This is a sermon for the third Sunday after Pentecost. The Scripture it references is 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:5.
Long distance relationships are difficult. These days, with the internet and skype and all of that, it’s not quite so bad; but I can remember when I was little, and writing a letter to family members in another country meant it would take weeks to arrive; and that was if you had a “by air mail” sticker on it! I know some of you have had similar experiences.
Ministry – like any other relationship – is difficult at long distance, too. In the last parish where I worked, there was one vicar for two parishes; and this meant his effective absence from a lot that was important in the lives of each of those communities; and that was keenly felt as a problem.
How much harder then for St. Paul! Absent for years on end from congregations he’d started, communicating by letter – in the days before any sort of postal service, when you had to try to convince someone going in the right direction to carry it for you, and then hope and pray that your letter would eventually get there – it’s not surprising that sometimes his relationships with these churches became a bit strained.
That seems to be one of the live issues in his second letter to the Corinthians, which we read part of today. Paul’s been away for some time, other teachers have been involved with the Christian community in Corinth, and the relationship with Paul is being tested. The bit of the letter that we’ve read this morning seems to be part of a lengthy defence of what he taught and the way he’s acted.
That’s helpful to bear in mind because otherwise it can be hard to understand why he makes the arguments he does. And the bit that this morning’s reading hangs on is this sentence: “Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”
It’s not about me, Paul’s saying. I didn’t do and say what I did for my sake, because of ego or the desire for power or what have you. But everything in my ministry has been for your sake. And, through you, for the sake of all the people to whom you’re going to proclaim the gospel, and whom you are going to introduce into relationship with God.
That’s what matters. That’s where Paul’s focus is; not on the leadership squabbles or whatever else was going on in Corinth, but on the big picture of the church’s mission. Jesus Christ – or at least this is the way Paul presents it – has opened the doors of grace to everyone, so that grace should extend to more and more people.
And it does so as we interact with them in a way which makes God’s hospitality and welcome real and concrete in each person’s lived experience. Rowan Williams put it this way: “The one thing you know for certain about your tiresome, annoying, disobedient, disedifying fellow Christians is that God has welcomed them; that becomes your challenge.” Paul welcomed the Corinthians into a community of belonging to God, and their challenge now – and it remains our challenge as well – is to extend that grace-filled welcome to more and more people.
What has happened in the events of Jesus’ death and rising is that the social barriers between us have been destroyed; people who were far off have turned up next door (or sometimes even closer). We need to make our peace with that, each of us within our own heart, and then between ourselves, and looking outward, down the street and around the suburb, at all the people who don’t know it yet.
Now here’s something uncomfortable that I’ve observed. We as Christians like this as a big idea, but we are not always so comfortable with it in practice. The idea of a big inclusive community is a great thing – because all of us want to belong – but when we need to extend that to people we find difficult, we struggle. I notice this particularly with some kinds of mental illness, actually. I’m not sure why; is it that we lack confidence in dealing with people we find volatile or whose sense of reality is at odds with ours? But whatever it is, we need to identify it and get over it. In a country where one in five people have experienced mental illness in the last year, we can’t afford to overlook their need to belong, and our responsibility to provide a community where they can truly belong.
Let me give you some examples. It’s very common for people with mental illness to be told that their mental illness either means they’re not really a Christian, or that they’re not a good Christian. That is false. Our job as a church is to surround people with mental illness with love, warmth, understanding, acceptance and friendship; for who they are right now, without any expectation that this will somehow “fix” them. We should neither criticise nor judge for the things they find difficult, even if they’re things that we ourselves take for granted.
More than that, I remember a friend of mine who goes through bouts of depression, saying to me once that when someone in the church is physically sick, people turn up with casseroles; but that when she’s bed-bound with depression, nobody brings her a casserole. She was trying to point out to me that we tend not to do a good job of caring for people with these kinds of struggles.
Caring here starts with understanding. How much do we have a good working understanding of anxiety disorders, of depression, of substance use disorders? Do we know how to care for people coping with these things? Do we have a plan for support that we can put into action as it’s needed? Is our theology of illness and the way we relate our wellbeing and our faith one which supports or undermines people with mental illness? Do we even know the difference?
I’ve made an extended example of mental illness because it seems to me to be one of the most consistent existing social barriers in our community. I do want us, as a parish, to think about whether someone with anxiety or depression would find it easy to belong here. But it’s an illustration of a bigger principle, the one Paul was on about in his letter to the Corinthians: grace is supposed to extend to more and more people. And that commits us to relationship with more and more people. We mush each look out for one another. We can’t do effective Christian community at long-distance, or indeed at arm’s-length.
And when we really get that, when we really live it, then we’ll be the kind of church that Paul was trying to help the Corinthians be, where more and more people know grace and are able to give thanks to God.