so I want to test it out…now did you hear about how much Betty is giving to the church, wowzers, that is what I call a good Christian. She really knows just how much it cost Jesus up there on that cross…now Rhoda, lets talk about your monthly givings…
No way. I would be outta here faster than you can say charlatan! I would feel pretty steamed if someone asked me for money this way…though come to think of it, I’m pretty sure this is how my kids ask for money.
No Paul, I cannot imagine these manipulative tricks worked on the Corinthians, and it certainly won’t fly with these fine folks here.
Unless…unless there is more to it than meets the eye. Which, in the case of the Bible, you can pretty much guarantee.
Remember, Paul is writing to these folks in and around the year 50 AD – this is a brand new movement. There is much division not only within this new church, but between the Gentiles who were following Jesus and the Jews who were following Jesus – and the Gentile churches were typically all much wealthier than the Jewish ones. Ok, so that is one thing to keep in mind – Paul is writing to a Gentile church to encourage them to offer money to the much poorer, mostly Jewish church in Jerusalem.
Now, the other thing we don’t experience here is the word play – Ancient Greek is just about the coolest language…maybe second only to Hebrew…and this text just doesn’t work as well in English as it does in Greek. In Greek, Paul repeats the word charis grace, over and over, but we only hear it once in English. Strange choice by the translators. The other word that really strikes me is the verb dokimazo or dokime; they are simply translated as test, but these words actually refer to the way our real character is discerned or revealed when we face difficulty or challenge.
So what we read in the first part of our Scripture today that comes across perhaps as a smarmy or manipulative cash grab, is actually Paul saying, you have received from God grace over grace over grace and I encourage you to continue to generously share that grace, as you have already done, with others, and through this challenge, this difficult undertaking, you will know the depths of your generosity and Gods grace. That is sure different. My defenses are not up with this…ok Paul, what else have you got?
Again, what in English sounds like manipulation: Jesus did this so you should do that, takes on a whole other meaning in Greek. And it has to do with the letter P. In English the line reads, “you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ: that though he was rich for your sakes became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. But this line cannot be understood without thinking about spit. Let’s do it again – P! Listen, you don’t want to be facing someone when you say P! You might get a little shower. Of course, that was the point in this time, in this language. The word for poor, for poverty in Greek is this fabulous word that not only starts with the letter p, but is immediately followed by the letter t. How do you pronounce that? Exactly like you might think. Pt-ocheia. Think, Ptooey. And the word for rich? Also a P word, though with a much different connotation: plousios. The rich used to walk past the poor and spit on them, using the very word that described their poverty ptocheia (and poverty is too gentle a comparative word but the only one I am willing to use in church). So the line might read better: on account of you he, though being plousios, ptocheia-ed in order that you might plousio by his ptocheia.
In Paul’s view, Christ made others rich not in the way the rich normally help the poor, by giving out of their fullness. He enriched others by giving out of the nothing he had. He pulled off a real miracle. He made others rich by making himself a beggar, by being one of the disgusting have-nots, and by giving out of his nothingness. Of course, Paul calls this gift grace, charis, a soft sound way back in the mouth, spitting on no one.
And how does this get lived out in our lives? Paul makes sure the church knows that this isn’t about relieving some and afflicting others, it is not letting some off the hook while making others feel guilty – it is about a true equality, a true fairness that, get ready for it, make possible God’s reconciliation of the entire world.
God’s reconciliation of the entire world through Christ overflows into our lives -- through the exchange of Christ’s wealth for our poverty -- so that we too might overflow in the profound “sharing” (koinonia) of all things with one another. This overflow or excess of grace through Christ is an overflow and excess that spills out into all aspects of our lives.
Abundantly supplying all our needs, God’s grace gives us power not only to forgive and be reconciled with one another, but also to share our wealth with one another.
This continues to have profound relevance for our day when grave inequalities between rich and poor only continue to deepen, and we see so clearly the spiritual and emotional poverty, the addiction and depression and violence, they tear through us, keeping us afraid, broken, estranged, worried that we won’t have enough, worried that we won’t be enough.
Like the Corinthians, we too undergo the “testing” of our ministry: the revealing of who and whose we really are -- in all that we are and all that we do. We too glorify God as we also generously engage in sharing (koinonia) who we are and all that we have with one another, especially in times of need.
There is another translation that I love, that I think sums up this piece more effectively than I can.
It reads: “This isn’t so others can take it easy while you sweat it out. No, you're shoulder to shoulder with them all the way, your surplus matching their deficit, their surplus matching your deficit. In the end you come out even. As it is written, Nothing left over to the one with the most, nothing lacking to the one with the least.”
Maybe this is about stewardship, about giving to the church. But it certainly isn’t a manipulative money grab. It is a deeper examination of where we are in relation to our fellows, both inside and outside our church. Are we willing to see clearly our places of abundance? Our places of scarcity? Are we willing to match our abundance with the scarcity of another? Are we brave enough to allow the abundance of another to match our scarcity? Are we choosing today to live from a place of ptocheia, or do we live as plousios?
God’s reconciliation of the entire world through Christ overflows in our lives; we are freely given an excess that fills us up and spills out into all aspects of our lives, if we let it.
May we be bold enough to live into the vulnerability of this call. Amen.