We're two weeks into the Advent Conspiracy and it's beginning to raise some profound issues for people - which was the intention. As ever when issues are raised, there's a danger that we get side-tracked into questions that have no simple answers, leading to the temptation is to say that there's nothing to be done.
So, for example, when I raised the question last week that how we spend our money shows where our hearts are, that the truth of our worship is seen in our till receipts, I got a number of questions asking about what I felt this meant for the nature of advanced industrial capitalism. Fascinating though such conversations would inevitably be, they can be a way of avoiding the more direct question of what we'll actually spend in the run up to Christmas.
Last night we pursued this topic looking at what Paul says to the Corinthians about the use of any surplus they have. 2 Corinthians 8:1-15 is the beginning of Paul's appeal to the church to join in his collection for the saints in Jerusalem, suffering acutely from the effects of famine and recession.
The principle that Paul works up to is equality, used twice in v14. It seems that Paul here states a key principle of how economic relationships should be organised among God's people. Justin Meggitt argues that this verse is one a key one in understanding the mutualism that was a hallmark of early Christian thinking about the use of money.
So what does it have to do with Christmas? simply this. Paul doesn't come out with the principle immediately. Instead he talks about the grace of God. We will never grasp how God expects us to use money until we are seized and overwhelmed by God's grace. This is why he talks about the experience of the Macedonians - those believers in Thessalonica and Philippi - being gripped by God's grace in such a way that they wanted to ensure that their surplus was used to bring grace to others.
It's not only the Macedonians who are an example here. The Messiah, Jesus himself, is too. He operated out of a grace that meant that though he was rich, he chose to become poor in order that we might be enriched (v9). However we understand this key Christmas text in terms of salvation and forgiveness, new life and rescue, it's context demands that we see it in economic terms as well. Jesus is another example of mutualism in operation. Perhaps the Macedonians had grasped this through what Paul wrote to them in Philippians 2:5-11, 3:7-16.
And so grace should be directing our planning in two areas. The first is purchasing. What do we buy? How do we spend to show our love for friends and family and our commitment to justice and equality across the world? And what's grace got to do with it? And the second is partying. Who do we celebrate with at Christmas? The temptation is to spend money celebrating with friends and family. But the first Christmas was full of celebration with strangers, people invited to share the joy of the birth of Jesus who were unknown to his immediate family.
When I'd preached this at our earlier service yesterday afternoon, I had a conversation with a woman who hates Christmas because she doesn't have anyone to celebrate with and often spends it on her own. Indeed sometimes she prefers that because it's not enough to just invite people to share with us, we also have to think about how we plan our celebration. This woman said that she'd been invited to join a family at Christmas and she felt like a gooseberry, not knowing the in-jokes or family history that dominated the conversation.
There's no easy answer to any of this. I guess a starting point is that we need to pray for an overwhelming experience of grace that will help us to think practically about we use our disposable income to show the reality of Christmas.