by Rev. J.C. Austin
This week, we’re reading some more of Paul’s mail. The word epistle, as you may know, literally means “letter,” and all of the epistles of the New Testament were originally letters that Paul and other apostles sent to fellow Christians to teach and encourage and even sometimes admonish them. Last week, the letter we read was a personal note from Paul to a Christian named Philemon. Today, we’re reading what you might call the earliest known example of an appeal letter for a church stewardship campaign. In fact, the whole of chapters 8 and 9 are one long fundraising appeal; what we read today is just some excerpts of it.
And as someone who has spent two decades leading, teaching, and speaking about fundraising in the Christian church, I have to say: it’s not that great of an appeal. He uses shame, guilt, manipulation, competition: “Hey, Corinthians,” he basically says; “I thought you might like to know that the Macedonians (who are totally poor, by the way) just gave a boatload of money to this collection; I mean, they were actually begging for the privilege to give.” He goes on: “now, look; I’m not commanding you to give, I’m just testing how genuine your love is compared to them.” And it goes on like that for two chapters. It’s no wonder there are so many bad stewardship sermons based on it.
So why are we talking about a two-chapter-long, not-that-great fundraising letter as our Scripture for this morning? What does this have to do with anything important, either in Paul’s world or in ours right now? I understand the question. It reminds me of when, as a newly-minted English major in college, I was taking a class on modern American fiction. One week, the assignment was a short story by Ernest Hemingway called Big Two-Hearted River.
Hemingway, I thought, that’ll be exciting: war and bullfighting and big game hunting and drinking! But that wasn’t this story. It was about this guy, Nick, who was out wandering in a wilderness somewhere. That at least has the potential to be interesting, right? Wrong. This story had pages and pages and pages of nothing happening. And I mean, NOTHING. It went on for multiple pages in excruciating detail about how Nick built a fire, boiled some coffee, and ate some apricots out of a can. That’s it. That was literally the dramatic tension: watching the coffee come to a boil.
I finally gave up reading it and went to see the professor during his office hours. “Dr. Clarkson,” I said, “I don’t understand why we’re reading this story. I mean, it’s about a guy boiling coffee.” Dr. Clarkson was like an English professor out of central casting: grey, tousled hair; tie askew; eyes sparkling out from behind round glasses as he peered at me. “Is it?” he asked; “is it about a guy boiling coffee?” I sensed a trap. “Well,” I replied cautiously, “that’s what’s happening in the story.” “Is it?” he asked again, still peering curiously at me.
Guessing that the answer was no, I said, “what am I missing?” Dr. Clarkson sat back, relieved, I think, that I had sense enough to ask that question. “When was the story written?” he asked me. “1925,” I replied. “And what do you know about what was going on in art and literature during that time?” he continued. “Well, they were struggling with the nature of humanity and human society after the devastation of World War I,” I said. And Dr. Clarkson smiled slightly, concluding perhaps there was hope for me, after all. He leaned forward. “So given that, why would Hemingway depict a person who was so focused on such meaningless tasks like boiling coffee?”
Before I could fumble out an answer, he continued: “because he was so damaged by his experience in the war that it took everything he had just to boil coffee and open a can of apricots without falling apart. And if he focused enough on that, maybe he could keep the horrors of what he had experienced out of his head.” And then Dr. Clarkson sat back. “Oh,” I said, as the full weight of what he was saying fell on me. He smiled again. “The story,” he concluded, “is in what he’s not saying.”
The story here in Second Corinthians is also in what Paul is not saying. This passage might sound like pretty dull stuff when you first read through it. No treatises on salvation or faith or justification or sanctification or any of those other great theological concepts that Paul is known for; just a very long fundraising appeal. But we need to listen more closely. Did you hear him talk about the “ministry to the saints” a couple of times in the second half of the selection?
That sounds like another one of those boilerplate church phrases that get thrown around a lot. The word “Saints,” in the New Testament, literally means “holy ones. The word “Christian” did not develop until later, and so followers of Christ originally called one another “saints” because they have been made holy be receiving God’s grace through the Holy Spirit.
But here Paul is talking about a specific group of saints: the members of the church in Jerusalem. These saints are experiencing great suffering, famine, and persecution at the time of Paul’s writing this letter, and Paul is organizing a relief offering to help them in their time of need. “And?” you might be saying; it’s hardly remarkable for Christians to be caring for one another in a time of desperate need. But remember: the story is in what Paul is not saying. The church in Jerusalem and Paul have a long and bitter history. Nobody has been a greater opponent to Paul’s ministry than the church in Jerusalem. They strongly opposed his ministry to the Gentiles, arguing that anyone seeking to follow Christ must obey the Jewish Law, as well, including circumcision and dietary restrictions.
When Paul would plant churches among the Gentiles, other apostles in league with the Jerusalem church would follow and undo much of his work, convincing the new Christians that Paul was leading them astray and that they must place themselves under the Law instead. This is why the contrast between grace and the Law and the question of Paul’s authority are such common themes in many of his epistles in the New Testament. But not only did they opposed Paul’s theology, they undermined his credibility and assaulted his character.
And Paul, more often than not, gave as good as he got. There was a deep mutual suspicion and animosity between Paul and the church in Jerusalem. They were enemies, in every sense of the word except people who try to physically kill each other. And yet here Paul is, hustling to raise money to help the very people who have done everything they can to delegitimize him and his ministry. Why would he do that?
He does that because he knows that their opposition to one another is less important than their common unity in Christ. The story that Paul is not saying, but which is the whole reason for this two-chapter long fundraising project, is his conviction that we must, in a very real sense, keep our enemies close. The expression is actually “keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”
While it is sometimes attributed to Sun Tzu or Machiavelli, it actually comes from the classic movie, The Godfather, Part II. Michael Corleone, the head of a Mafia crime family and the anti-hero of the story, says it, and he means that you need to keep your enemies closer than your friends, because while you can trust your friends enough to let them out of your sight, you need to stick close enough to your enemies that you always know what they are up to. But if Paul had heard the expression and used it, he would have meant something very different when he said “keep your enemies close.”
He knows that the gospel itself is at stake in how he responds to their need. He can’t go around preaching about God giving us the ministry of reconciliation, as he does through most of his second letter to the Corinthians, and then abandon fellow Christians when they are suffering just because they don’t like him. Paul understands that disagreement in the church does not justify division; that even when we are in conflict over important ideas or ideals or values or commitments, that does not permit us to ignore each other in time of need.
Paul would have meant we need to keep our enemies close by praying for them (and not in a self-serving way!) and caring for them not just in words or abstract commitments, but in tangible acts of compassion and service, which is exactly what he’s doing here without really saying it: literally putting his money where his mouth is to love his enemies, without ever pretending that they do not still disagree profoundly on some of the most important theological and ethical questions of their day.
That seems worth our consideration in this moment, this season, that we are entering as a church and as a nation. All signs point to at least the next three months being a particularly difficult and divisive time in our society, as we continue to be more and more polarized by both electoral politics and addressing pressing social issues like systemic racism, while still enduring the crucible of the ongoing pandemic. Conflict has become division, and division in many cases is becoming enmity, and in fact already has been.
Many relationships with family and friends and neighbors in recent months have already become fraught with conflict over the theological and political and ethical issues facing us as a society; passing interactions with strangers now seem to hold a regular potential threat of intimidation or even violence over things that should not even be controversial, like wearing masks during a pandemic from an airborne virus.
And social media, which has never been renowned for the courtesy and thoughtfulness of its discourse, has in many places become a dystopian nightmare of misinformation, harassment, ad hominem attacks, insulting memes, or just what is now called “doomscrolling”: endlessly scrolling through all the bad news in the world that is on your apps and social media and feeling all the negativity and conflict and anxiety and fear piling up and weighing you down like someone loading your arms with more and more sandbags and telling you that you just have to keep holding them.
So in the midst of all that, Paul’s letter that embodies his lived commitment to keep his enemies close might seem like one more burden to carry when are arms are already overfull and aching. But I want to suggest it actually means the opposite; that what Paul is doing is showing us that you really can love your enemies while they are still very much enemies, and it doesn’t require pretending that you’re not really enemies. Remember that emotion isn’t really important in the first century understanding of love; action is.
Love is about what you do, how you act, not what or how you feel. So conflict, division, and even enmity with the “saints” in Jerusalem are not forgotten or even over for Paul; I’m confident that Paul held onto his enmity with Jerusalem saints, and felt justified in doing so. But he also believed those feelings, however strong they are and however justified they might be, are not an excuse for mistreating or ignoring or pushing away his enemies in their need. In fact, not only that, he actively keeps them close by recognizing and addressing their needs anyway, but not out of a sense that it will somehow change their minds or hearts; their response doesn’t even matter. It’s his response that is the issue.
So perhaps a question for each of us to hold onto in this season before us is, “what would it mean for me to keep my enemies close?” Obviously, the answer should not include anything that simply allows our enemies to harm us, whether physically, spiritually, or emotionally; that’s not sacrificial love, that is self-harm. But what does it mean to keep our enemies close, close enough to discern what their deepest motivations are, what their fears and insecurities and hopes and needs are, what we represent to them that draws their enmity, and what in them triggers our own enmity towards them. What we learn probably won’t turn those enemies into friends, and in some cases it shouldn’t without profound confession, repentance, and atonement first; in Christian theology, reconciliation is always predicated on those important spiritual actions.
But Paul’s whole point here is that we do not need to reconcile with our enemies in order to show them Christian love. And if we can find some ways in which to appropriately keep our enemies close, we might at least learn enough to help us to understand what those motivations are beyond simply a desire to harm us or those we love. And in learning, we might find something we can pray for or act upon that would address a legitimate need they have.
And if nothing else, it will allow us to embody Paul’s image of those who sow bountifully, casting seeds of love so generously around us that some will inevitably take root, whether we expect or even intend them to or not, and they will grow, and bear fruit that can be shared in abundance. And an abundance of love – a generous, even careless showering of love out into the world – is never wrong, and never wasted.