Church buildings are magnets for miscellany. At any given time, All Saints has a collection of a dozen or so umbrellas left behind by parishioners. We have enough lost earrings to adorn a dozen heads, although none are matched pairs. In addition to left-behind articles we seem never to run short of donated religious publications, prayer cards, devotional materials and less virtuous printed matter.
By “less virtuous printed matter,” I mean the stuff associated with superstition. On a regular basis I find little piles of things that both look like the slip of paper in a fortune cookie, and have equal credibility. These superstitious intercessions are the churchy equivalent of spam email or chain letters; they promise magical results if the user follows scrupulously a mindlessly simple set of instructions.
These expressions of superstition are, at once, both funny and pathetic. “Leave ten copies of this mantra in a church, and Saint Obsessa will grant your every wish.” Really? Is that all religion has to offer: a wish-based get-rich-quick scheme?
Sadly, this is the state of religion in our country. Religion is very often portrayed and practiced as nothing more than an easy means of having one’s needs and wants fulfilled. As I mentioned last month during the Adult Faith Formation sessions, God’s Grace has been reduced to being a commodity to be acquired, God is nothing more than a provider of goods and services, the Church is merely a vendor for religious products and experiences, and potential believers are reduced to being nothing more than consumers of religion.
A consumer’s attitude toward God, Grace, religion and even other people makes perfect sense in our society, unless we take the time to look at what the Scriptures say. Paul’s use of the word “Grace” in this Sunday’s Second Reading is an ideal example of how far Christianity has strayed from its roots. “Grace,” in this selection of 2 Corinthians, is God’s generous way of acting toward people; according to Paul, it is intended by God to inspire generosity in those who come to know God. Rather than a thing, or a series of things, to be acquired, Grace is the personal experience of knowing, and being known by, God.
Today’s second reading reflects the latter part of an on-going conversation between Paul and the church community at Corinth. Several years prior to writing this letter Paul had made a promise to take up a charitable collection for the church community in Jerusalem. The exact nature of the needs of the Jerusalem church is not explained in detail. It is reasonable to assume, however, that the church’s leadership, having moved to Jerusalem from Galilee, would not have had much of a local support system. Their needs would have been many.
When Paul met in Jerusalem with James, Peter and John he promised to take up collections in the churches in Asia Minor for the purpose of assisting the Jerusalem church. Paul took this promise very seriously; it seems to have represented for him a tangible sign of church unity. It was his desire for unity with the leaders of the Jerusalem church that had impelled Paul to meet with them about his preaching apostolate. Perhaps, he considered his material aid to them to be something like proof of his spiritual unity with those who had known Jesus during his lifetime.
We know from other statements he made (1 Corinthians 16:1), that Paul had taken up collections at several locations. The collection at Corinth, however, was delayed by a conflict that arose between Paul and the members of the Corinth church.
Paul had established the church community at Corinth, a center of trade and Roman culture. The city was large and diverse; that diversity both provided Paul with potential converts, and contributed to the later tensions that would afflict the fledgling church community. After the community was founded an eloquent preacher named Apollos made quite an impression on the Corinthians. The community was split into factions. The infighting, along with some notable moral lapses, distracted from the plan to take up a collection for Jerusalem.
The selection of 2 Corinthians that we have as our Second Reading today was written after the tensions had been resolved and the major crises had passed. After the commotion, Paul returned to his earlier request for a show of unity with the church in Jerusalem. He wrote, “Now as you excel in every respect, in faith, discourse, knowledge, all earnestness, and in the love we have for you, may you excel in this gracious act also.” (2 Cor 8:7) The “gracious act” was the requested donation to Jerusalem.
Paul justified the validity of requesting such a collection by reminding the Corinthians of their own good fortune, and inferring that they, therefore, owed a debt of gratitude that could be paid in part by their generosity to Jerusalem. Their debt was owed to God for the salvation they had experienced in Christ. Paul reminded them, “For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake he became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9)
Paul depicts the “gracious act” of generosity on the part of the Corinthians as being made possible by, and as being an appropriate response to, the “gracious act” of God in Christ. In both these instances the term “gracious act” translates the word that, in other places, is translated “grace.”
We could paraphrase Paul’s renewed request of Corinth by saying, “You enjoy an abundance of faith, reasoning, sincerity, and even our own love for you; may you have an abundance of the grace of generosity as well . . . for you have experienced the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ who, though abounding in spiritual riches, embraced spiritual poverty in order to enrich you with an abundance of blessings.” (2 Cor 8:7,9)
Paul drew a parallel between the generosity of God and the generosity he was asking of the Corinthians; the parallel was based on “grace,” “a gracious act.” This isn’t an understanding of Grace as an object that can be acquired or lost. “Grace,” in Paul’s writings, is the on-going activity of God who shows favor to those who accomplish the Divine Will. “Grace” is a way of describing God’s personality: God is solicitous towards Creation, and particularly so towards God’s People.
Paul put forth significant effort to show unity and solidarity with the church in Jerusalem. It seems he had to re-double his efforts when he wrote to the church in Corinth. The wealth and prosperity of the city had a deleterious effect on the faith of the church there. Like their contemporary society some of the church members at Corinth put a higher value on things than on people. Paul made a compelling argument in favor of generosity, based not on the value of things, but on the value of people.
It seems that the culture of the city of Corinth was much like our own. They valued things more than people. An unbiased reading of the Scriptures presents a value system completely antithetical to ours. God values people and relationships more than things. Because we live in a culture that is, in part, hostile to authentic faith we should not be surprised or upset that we often face the choice with which Paul confronted the Corinthians: will we believe the Gospel of Christ Jesus or another gospel? (2 Cor 11:4)