On Saturday January 21st Professor John Barclay, who is Professor of Divinity at Durham University gave a Theology lecture about Paul on grace. The session began with praise and the collect for the following Sunday. We then sang my favourite hymn, ‘And can it be’ by Charles Wesley. Prayers of holiness were then said. John’s topic was ‘The Doctrine of Grace in the life of St Paul; Paul and the Gift.’ John teaches undergraduate students theology and religion.
He talked about gifts. Paul’s theology of Grace – ‘Charis’=gift in Greek. Gifts are different in different cultures. Our understanding of gifts in the West is different from Paul’s cultural understanding. The notion of reciprocity means do we need to give something in return for a gift received? What makes a gift a gift? Gifts can be taking a child to school or shopping for an elderly person. A gift is life enhancing bring benefit to those who receive it. A gift is given of our free will. For a gift to be good the person giving it needs to have personal knowledge of the recipient, so that it adds something of value to that person. If a bank makes a loan and the loan is not repaid then that leads to a court case. However a gift to a son or daughter is not expected to be returned; giving something back is a modern western notion. In most cultures gifts are given to cement a relationship. An open ended gift can be given to begin a reciprocal relationship, but that does expect a return gift in the hope of a two way relationship. A bribe puts a person under obligation and the briber has power over the recipient of the bribe. Should gifts have strings attached? We often say that there is no such thing as a free lunch in our culture! If a gift is binding us into a relationship then there would be the hope that something is given in return. In most cultures those people giving gifts do expect returns.
Deep Christian theology is that Jesus emptied himself of all but love; an ideal example for us. Does God giving to us expect a return? Yes, God gives himself away to create a relationship with us. Paul says we have an obligation to give thanks to God in response to his gift of Jesus. It is selfish in a relationship if one partner does all the giving and the other all the receiving. If a recipient can’t give anything back, the relationship can be humiliating for the recipient. A person who was supported by the church for 3 years felt humiliated as he or she could give nothing back. Then we are told to love our enemies and our later reward will be great. We are told to give and it will be given to you. However in Matthew 5 we are told to give alms secretly, not publically as our Father in heaven will reward us. God will reward them in the future.
In Jewish Theology in the Old Testament we meet the problem of the poor who can give nothing back and therefore people might not see the point of giving to them. The prodigal son was so poor, having wasted his inheritance, that no one gave him anything. However God can return it to you, if the poor people cannot. In Proverbs it stated that giving to the poor would bring returns in life to come. We as Protestants feel uncomfortable with what sounds like a deal with God.
Paul recognised that human relationships were reciprocal. Love does not seek its own way but puts the interests of the other before its own way. Paul expected his relationship in church to be of mutual benefit. Corinth had a problem with giving money as they felt the gospel is not a gift. Philippians gave thanks for the gift of the gospel from Paul and gave money in return to support those in need in Jerusalem. Paul expected a reciprocal relationship in that as he contributed to the church they should contribute to his fundraising for Jerusalem. The surplus of each would meet the lack of the other.
We should have relationships in the church where everyone badly needs each other. No one is autonomous or truly self sufficient. When a gift is given and not reciprocated there is an element of self sufficiency and a desire for independence rather than recognising our interdependence. Paul’s biggest project was to make a collection to send to Jerusalem. That desire caused enormous difficulties especially for the Corinthian Church. They lost interest in giving to the collection for Jerusalem and did not see the need to do so. Paul found that response discouraging as the church at Corinth excelled in resources, Charis, gifts and grace. They could easily have given from their wealth to poor Jerusalem. God had given to Corinth, so they could give to meet the needs in Jerusalem. Gifts can create hierarchies of power; we can feel obliged to give something back. If we give something, which is God’s we owe something to God. God is the source of the gift not those who give it. Paul wanted a relationship for giver and receiver. Giving is participating in the generosity of God. Jesus gave away his riches and became poor for our sakes. What wealth does God want us to have? Christian giving is not just following the example of Jesus but entering into the flow of divine generosity. We can receive the generosity of God through our neighbour. Christians are often good at giving gifts but not at receiving gifts.
What happens when we cannot be the giver? It is not selfish if we at times need to receive rather than give. Modern individualism wants to be self-sufficient and does not like to be dependent, but we are created to be interdependent. People might not want their neighbours to cut their hedge or they would have to do something in exchange. One way to reciprocate is to help in a crisis, such as the refugee situation; Aids or in food banks. Imagine relationships of mutual benefit. We could set the tone by the way we conduct our lives, such as letting people into traffic or giving blood. We can give time on a voluntary basis in general reciprocity to improve the community. Russians did not accept the charitable gift of an ambulance, as they felt it was a patronising and humiliating gift. Aid in Africa disempowered the communities when the people had not been properly trained to use equipment; they would have to wait for Westerners to fix it, before it can be used! Relationships which build up people’s skills enable projects to keep going. The poor survive when they support each other; friends and family help each other. Let us learn to be a truly supportive part of our communities and our church fellowships and learn to follow Jesus in accepting, loving and serving those in need around us.