This sermon was preached for the ordinands and reader students of ERMC (Eastern Region Ministry Course), 10th June 2018 for their last residential weekend before leaving to be ordained and licensed. The text for the sermon was 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
I wonder if you’ve ever opened a present, lovingly offered, only to look at it and think secretly ‘Thanks….I think!’ Whether it’s a book you’ve already got on your shelves, a shirt three sizes too big, or a box of chocolates you’re allergic to, there is no getting away from the fact that gift giving is one of those human experiences which should be a source of real pleasure, but often is as fraught with stress and difficulty as it is blessed with joyful generosity. Gifts are problematic for the precisely the same reason that they are joyful: because they are an indicator of the relationship between two people. ‘Wow, I love that author!’ ‘You’ve got such an eye for the colours that look good on me’ ‘You know that’s my favourite chocolate shop’ could just as easily be ‘I was telling you about that book just the other week! Weren’t you listening?’ ‘Do I really look that big to you?’ ‘Have you honestly never realised I’m lactose intolerant?’
The difference between a great gift and a terrible gift is nothing to do with money; it’s the difference between an attentive relationship and a careless one.
Most gifts that are for us are also about us; they say something about who we are as people.
Then there are the gifts we open and say ‘thanks…I think!’ for a different reason. These are the times we open a gift and simply don’t know what we are looking at. We might get lots of gifts like these as children, gifts to improve and educate us, complicated-looking scientific things we’ve never used before, things like microscopes which will enable us to trace the outline of every vein in a leaf, or books by authors of whom we haven’t yet heard, but who, our older relatives know we will come to love dearly.
These are gifts that are for us, but not about us; not us as we are right now, anyway. These are gifts that for us, and are about who we will become.
Maybe, like me, you loved C. S. Lewis’s ‘Narnia’ books in your younger years. There’s a moment in ‘The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe’ when Lucy, Susan, and Peter (but sadly, not Edmund) have every child’s dream come true; they meet Father Christmas, who comes riding on his sleigh to proclaim that the curse of the White Witch over Narnia, a land where it is always winter and never Christmas, is finally being broken. To each of the children Father Christmas gives a gift; but these are not like the kind of gifts that the Pevensie children would have wished for when they were back in London; these gifts are not toys, they are tools for battle. Peter gets a sword and shield, Susan a bow and arrow and a horn to be summon help, and Lucy a dagger, and a bottle of magic cordial, a drop or two of which will cure any injury or illness.
These mysterious gifts are for the children, but they are not about them, not about them as they are right then, anyway; they are not what the children would choose, or maybe even be willing to receive, if they had come from anyone other than Father Christmas. ‘Thanks…I think!’ These gifts are about who they will become, very swiftly, and not just even that; these gifts are about other people: the people for whom the children will fight in battle, whom the children will protect and heal. These gifts will be spent in the service of others, and as the gifts are spent, the true identity of the Pevensies will emerge; kings and queens of Narnia. As the children expend their gifts, they will themselves more fully than they could ever dreamt.
Now we live in a society which conflates things that are for us with things that are about us. In our assertion of the self in an increasingly hyper-individualistic Zeitgeist, the only things we recognise as being for us are those which we recognise as being about us. This leads to two, perfectly balanced, pitfalls. The first is the ‘you do you’ culture of entitlement that prevents us from really connecting with others: ‘It’s all about me…because I’m worth it.’
The second is the shadow side: the self-negation, self-harm, anxiety, loneliness and even suicide; the most tragic defining characteristics of the ‘you do you’ generation. If we only recognise the things that are about us as the things that are for us, then it’s either ‘all about me’ or there’s nothing at all for us.
So we need to remember there is a type of gift that is for us but not about us, not us as we are right now, anyway, and these are the most wonderful gifts of all because these are gifts about who we will become and whom we will help as we understand the gift more fully. These are the gifts that we really need; these are the gifts that the world really needs.
In the reading we heard from 2 Corinthians, Paul reflects on his experiences as apostle to the Gentiles. I wonder if he realised what kind of gift he was receiving when he responded to the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Can any of us really know what we are letting ourselves in for when we say ‘yes’ to the call of God?
Paul has been recalling the hardships, the persecution, and the punishments that he has lived through, likening himself to a jar of clay out of which the treasure of God’s life streams forth. Then he says, in today’s reading, ‘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.’
In other words, this has all been for you, you complicated and compromised Christians in Corinth who can’t seem to stop splitting up, offending each other and falling into temptation – all that I’ve been through is for you – but it’s not about you.
It’s not because you are sadists who enjoy the sight of a Jewish citizen of Rome getting the forty lashes minus one; it’s not because you need the high drama of shipwreck to keep you interested.
This is all for you, but it’s not about you. It’s about grace; grace extending to more and more people, grace that leads to thanksgiving, grace that leads to the glory of God. This is far bigger and more wonderful than you, you as you are right now with your petty squabbles and your sexual sins. This is about people whose faces you’ve never seen and whose names you’ll never know; this is about those people responding to the message of grace that is the Christian Gospel down the ages all the way to us here in Ditchingham, so that the light of God’s glory will shine out into this dark world, brighter and brighter until the day comes when there will be no need of a lamp, because the Lord God will be their light.
So for those of you who will be leaving us today to receive the mysterious gifts of ordination and licensing, I’d like to say to you: the gifts you’ll receive very soon are for you, but they are not about you, not you as you are right now, anyway. These are gifts are about who you will become, gifts that will take time to unpack and explore. As you do so, you’ll find that these are gifts to be spent not on yourself but in the service of others; in fact, maybe it’s only in the using of your gifts to fight for, protect and heal others that you’ll come to understand their true value and purpose.
And for those of you who will have a quick breather before being back here for another year of classes, residentials, placements and so on, I’d like to say: all this is for you, but it’s not about you, either, not you as you are right now, anyway. The dubious gifts of essay assignments and reading lists probably aren’t the gifts that you’d have chosen, not if anyone other than God himself had given them to you; but these are gifts that, as you unpack and play with them, will show you more about the person you are becoming as you grow in grace than you could have dreamt.
So what are these gifts? Well, they can be neatly tied up in two words from today’s reading: grace and glory. It’s worth noticing that the Greek word for ‘grace’ also means ‘gift.’ It’s the word that is used both in John’s Prologue as he describes Jesus, full of grace and truth, and in Paul’s letters, in a very slightly different way, when he talks about the spiritual gifts which God gives to grow the church.
The quickest way of understanding grace is to realise that salvation, faith, life itself – it’s all a gift from the God who didn’t have to create us, who isn’t obliged to love us and who didn’t need to call us but did so anyway because God is love and the nature of love is to give, and give, and go on giving. This grace-gift is what enables us to give of ourselves to others in the service of Christ. This is a gift which we can only give to others if we have first received it ourselves, and because we are just as sinful as the Corinthians – some things never change – we need to keep on receiving, so that we can go on giving it.
It doesn’t just stop there. The second word, glory, is also a gift that deserves careful unpacking. Glory in the Bible is most often associated with light. Here in 2 Corinthians, though, Paul talks about the ‘weight of glory.’ The word he uses for ‘weight’ is more often translated ‘burden.’ It’s the same word that is used in the parable of the workers in the vineyard who bore the ‘burden of the day’. That doesn’t sound like a great gift; light is much nicer than weight, surely?
I was fascinated to learn that although, in physical terms, light doesn’t weigh anything – it has no mass – but it carries momentum relative to its frequency, which means that light behaves as though it does weigh something; the faster the frequency, the brighter the light, the heavier it feels. We can only speculate on the weight of God, whose light is beyond the sight of any person, a light so strong that Moses could only cope with seeing the back of God as he passed by in all his glory, and Ezekiel fell to his face, dazzled by the light of the glory of God.
Maybe we can only bear a little of this weight; maybe this is a gift that it takes a lifetime to unpack. If grace is the gift for the here and now, to help us know God’s presence in this world, then glory is the gift that awaits us in heaven, when we will see him not from the back but, as the writer of 1 John says, face to face. Glory imprints upon our eyes the truth that we are not for this earth alone; we are destined for eternity.
In this world God gives us glimpses of glory. Ordination and licensings are a gift of grace, and a glimpse of glory. The gifts that you will receive in your ordinations and licensing, and the gifts that you receive along the way towards ordination and licensing are for you, but they are not about you, not as you are now, anyway. These are gifts about who you will become, and about others too; whom you will serve in Christ’s name; these gifts are about revealing something of the glory of God, about bringing a little bit of heaven down to earth; these gifts are ultimately about heaven itself. ‘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.’ Amen.