Eucharist Sermon - 27 June 2021

The Fourth Sunday after Trinity
2 Corinthians 8:7–end; Mark 5:21–end
The Revd Canon Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology
'On Christian Equality'

“For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8.9).

The context was this. Twenty or so years after Jesus’ death and Resurrection, the young Christian church in Jerusalem was in economic trouble. It had a lot of dependent widows to take care of, and the surrender of possessions by individual Christians to a common welfare fund, which is recorded in the fourth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles (4.32-7), had brought only temporary relief. Then famine had struck, and, according to the eleventh chapter of Acts, “the disciples determined, everyone according to his ability, to send relief to the brethren who lived in Judea; and they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul [that is, Paul]” (11.29-30). Later, Paul travelled to Jerusalem, in order to secure the support of the Christian leaders there for his mission to the Gentiles. In this he succeeded, but in turn, they asked him “to remember the poor [in Jerusalem]”, which, he tells us in his Epistle to the Galatians, “I was eager to do” (2.10). His eagerness was fuelled, not only by care for the poor, but also by a desire to bond Jewish and Gentile Christians together, to overcome Jewish Christian suspicion of Gentile Christians who did not observe Jewish law, by having the latter come to the rescue of the former.

So, here in our first reading, we find Paul urging the wealthy Gentile Christians in Corinth to follow the example of their poorer peers in Thessalonica and Philippi, whose (and I quote) “abundance of joy and … extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of liberality” (1 Cor.8.1-2). Whatever the Corinthians do, they should do eagerly, “For”, writes Paul, “if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have”. He goes on: “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance…. Therefore, openly before the churches, show them the proof of your love…” (2 Cor. 8.12-14, 24).

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. The slogan may have been Karl Marx’s, but the meaning was already St Paul’s. And Paul’s theological rationale? “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8.9).

But how, exactly, was Jesus rich? For sure, his father was an artisan, a carpenter, and so perhaps relatively richer than the peasants subsisting in the countryside around Nazareth. But his family was not among the wealthy landowning or urban elites. So, in what sense was Jesus rich? Clearly, Paul is alluding to the incarnation of God in Jesus, where God set aside the metaphorical ‘wealth’ of his divinity and descended into the metaphorical ‘poverty’ of the human condition, in order to raise us up to abundant, eternal life. As he put it explicitly in the second chapter of his Epistle to the Philippians, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (2.5-7).

So, Paul uses the example of God’s incarnation in Jesus to urge Jesus’ Gentile followers to use their surplus material wealth to relieve the material poverty of their Jewish brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. In so doing, Paul was employing an analogy, because, strictly speaking, it was not material riches that God-in-Jesus gave up, but rather status, power, and invulnerability. Nonetheless, the analogy was appropriate, because material riches usually confer status, power, and (relative) invulnerability.

The analogical nature of Paul’s theological rationale achieves two things. It allows Jesus’ incarnational example to be extended to the Christian’s use of material wealth. But it also indicates that Jesus’ example does not only apply to that. It also, and indeed primarily, applies to the use of status, power, and invulnerability.

Here, of course, we begin to touch on themes raised by the Rhodes Must Fall, Black Lives Matter, and ‘decolonising’ movements, in particular their demand for the dismantling of so-called ‘white privilege’. And that’s a demand that the leadership of the Church of England appears to have accepted, given its response to the recent report of the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Task Force, From Lament to Action, which was published in April. Now, I’m not going to dwell on this much, because the issues are highly controversial and it would be an abuse of the privilege of the pulpit for me to make what I say invulnerable to your critical reaction. Suffice it to say that I do not agree with many of the historical assumptions, empirical claims, and normative concepts used by the various self-styled ‘anti-racist’ movements. I think that the reading of colonial history is a caricature; the description of contemporary Britain generally ‘institutionally racist’ is wrong; and the concept of ‘white privilege’ is itself racist.

I do agree, however, with the Christian principle that those who enjoy status, power, and invulnerability should be ready to follow God’s example in Jesus in giving them away, so that others might be lifted up. That doesn’t mean, of course, that power should always be surrendered. Not all surrendering of power lifts others up. Not everyone who wants power is equipped to exercise it well. But the principle remains: we should be ready to use our power to empower others at our own expense.

And we have in the New Testament at least one example of the reversal of ethnic power between Christians. According to the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, it seems that in the early Christian church in Jerusalem a mixture of religious and cultural prejudice had resulted in economic injustice. ‘Hebrew’ or culturally Aramaic Christians were in charge of administering the distribution of the common welfare fund, and ‘Hellenist’ or culturally Greek Christians complained that their widows were being neglected (see Acts 4.32, 34-5). Responding to this complaint, the community, led by the apostles, transferred administrative power and responsibility entirely from the Hebrews to the Hellenists; for, according to verse 5, every one of the seven men chosen for the job had a Greek name. In this case, inspired by the Holy Spirit of God-in-Christ, the powerful voluntarily surrendered the power of control to the powerless, making themselves vulnerable, in order to correct an injustice and to foster inter-ethnic trust.

The generous example of Jesus calls us to use and lose our power, in order to empower others. By analogy, it calls us to use our riches to raise others up and out of poverty. And by further analogy, it also calls us to have compassion on those who do us wrong.

For at the Last Supper, which our eucharist this morning will shortly re-enact, Jesus, knowing that his disciples were about to betray him, nevertheless chose to break bread with them. That’s to say, he set aside his status as righteous victim and descended into the pit of fear and shame whither his fickle friends would shortly fall, in order to welcome them into repentance and reconciliation.

***

“For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich”. Therefore, “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself”.