Where are you on your faith journey? I ask people this question sometimes, and at the very least, it prompts them to think about their faith journey, their life in Christ, or what it means to be a Christ-follower. Maybe it spurs us to think about what it means to be in a church.
When we think about what it means to be a church, a natural place to go would be one of Paul’s letters. How about 2 Corinthians 9.6-15? It wasn’t written as 2 Corinthians 9.6-15. It’s part of a letter, or 2-5 letters combined. These combined letters didn’t get chapter breaks until the thirteenth century. Verses came a few hundred years later. Paul probably wrote 2 Corinthians around summer or fall of 57 CE. Others place it around 55-56 CE. He was in Macedonia at the time.[i]
In 2 Corinthians, we find a personal relationship between the Apostle Paul and a particular congregation in Corinth. In these verses, we see him build a case for generosity and gratitude as the legitimate way we should respond to God’s grace.[ii] This is the Greek word χαρις (charis) which means “graciousness.” In this passage, we find χαρις in v. 8, “And God is able to make all grace abound in you.”
It’s easy, when we get into Paul’s letters, to let the theology trip us up because he makes complex arguments. How does the religious reciprocity of 2 Corinthians 8-9 speak to us today? How does this theology touch our lives? What does it mean for our faith journeys? What does he mean by poor helping poor, one community to another, or the power of the powerless? How is the church the movement of the resurrected Christ in the world? And, how is sharing a special and willful act?
In 2 Corinthians 9, we find all of this theology, and sometimes it seems inaccessible or so deeply hidden that we just set Paul aside and hope for a parable. At least with parables, we have a story to tell.
There’s also the problem of Paul’s ideas evolving, especially after he was dead and people continued developing ideas for the early church in his name. The starkest example comes when we compare 1 Thessalonians to Ephesians. In 1 Thessalonians, there’s a sense of urgency, but when we get to Ephesians, which likely came after Paul’s death, there’s much more emphasis on the early church structure and that sort of thing.
Paul felt deep compassion for those who were following Christ. He saw how transformative the faith journey could be, and he wanted that richness for everyone who knew about Jesus. In 2 Corinthians, there’s still some of the urgency of the earlier works alongside the concrete reality of living out one’s faith. For Paul, any “theology must go hand in hand with ethics and solidarity.”[iii] The whole context of 2 Corinthians 8-9 is a collection for the church in Jerusalem from the church in Corinth.
2 Corinthians is one of Paul’s most persuasive arguments. His writing is convincing. He wanted his audience to choose a certain course for the future. He wanted them to give generously to this collection for the Christ-followers in Jerusalem.[iv] There was an outcome he had in mind.
Most often, we hear part of 2 Corinthians 9.7, “God loves a cheerful giver.” This is common fodder for stewardship drives and looks good on banners. But, it falls short of addressing the complexity of the socio-economic composition of the Corinthian congregation. It misses the social dimension of this collection because it was deeply embedded in the ancient culture of benefactor relationships.
There was something going on here. People knew one another. They knew how money influences relationships. Was Paul addressing the wealthiest folks? The benefactors? Philanthropists? Key donors? No.
In Corinth, the church was probably a group of mostly poor people. That’s the same situation as the church in Jerusalem. So, when Paul asked the church in Corinth to help the church in Jerusalem, it was poor people helping poor people. They were not giving out of their excess. They were giving out of their conviction that this was right thing to do. We often say that people don’t support institutions. They support causes. Well, Paul was way ahead of modern development specialists. He didn’t say, “Dig deep, y’all. The church needs you.”
He said, “One who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly… Each of you must give as you have made up your mind.”
Notice the freedom. There was no compulsion to give. We may be the church, collective and a unit together, but we are also still individuals with freedom, agency, and our own minds. We get to choose what we do.
He said, “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance.” In other words, You’re not going to starve because you felt led to give to God’s glory and followed your conviction.
Paul recognizes the difficulty they might have in collecting an offering for the church in Jerusalem. That’s one of the reasons he uses these agrarian metaphors. Seeds are small but then grow. He says, “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.” The word here for righteousness is δικαιοσυνη (dik-ah-yos-oo-nay), which is derived from δικη (dee’-kay) or justice. It’s a harvest of justice.
Like the story of the loaves and fish from last week (Mark 6.30-44), it’s not a multiplication miracle as much as it is one group collectively helping another. It is a story of justice. Alvaro Michelin Salomon describes this passage as one community helping another. He writes,
The creation of networks of solidarity in prayer and action, in intercession and stewardship, should be a distinctive of the church throughout the world. Service from the poor, with the poor, and on behalf of the poor gets organized and fleshed out when real needs are discovered, when problems are clearly communicated, when commitment is encouraged, and when helpful actions of solidarity [come together].[v]Alvaro Michelin Salomon
The church in Corinth helping the church in Jerusalem is a situation of powerless people helping other powerless people. When powerless people come together, they can overcome their own limits. This story in 2 Corinthians speaks to the church today. It is a challenge to anyone who believes that only rich and powerful people can be God’s agents of transformation. It pushes back against that idea of what can be valuable. In this case, God can use anyone, anywhere, anytime. This is the story of the church as a movement of the resurrected Christ in the world. And, it continues today.
When we give, we
participate in God’s work. It’s a way that we can make a decision to do
something and join a life in Christ. We use our freedom, our own human agency,
and join God. Is it all about the money? No. It’s about seeing God at work.
It’s about seeing the resurrected Christ in the world and wanting to be part of
[i] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, ed. David N. Freedman, The Anchor Bible Reference Library, (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 542.
[ii] Stephan Joubert, “Religious reciprocity in 2 Corinthians 9:6-15: generosity and gratitude as legitimate responses to the χάρις του̂ Θεου̂,” Neotestamentica 33, no. 1 (1999): 79.
[iii] Alvaro Michelin Salomon, “Service, Stewardship, and Christian Communities in 2 Corinthians 8-9,” Journal of Latin American Theology 13, no. 2 (2018): 52.
[iv] Bart B. Bruehler, “Proverbs, persuasion and people: a three-dimensional investigation of 2 Cor 9.6-15,” New Testament Studies 48, no. 2 (2002): 211.
[v] Michelin Salomon, “Service, Stewardship, and Christian Communities in 2 Corinthians 8-9,” 60.