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A Gift Exceeding Every Debt

1 Corinthians 15:1 Now I should remind you, siblings, of the good news[b] that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and God’s grace towards me has not been in vain.

Easter is a gift. And I don’t just mean, it’s something I like or that makes me happy. The story of Jesus’ resurrection is something that we give to each other and receive from each other. It’s probably not something we would’ve made up on our own. Sure, in the ancient world there were lots of myths of people or gods dying and rising, but believe it or not, most people throughout history have been perfectly capable of treating those stories as myths. You start to sound a little kooky when you say, “No, this story actually happened, and I’m gonna organize my life around it.”

But that’s why Easter has to be a gift, because it’s something we have to receive from each other, it’s a kind of good news we probably wouldn’t allow ourselves unless someone else handed it to us. Because we’ve also been handed a lot of other ideas about how this world really works and how we get along in a world like this, and so there are certain hopes, certain desires, certain forms of love and kindness that we’re not supposed to allow ourselves, because we’ve received these other stories that call themselves more “real” or “practical” or “common sense.”

But in this story, Paul’s not trying get us to believe in magic; he’s trying to hand us a different sense of what we hold in common, and how we can hold things in common because we are held by God’s love. This is the earliest Easter story in the New Testament, and in it, Paul emphasizes that it’s a story we hold together, that we share with each other, as we share our lives together, as we share funds together, as we share food together. The language here echoes the language a few chapters earlier when Paul talks about the Lord’s Supper or the “Eucharist,” which is just the Greek word for “good gift.” Just as we hand each other the bread and the cup and say, “The Body of Christ broken for you,” so also we tell each other the story of the resurrection and say “The Body of Christ, risen for you.”

The context in which we tell a story, the position of the storyteller, has a lot to do with the kind of  meaning we can glean from a story, and the context here, the writer’s position here is one of mutuality, of communal interconnection, of giving and receiving. Paul’s telling a story of Jesus’ resurrected Body in the community called “the body of Christ,” which shows (or doesn’t show) the truth of the resurrection through the way we care for each other. That gathered body is as important as the story itself, or really that context is another way of telling that story.

Elsewhere, Paul says that the story of Jesus is a story of new creation. Which I find interesting because the original stories of creation were also stories of mutuality and interconnectedness and interdependence—or to sum all of that up, Love. Our stories of creation are about God making the world and saying, this is all really good, so be fruitful and multiply, play and enjoy and share. Creation is this web of giving and receiving between us and other creatures and our environment.

This planet literally makes food for us. Most historians date the origins of agriculture to around 11,000 BC and the beginning “civilization” doesn’t emerge for several millennia after that, but the earliest remains of Homo sapiens seem to be about 300,000 years old. For literally hundreds of thousands of years, our species lived mostly off what the earth produced without us trying to figure out mass production. I’m not saying that ancient peoples lived idyllic lives or that we should just quit our jobs and go gather berries in Duke forest, but also maybe its useful to keep these timelines in mind when people are talking about, say, Amazon or the health insurance industry and they say, “Well it’s just kind of the way things are.” But no, that’s not the way things are, that’s the way we organized things to be about 2 seconds ago on the scale of history.

And our original myth of how things changed is a story about someone taking fruit from a tree, seizing as property what God might’ve given later as a gift. And then that family’s children commit the first act of murder, when one of their sons is jealous of the other’s property. When God asks where his brother is, he answers, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And the earth itself cried out. Connection broken. Dependency, rejected. Gifts withheld. And from those cracks, all of creation shatters. People take more and more, until the first empires emerge and reorganize creation into a world, into networks of extraction where a small number of rulers get wealthy on the labor of the many, like how the pharaoh’s build their monuments on the backs of Hebrew slaves.

This whole shattering, from the grand extractive projects of empires to the tiniest little fissures in our souls that make us look at creation and say “Mine!,” is what we mean we talk about “sin.” Sin isn’t just the bad things you do, the choices you make; Sin is the whole organization of creation into a world like this, so that gifts become property and all the pain and cruelty we inflict on each other and ourselves seem inevitable and necessary.

Sin takes the gifts of creation and offers them only as debts that we have to pay back. Where God says, “It’s very good, be fruitful and multiply, there’s enough for everyone to share,” Sin says “Somebody’s gotta pay for that.” Under sin’s regime, there aren’t enough gifts to go around, and even the gifts you do receive aren’t really gifts, because they put you in the giver’s debt. Sin translates our needs and or obligations to each other from opportunities for connection and love into new markets for further extraction.

If “somebody’s gotta pay for that” then we either have to bear the costs, or if we don’t want that then we have to outsource those costs, and in our economy they get outsourced to workers and people of color and people all around the world who pay the price for Western “safety.” Because we live in a world where somebody’s gotta pay. Durham solid waste workers want a wage that actually lets them live in Durham? Who’s gonna pay for that? Never mind that their low wages pay for executive bonuses! Durham teachers and classified staff want the raises they were promised? Who’s gonna pay for that? Never mind that those low wages pay for severance packages and bloated salaries at the top.

And so not only do we not get what we need without spending reserves we don’t really have; but we’re cut off from each other in the process, too. In that alienation there is so much shame. When that sense of indebtedness, that gnawing sense that “somebody’s gotta pay for that” becomes your spirituality, your understanding of what’s real, then you have to live your whole life with a calculator of credit and debt in the back of your mind. How many of us live our lives thinking “Well, I’m gonna have to pay for that later…with interest?” How many of us haven’t let ourselves rest because we know the work will pile up and we’ll have to pay for our rest later? We’ve been taught that’s the price of laziness. This is how diet culture works, too. Enjoy that meal or that dessert? You’ll pay for it later, you’ll work it off later. This is how a lot of parenting discourse works too. Let your kids watch an extra movie because you need to get some laundry done or some emails sent? You’ll pay for it later when they become “iPad kids.” You get that medical procedure or that medicine, and you know the bill is coming—even if insurance pays for it, you’re gonna pay for that with premiums and deductibles and your time reminding them of what they’re supposed to pay for. Or at the same time, maybe you’ve been “good,” maybe you get a little bit of credit by foregoing, by limiting, by suffering. I think a lot of what psychologists talk about as shame is really a sense of indebtedness, a sense that “someone’s gonna have to pay for that.”

This is the situation, the world, that Jesus comes into. In these stories we’ve received, Jesus casts out those voices of shame. Jesus multiplies fish and bread without paying for it. Jesus tells tax collectors to pay back what they’ve taken threefold without explaining how that math works out. When Mary breaks a jar of perfume for him and Judas chastises them both, Jesus says “No, you’ve got it wrong, there’s more where this came from.” Jesus goes around giving gifts like debts don’t matter, he teaches us to pray, “God forgive our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” And when the Empire that holds all those debts comes to him and says, “Someone’s gotta pay for that,” Jesus let’s them take him on our behalf. That’s what it means when Paul says, he died “for our sins.” It means he dives into the very depths of the contradictions of this world, he follows things to their logical conclusion, he meets us in our indebtedness, in the loneliness and alienation of the grave, of hell itself.

The empire and the accuser come to collect, and they think that will discipline Jesus’ gifts. They think there’s only so much to go around, they’ve organized their whole system around us thinking that’s true. And so the cross is supposed to be their triumph, the place where they show once and for all that there is no other world than the one they’ve made and no other kind of life than one organized around debt and shame.

But what they didn’t anticipate, what they never could’ve imagined, was that God’s love is greater even than death. You cannot sever an infinite number of connections, you cannot encompass eternity. And so in the very place where the empire meant to remind us that their world is the only world, Jesus gets up anyway, and Paul tells us that he appears to the disciples and then more disciples and then a crowd of 500 and then even to Paul who had tried to keep their good news from spreading.

The news of the resurrection spreads as people share it with one another, and not just with words but in the kinds of communities they formed. In those communities, they practiced holding all things in common. They sold their properties and shared the proceeds with each other. And that’s not just a cute economic, social justice flavored project to show how nice they are now because the resurrection happened. They believed that the resurrection was the first fruits of a whole new creation, the undoing of the world and its empires. The resurrection rolls back the whole unfurling process of alienation and indebtedness so that now when the Empires say, “Let’s build a tower to conquer heaven and our neighbors, we say, let’s make sure everyone has what they need.” When Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We say, “Yes, you always were.” And Adam and Eve hold each other instead of grasping for the fruit on the tree.

Paying off debts, literal debts and the spiritual sense of shame hanging over our heads, is what the reality of grace looks like in our midst. It’s how we share good news with each other, it’s how we practice giving each other gifts. The goal here isn’t to feel righteous, or to show that the system really works as long as we’re philanthropic enough. The goal, the reality of what we’re trying to practice here together by the power of the spirit, is to transfigure our needs and our worries and the places where our individuality and self-sufficiency break down into places of communion, where our vulnerabilities and our obligations to each other open up on love and intimacy and renewal rather than competition and shame.

Friends, that’s why I’m so excited to share with you this morning that the $36,000 we raised for RIP Medical Debt this fall was able to cancel $7.7 million for more than 2,700 recipients around the Triangle, but mostly in Durham. That’s 2,700 people who don’t have to worry about paying for their medical bills while they’re recovering. That’s 2,700 people who don’t have to choose between groceries and collections. That’s 2,700 people who know that someone out there they’ve never met cares about them.

That doesn’t mean everything’s OK, or that our medical system is working. But it’s a sign that other ways of life are possible. That’s a real, tangible, material work of grace that’s shown love to our neighbors where before there was only debt.

And so friends, we share that good news with each other, the good news of a different order, a more gracious practice, the good news of new creation through Jesus’ resurrection. We tell the story of our Lord who entered into the depths with us to make a way through those depths to another kind of life. We hand that good news on to each other, giving as we’re able and receiving as we have need, feeding each other here at the table, because the gift of God’s love that we hand on to each other exceeds every debt. Amen.

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