Getting a congregation to dig deep into its pockets is a task as old as Christianity itself. It has never been easy. Paul faced this task squarely in 2 Corinthians 8-9. The central theme of these two chapters of this second letter to the church at Corinth was an attempt to raise money from the well-to-do people folks in the church who were not eager to part with what they had. You see, the Jerusalem “mother church” was poor, really poor, barely surviving, and Paul is urging the more prosperous Corinthians to do the right thing. His mission in this second letter was to get the more prosperous churches in Greece and Asia Minor to provide economic assistance for fellow followers of Christ in Jerusalem, even though he was working on behalf of people who did not approve of him or his ministry. On top of that he was making his plea to largely Gentile congregations which had little affinity for Jerusalem. Paul had his work cut out for him.
So how did he convince them to assist in this unpopular endeavor? Earlier in Paul’s letter, just before the portion we read today, Paul attempted to win over the Corinthians by pointing with admiration to their peer churches elsewhere who were doing good work. He mentions how the Macedonian Christians set a standard for generosity that he was encouraging Corinth to not only match, but exceed. The Macedonians suffered poverty and yet displayed a wealth of generosity. They didn’t have to be asked twice, but readily went beyond their means. Although poor in substance, they were rich in generosity—like the widow with her small cooper coins at the temple treasury. Surely the Corinthians would not want to be outdone, shown up as lacking Christian charity when they seemed to excel in everything else, “in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness.”
Now, it would be so very easy to follow Paul’s homiletic formula for encouraging better stewardship of our resources. It would be easy to engage a literal interpretation of this text and apply it to our contemporary experience. Couldn’t you just see the stewardship campaign? Who is the better giver? Submit your pledges and find out where you stand in the continuum of givers at our church. Seriously, would pitting congregants in their giving against each other—a contest if you will for who are the better givers in our congregation—be an effective strategy. Would it? No I’m really asking…would it? Of course not! How constructive would it be, really, to exploit family rivalry, urge competitive generosity, or pit one group of Christians against another.
But the fact is, Paul did not follow what might well be a preacher’s first impulse in the face of a crying need. Why not just tell the Corinthians how bad the situation in Jerusalem actually was, focus on the plight of the Christians there, and then ask the congregation to demonstrate what it means to be in the body of Christ. Paul believed that the point wasn’t for the Corinthians to “outdo the Macedonians because you don’t want to come up wanting.” Or to set up a contest in virtue when he said, “I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others.” Rather he is exhorting the congregation to be generous because God is generous. That is what it means to be in Christ and like Christ.
He encourages them with some advice: “it is appropriate for you who began last year (speaking about supporting the Jerusalem church) not only to do something but even to desire to do something— now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.” But here is the real kicker. Paul finishes the thought with this amazing truth: “For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have.”
Paul is saying in very simple language to this mega-church of rich Christians—whose individuals had all the resources that were needed to support the larger ministries of evangelism and charitable support, that if the eagerness to bless others is there—then whatever gift is given will come from a place of abundance—and not a place of lack. This truth tells us that even when we come up with all the reasons why we cannot support the kingdom of God, that just being eager—ready and willing—will change the dynamics of your situation so that what you do give is acceptable in God’s sight.
Now my sermon today is not about stewardship. I am not responding to our scripture today by making a plea for increased giving, or an ultimatum that if we don’t raise our offerings we will need to cut our budget. We all know the state of our financial affairs. Times or tough. Yes, our financial stability is in question. But this is the scripture I have been given to unpack. The good word I want to bring to you today, the good news of the gospel of Jesus stems from Paul’s revelation of truth about what it means to live in abundance versus living in a sense of lack. What it means to live an authentic life. And it’s in Paul’s tiny tiny kernel of truth that we can discover the gift of disappearing.
So much of our experience of living with a sense of lack—what I don’t have, versus abundance—aware and thankful for what I do have, comes from one of two places—either Pride or Shame.
Pride artificially inflates our self-image. Shame artificially deflates it. Both tend to set us on dead-end paths because they cause us to willingly obstruct our connection to God. Pride convinces us that we are better off living under our own power and authority. Shame convinces us that God does not love us as we are, thus we are unworthy of connection. Ironically, both pride and shame tend to fabricate an image or ourselves that is ultimately too small to live within. However, Humility is what keeps us grounded. Humility is living by God's vision of you, not your own. God sees a lot more of you than you do. Consequently, God sees a lot more to love, putting your shortcomings against a far larger backdrop than you can. God also sees the kind and generous person you are capable of growing into when you live wholeheartedly. It is this wholehearted image of yourself that feels most like home when you glimpse even it for the briefest moment.
The Gift of Disappearing helps us maintain a healthy distance from self-conceptions that are built on a grand house of cards or upon a meager image pulled from the swamps of shame. More than anything it provides us space and grace to move about life freely, and follow those sweet-spot moments that help us see the path forward even when obstacles are placed before us. Few of us, however, claim this gift or use it skillfully. Eric Elnes. “Gifts of the Dark Wood.” Pg.125-6
But what does it mean for us to disappear? I think we can discern the gift of disappearing from Paul’s own testimony. Paul was confronting the harsh realities of a growing church in Corinth that was under attack. It was being subjected to the forces of the culture around it; giving into to the social structures that separated the rich from the poor, demanding that its members adopt traditional religious Jewish practices before they could even become a Christian. The church had also been struggling with divisions and quarrels. But for a majority of the believers, the problem had been solved by the time Paul wrote 2 Corinthians. Many had repented of their sinful ways and had come back into unity with one another and with the leadership of Paul.
However, Paul still felt the need to articulate a defense of his apostleship and his message. Some in the church had apparently taken his meekness among them to be a sign of moral weakness or lack of authority. These accusations led Paul to defend himself by arguing that he was on the same level of importance as the other apostles, that he had deep knowledge of the Christian faith, that he had suffered profound physical punishment in the name of Christ, and that he had received visions and revelations from God.
Just as Paul wrote to the Corinthians in the wake of their repentance from divisions and quarrels, the message for us today is clear: living in unity requires us to humbly forgive one another and to follow our leaders. Sometimes that means “disappearing” the part of our self that is imaged from pride or shame, and revisit God’s view of us. 2 Corinthians reminds us that even as Christians, we hurt each other and need to forgive those who wrong us. That Paul was willing to exhort the Corinthian believers to forgive those who had fallen away and repented, even as he defended his own leadership against a vocal opposition, illustrates his commitment to this way of life among God’s people.
In what ways do you struggle to forgive others or follow God’s guidance? An overinflated sense of ourselves often leads us to strike out on our own or hold on to our frustration and anger regarding the choices of others. However, just as Paul reminded us of Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation, we must seek to reconcile relationships in which disunity reigns. Look out for the pitfall of disunity with leaders and other believers in your own life while striving to live among all people in humility.
The presence of challenge and struggle, which many take as a sign that something is going wrong, may be a sign that something is actually going right. When we finally accept the reality that God’s grace and our struggles are inseparably bound together, we begin to understand the wisdom that God is able to work all things together for good. In your bulletin are a few questions for you to ask about your own gifts of disappearing.
1. What challenges and struggles are you having that might be a result of your own Pride (living under your own power and authority) or Shame (you are unworthy of connection)?
2. How might humility (living by God's vision of you, not your own) transform your struggles into blessings?
I talk a lot about being authentic. Experiencing God’s desires and blessings for you are uniquely tied to you believing it. When you let pride and shame hinder that view, you will make the wrong choices. And these choices will continue to mask that vision of who God created you to be. Does that blurred vision result from Pride? Does it come from Shame? You must decide. It’s your responsibility. And it’s not easy. But what could be better than really seeing God’s vision for yourself? Humility is the best way to take the blinders off.