Monday 27 July 2020

It’s Not Fair

Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation
The online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
9 August 2020

2 Corinthians 8.1-15

Listen to this sermon here: 

I wonder, do you think life is fair? 

In fact, I’ll put that a bit more strongly: 
do you think life should be fair? 

I can remember that when I was a child I once complained to my Dad, 
shouting, ‘It’s not fair!’, 
and he replied, 
‘No one ever said life was going to be fair, Simon’. 

And of course he was right, no one had ever made me that promise. 
I just had some innate expectation that it would be, 
and like all of us, I had to learn the painful lesson 
that if we expect fairness in life, 
we are in for a disappointment. 
Sometimes bad and lazy people prosper, 
while good and industrious people don’t. 
That’s life.

But, I ask again, should it be this way? 
That’s the million dollar question.

In our passage for this morning,
Paul makes a link between the universal human ideal of fairness
and the theological concept of grace,
and he does so as part of an intensely practical discussion
about money.

One of the great things about Paul’s letters
is that they are always grounded in the real world.

Sometimes, theologians can be accused of going off on flights of fancy,
arguing about the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin,
or some other such abstract and obtuse subject.

Well, not with Paul.
His theology is always grounded in reality,
and is being worked out ‘on-the-hoof’ to address the problems and difficulties
of those in the churches he was responsible for.

The background to the chapter we are looking at today
lay in a famine that had affected the nation of Israel in the mid-to-late 40s.
The situation facing the Christian believers in Jerusalem
was already financially precarious before this,
with them having broken with Judaism, 
making them particularly vulnerable to the double whammy 
of Jewish and Roman taxation, 
and an already precarious economy;
but then the famine was catastrophic for them.

Paul and Barnabas had already made an initial famine-relief visit to Jerusalem in 46CE
to deliver a gift of money from the church at Antioch (Acts 11:29-30),
and Paul spent much of the next decade 
trying to persuade people in the churches he planted in Asia Minor 
to send ongoing financial support to the Jerusalem church.

And this is what we meet in 2 Corinthians, written in 55CE,
where he is trying once again to persuade the Corinthians
to be generous with their money.

And it is in this context that Paul inter-twines 
the concepts of grace and fairness.

The word ‘grace’, which in Greek is the word ‘charis’
appears five times in the first few verses of chapter 8,
although different Bible versions variously translate it as 
‘grace’, ‘blessing’, ‘generosity’, ‘thanksgiving’, and ‘favour’.

It’s clearly a word with what translators would call,
‘a wide semantic range’.

So what does Paul mean, when he speaks of:
  • the grace of God (v.1)
  • or, the grace of taking part in the relief of the saints (v.4)
  • or, this act of grace (vv.6, 7)
  • or, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ (v.9)?
Well, on the one hand, he is portraying
grace is something spiritual that originates with God 
and is made known through Jesus; 
but on the other hand 
it is something practical that humans can and should participate in, 
such as contributing generously to an appeal for money.

And for Paul, these two aspects of grace, 
the divine and the human, the spiritual and the practical, 
are inextricably linked. 
You can’t have one without the other.

And yet, for many Christians, grace has lost its practical side,
and has become instead a solely theological concept.

When Liz and I were children at our respective Sunday Schools,
we were both, independently, taught a backronym definition of Grace:

God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense

Or, to spell it out slightly more fully,
Grace is the mechanism 
whereby the sacrifice of Christ on the cross
opens the path for sinful humans to receive the riches of God.

And, widespread though this kind of theology is,
I have something of a problem with it.

Because grace is not a mechanism;
and neither is it a transactional process,
where Christ pays the price for our sin so we don’t have to.

A transactional and mechanistic understanding of grace
is built on a transactional and mechanistic understanding of the cross;
and this is problematic, 
because it makes grace something that God does,
rather than something for humans to participate in;
and it makes the cross the focus of God’s legalistic anger
rather than an expression of God’s gracious love.

In Paul’s theology, the notion of grace 
is consistently opposed to the language of the law,
with Paul arguing that the gospel of grace that has been revealed in Christ
has fulfilled the law that was revealed through Moses.

And yet, for many of us, our understanding of fairness 
is still built on a mechanistic or legalistic framework.

We believe that if this happens, then that should follow,
or that if we do this, then we deserve that,
and so on.

And when we don’t get the outcome we believe we deserve,
we end up either echoing our childhood cries of, ‘It’s not fair, Daddy!’,
or descending into cynicism and resignation.

Much of the language of rights 
is built on a mechanistic understanding of fairness,
with certain ‘inalienable rights’ being inherent to humanity
with any violation of these a crime against that humanity.

However, the history of human rights 
has shown that such so-called ‘inalienable rights’
are always, in the end, culturally determined and open for debate.

I’m reminded of something Dawn said in a sermon at Bloomsbury a while back,
when she asserted that instead of speaking of our rights,
we should start talking about our responsibilities.

I guess it all begins with the ten commandments,
at least for the Judeo-Christian tradition 
that has dominated the Western world for the last two millennia.

And we might think that these are pretty straightforward,
until it comes to actually applying them.

After all, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ seems fairly definite,
until you start discussing just war theory.

‘Honour thy father and mother’ is fine,
until you have an abusive of inadequate parent.

Of course, the Jews of the first century and before knew this perfectly well,
and the Jewish tradition of midrash emerged 
to help people interpret the law for their own context and situation.

So when Paul, trained as a Jewish Pharisee, pits law against grace,
he knows that he is taking the axe to the root 
of everything that seems fair and right for many of his readers.

From a human perspective,
fairness is the fair application of the law,
it is the just outworking of a person’s rights,
it is the protection of the individual by the community.

But Paul is offering a different perspective,
one built on the life and example of Jesus,
rather than on the law of Moses.

And Paul calls this perspective ‘grace’,
originating through God’s revelation in Jesus
and finding its outworking in the lives of those whom it touches.

An example of this from the teachings of Jesus
is found in what are known as his ‘antithesis teachings’.
You know the ones,
where Jesus says, ‘You have heard it was said, this, but I say to you, that’.

In Matthew chapter 5 we find several of these, including:
You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'
But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. (Matthew 5.38-39)

Here Jesus is quoting from the books of the Jewish Law, 
specifically Leviticus 24.19-20, which reads:
Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return:
fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; 
the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.

From a legal perspective, if you want to extract revenge,
you have the right to inflict back the injury sustained,
but no more.
This is an injunction against overkill,
preventing a vendetta in exchange for a slight.

But Jesus makes is clear that whilst this may be your legal right,
it is not the gracious response.

Grace forgives, and endures, and meets hatred with love,
grace undermines law, and does so outrageously.

I’ve been watching the American House of Cards recently on Netflix,
and no spoilers please because I’m only half way through.

But in it, the American President makes a speech
in which he is arguing for a ‘back to work’ programme for America,
and he says the following:

We have been crippled by Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, 
by welfare, by entitlements. 
And that is the root of the problem; entitlements.  
Let me be clear: you are entitled to nothing. 
You are entitled to nothing.

And strangely, I think Paul would agree with this conclusion,
but for completely the opposite reason.

Any language of entitlement, or fairness, 
that is predicated on a legalistic framework,
is only ever going to be, at best, a partial answer.

Because life isn’t fair, 
we have no inalienable rights,
and we are entitled to nothing.

But this is, for Paul, merely the bad news
that paves the way for the good news of the gospel of Christ.

Because where law has failed,
grace can triumph.

So to return to the question of the collection 
for the suffering Christians in Jerusalem.

A legalistic approach to financial redistribution in favour of the poor
would look like a series of transactions 
whereby people give because they must,
or in such a way as to retain control over how the money is used.

We are well used to systems like this:
we pay our taxes, 
and the welfare state provides housing for those in poverty;
we make donations to charities or food banks,
and they offer food or other support to those in need on our behalf.

But this is not the basis of Paul’s appeal for money.
He is casting it as a system of grace,
where money is given freely and with generosity.
As we have graciously received the riches of God’s grace,
so we should grace-fully share those blessings with others.

The grace we receive from God, it seems,
only has meaning when we pass it on.

And this is because grace is never individual,
it is always communal.
It is never transactional, it is always relational.

And so what about us?
What are we to take from this in terms of our own lives,
our own discipleship?

Well, let’s start with money.
Not all, but many of those listening to this sermon today,
are people with, at least in global terms, a significant level of wealth.

Firstly, I want to say that this is nothing to be ashamed of.
For too long, Christians have focussed on guilt-inducing theologies of wealth,
which have simply paralysed us into inaction.
So, hear this: if you, like me, have some financial stability and a roof over your head,
thank God for it and be grateful.

But, secondly, we also need to hear that what we have 
is not ours to do with as we will,
and no legalistic or mechanistic system of giving can get us off the hook.

We are called to generosity, to faithfulness in giving,
and to joining with Christ in the calling to grace-filled living.

And part of this, I believe, is to explore ways of giving
that allow us to surrender our control over that which we have given.

And this takes us back to Paul’s prioritising of community, 
and away from the temptations to individualism.

So, for example, when we give to the work of God through our local church,
we are consciously surrendering the decisions on how that money will be spent
to those with whom we are in fellowship in Christ.

We don’t decide to withdraw our giving 
if we disagree with some of the decisions that the community takes.
Because it’s about trust, and love, and forgiveness, and grace;
and such as these will free us from our addiction to legalism,
and our enslavement to individualism.

Grace calls us to reciprocity,
to realising that however much we may have, 
we always have needs that others can meet,
just as others have needs that we can meet in turn.

Grace calls us to action 
in the cause of those whose lives are intertwined with ours.

Grace calls us to play our part in bringing the kingdom of God to reality
in our world, and our time.

Next week we’ll be beginning a new short series 
looking at issues of justice that affect our lives: 
economic justice, welcoming the stranger, 
climate justice, and homelessness. 

Paul’s theology of fairness and grace,
that we have been exploring today,
is the foundation for our practical engagement in the world,
as we become those through whom the grace of God is made known
to those who are currently living with inequality, injustice, and exclusion.

And what we will discover,
is that as we are agents of God’s grace to others,
we become, in turn, recipients of God’s grace to us from them.

This is the fairness of God’s grace.

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