2 Corinthians 8:7-15
In this passage, Paul appeals for funding for the community of Jesus followers in Jerusalem led by James, called the "Poor Ones," just as Jesus had said, "blessed are the poor." The church in Jerusalem had taken seriously sharing in common all they had as one Christian community. In this offering he's taking up, Paul is trying to bring together Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and pagan Christians from throughout the rest of the world; many he had evangelized. This appeal was for the cause of Unity for the early church, because of the terrible schism between these two groups reported in Galatians.
Paul felt this collection, if acceptable to the "saints" in Jerusalem, would bring to them a great gift for the wealth of the larger church, a true sharing of the wealth. Notice he's saying something here repeatedly about "equality," "he gathering much, he had nothing left over, and he gathering little had no less." Paul is repeating the story of the gathering of manna during the Exodus. The people in Corinth knew that the people of the Church in Jerusalem were sharing everything in common. Now Paul's appealing to the Corinthians, "you said you would support this cause, now follow through." You don't have to give what you don't have, but each should give according to
his ability or capacity.
Food For Thought
One of the things I find fascinating about this whole passage is that the words "gift" and "grace" are used interchangeably by Paul. I think the parallel of these two words is a key for understanding this passage, and even understanding something fundamentally about Paul's life.
While there was a great difference in practice between Jewish Christians in Jerusalem (who still looked to purity rituals, with a traditional Jewish understanding of the law) and pagan Christians to whom Paul had delivered the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Paul proclaimed that everyone who believed was in Christ. He did not believe the pagan group had to follow the Jewish group's mandates regarding ritualistic law and purity.
When Paul finally takes the collection to Jerusalem, he's put in an awkward position. No one will see him or talk to him to accept the money, until he goes through the ritual baths and is purified. He goes to the ritual baths in the cause of peace and STILL ends up getting arrested. The arrest is aided by Jewish Christians. Under arrest again! This begins his long trip back to Rome and his eventual death.
Here in our passage is what Paul is giving his life for: he's appealing to each of us reading in the Christian community of faith to put aside those temptations that divide us one from another and be one in Christ.
Sink Your Teeth Into This
Look at the battles in the church today over amendments to the constitution of the Presbyterian Church and other battles in other Protestant denominations.
One group feels like if you behave one way, you're affecting the purity of the church, of if you behave another way, the believer is too constrained by the law, and isn't able to honor God's gifts to all people. Folks considered unrepentant with practices in relationships and sexuality considered ungodly, even an abomination by others, are excluded from the community of faith. There's this big tension in the church today not unlike what it was in the time of Paul. Paul is
trying to heal the rift - this big division between followers of Christ. At first, the Church in Jerusalem wouldn't even accept the collection when Paul delivered it!
The Jerusalem collection represents a major bargain by Paul, to give his own life up to join the church together in the cause of the Gospel. He chooses to give the church an opportunity, to re-find if you will, a unified vision, what he believes is a continuation of the vision of Jesus Christ found in the "open table," and which includes the notion that all of the earth is "one world under divine justice" rather than under Imperial rule from Rome [Crossan, In Search of Paul]. Paul seeks to follow Jesus in this divine cause and invites us to as well.
We could understand this passage in terms of one's "annual giving to the church," but I think there is something deeper here about how one gives his or her life to Christ. Paul has something to say about how you might encounter God's grace in Jesus as both grace and gift to share and give back to God, by giving back to the larger vision and the wider community of God's people, even to give ourselves back to continue God's creative work of redemption here and now.
Fred Westbrook, D.Min. graduated from Union in May 1983. An artist and poet living in Durham NC, Fred is a Minister Member at Large in New Hope Presbytery of the PCUSA. He preaches monthly at Northgate Presbyterian Church in Durham, and other area churches, while overseeing Duke Chapel's Media Ministry. President and CEO of C'Access Inc., Fred manages multiple projects regarding online medical education or instructional technology at Duke University.