It is said that C.S. Lewis walked in on an academic discussion about the distinctiveness of Christianity. Those present were about to decide that there was nothing that set Christianity apart from any of the other world religions because they were unable to come up with anything that truly marked our faith and set it apart from the rest. So, they put the question to Lewis. He paused only a moment and said, “That’s easy, it’s grace.”
Grace is what makes us who we are as followers of Jesus Christ. Grace is what motivates us to respond with love and joy and hope. Grace is what equips us for living in this world and what allows us to help create a sense of community as we seek out other recipients of God’s grace. It is what we have to offer the world, nothing of our own, but the gifts that come from grace.
That is what Paul says, in a rather convoluted way, in our text from 2 Corinthians. It is Paul’s stewardship campaign sermon. And like all of us, he talks around it in such a way that you just might miss what he is saying.
Paul is taking a collection for the church in Jerusalem. The growth was out in the suburbs, and the downtown church was suffering. (OK, not exactly, but sort of.) And so he went from church to church, asking for mission giving. And the churches responded. Read the first part of chapter eight, and you’ll note that Paul is proud of them for giving; some of them gave, even though they also had struggles.
And now he comes back to Corinth, a church he has struggled with, to be fair – a church with a few problems and some dissension. But he still invites the people to give. (I guess this is a precedent for the practice of taking money donated by less than perfect people!)
He invites them to participate: “Now as you excel in everything-- in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you – so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.” Verse 7 sounds like the classic buttering people up before asking them for something – flattering them before sticking them with the bill.
But that isn’t what he does. The last two words of verse seven are here translated as “generous undertaking.” He wants them to excel, to participate, to enjoy this generous undertaking. But the Greek words are “charis perusseo,” which probably translate better, or more directly, as “abounding grace.” The invitation is not to give but to participate in grace, abounding grace. Paul goes on to explain that this is what Jesus did for us by emptying himself, giving up and giving away that we might know glory, that we might know hope and salvation. We might be able to give grace away because we have received it.
Paul is trying to tell the Corinthians that he is doing them a favor by letting them give. He knows that they, like we, want to know the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. And he says, I know that grace; and not only can you know it; you can live it. Not only can you receive it as a gift, you can activate it by giving it away, by participating in the ripples of grace that go from person to person, community to community and bring transformation and an experience of the kingdom.
He concludes the invitation by reminding us that love needs proof from time to time; love needs action to really be love – at least the love that Christ calls us to, the love that God expresses. And the most famous verse of all reminds us: John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
In the Gospel text from Mark, it is Jesus who is the example of grace or the example of giving what he has. Jesus seizes the moment, responds to the need, and is fully present with those who come to him, even though there is an interruption in the midst of it all.
I wonder if Jesus got exasperated at the interruptions. It seems that time and time again someone comes running up to change his course. I know he is ready to help and to heal and to go where he is most needed, but still. The demands of a crowd wanting something from him must have been like barking dogs getting on his last nerve. It must have been. But you can’t tell it by reading the gospels. There seems to be an infinite supply of patience that he could draw on. OK, maybe one time he seemed a bit short with someone (that’s a story for another time), but for the most part, he was grace incarnate.
Well, duh. Of course the point is, not only him, but we are as well. That’s the hard part – to not see needs, people, opportunities as interruptions, but as grace moments. To give and to receive. To be attentive and to be present. To be alive and real. Like he was. He is.
There is more here, however, than the interruption. There is healing; there is acceptance; there is life out of death; there is hope. There are twelve years of a downward spiral leading to rock bottom; there are twelve years of young life that seem to be vanishing like the morning mist. There is a daughter reclaimed from shame and suffering, and there is a daughter reclaimed from death. There is wonder and there is laughter - both before and after Jesus has come into the picture. And there is a secret.
Ah, the secret. Why does Jesus tell them not to tell when they aren’t going to help telling? When you undo a funeral, someone is going ask some questions. It seems an odd thing for Jesus to do. Surely he knew that they were going to tell. Unless the commandment wasn’t not to tell, but to say who got to do the telling. The only ones in the room were the little girl’s parents and three disciples. Maybe he wanted the story to be hers and not theirs. Maybe Jesus was setting the precedent for witness. Tell your own story, not someone else’s. And tell it with your living rather than your words, at least at first. “Give her something to eat!”
Jairus is a leader of the synagogue, Mark tells us. That gives him some status, that puts a certain aura around him. Jairus is the person others go to; he is a decider, a determiner. He has resources; he has position; he has power. He is used, I am sure, to solving all his own problems. Except this one. “My little daughter,” he says, she’s twelve years old, almost an adult. Marriageable age, ready to move out and move on. But at the point of death, she becomes his little daughter again. “Lay your hands on her,” he asks, bless her, ordain her, set her apart, heal her, he asks. Save her. The word that we translate here is “sozo,” sometimes translated as heal; sometimes translated as save – as in, “are you saved?” “Save her,” he asked, “so that she may be made well and live.” Not just made well but to live also. He asked that Jesus bless her with the fullness of life and give her all that is in store for her, the potential, the goodness, the glory of God. “Let her shine,” he asks. No, he begs, on his knees, face down in the dust, clinging to Jesus’ ankles, begging.
That’s a follower. He hadn’t been a follower before, as far as we know. But he is now. Because he interrupted the interruptible Jesus, and he pleaded for help. We can’t do this alone. We need help. We need Jesus’ help. Lay your hands on us, bless us, bless them, bless all we encounter. Use our hands, use our knees, use whatever it takes to save us, to make us well and alive. Then we can learn to give what we have received, grace upon grace.