Having just celebrated Trinity Sunday, celebrating a doctrine that proclaims God to be a model for community, suggests that, if God exists only in community, then we, who are made in the image of God, really exist only in community, also. St. Paul had much to say about this, particularly to the church at Corinth. Readers would be familiar with the passage in which he compares members of the church to the various parts of the body in 1 Corinthians 12.
As the church, the body of Christ, we are one. We are not individuals, therefore we are not to act as if we are. In the unity of which we are a part, we are called not only to share our gifts, but also, as we read in 2 Corinthians 8, our resources.
Biology gives us a helpful analogy, I think. As one looks at the other life forms on our planet, life forms which function on instinct or according to a naturally programmed pattern, we see that there are a maze of interrelationships among them designed with one aim in mind: survival. There are many examples in which two different organisms live in proximity to one another in a dependent relationship.
There are three broad classes of such dependent relationships among different organisms: parasitism, commensalism and symbiosis.
You would be most familiar with parasitism. Even if you don’t own a dog suffering with fleas, you will undoubtedly have had experience with parasites. In parasitism, the arrangement between two organisms works for the betterment of one, but the detriment of the other. Ticks, fleas, tapeworms, lice, and the fungus that causes your athlete’s foot are all examples of organisms that sustain their own lives by, in some way, sucking the life out of another.
In the second class of relationships, commensalism, there is one benefactor in the relationship while the other party is not affected one way or the other. The remora fish, for example, has a dorsal fin that allows it to cling on and hitch a ride on a larger fish, often a shark. Not only does the remora get a free ride and protection from its enemies, but when the shark goes after its dinner, the remora collects the scraps as they float by, but the shark is unharmed and unbothered by the free-loader on his back.
The cattle egret is another. It can often be seen perched on the back of a Cape buffalo in Africa or on a cow in North America. The egret snatches up the insects which the larger animal rustles up the from the grass as it feeds.
Symbiosis is the type of relationship that benefits both parties in some way, a “win-win situation” as they say in business circles. Lichens are a classic example. They are apparently flowerless plants that you will find living on bare rocks, tree stumps and various other waste places throughout the world. But Lichens are, in fact, not a single organism, but two. They are formed from a cohabitation of algae and fungus. The Algae provides the food for two of them while the fungus absorbs and stores water. Neither would be able to live without the resources of its partner. It is a relationship of necessity. A similar relationship exists between algae and coral, and the clown fish and sea anemone, to name just a few.
We can find the same variation in human relationships. There are those who are parasitic, in essence, stealing the life blood of others. In the late 80’s a Gallup poll indicated that there is an inverse relationship between income and giving: the higher the income the lower the percentage of giving, i.e. those who give the least are the very ones who can afford to give more and vice versa. The households with the highest giving rate, 2.8% of their income, were those whose earnings were below the poverty line. The households with the lowest giving rate, 1.5%, were those with incomes of $50,000 – $75,000, a substantial sum thirty-five years ago. One might say that those who have more are living off the resources of others in a life style that could be described as parasitic. On a global scale, the average Australian consumes about 4 times an average person’s fair share of the earth’s resources at the expense people in the third world and even stealing from our own great grandchildren. Yes, we all are parasites by virtue of our lifestyle.
There also are those, in a form of commensalism, who are left to feed off the crumbs that fall from the table of the wealthy. But Paul calls us to something more akin to symbiosis, yet a symbiosis that extends beyond mutual necessity to desire.
In Corinthians, Paul speaks to the church in glowing terms. In 2 Corinthians 8 we hear, “Now as you excel in everything- faith, in utterance, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in your love for us – see that you excel in this gracious work also.” What is this gracious work? The work of mutual provision, the sharing of gifts and resources for the good of all, so that no one might be found in want.
There are three principles of this Christian symbiosis. First, the resources are available to supply the need. We are not asked to share what we do not have, but rather to share out of the abundance we already have.
Second, no one is asked to do without. Paul writes, “I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened.” (8:13)
In the next verse Paul states the third principle: equality is the goal. “But that as a matter of equality, your abundance at the present time should supply their want.” (8:14)
Finally Paul hopes that members of the Christian community will embrace these principles in their hearts instead of their law books, i.e. not only to do, but to desire to do.
Paul’s hope is a realistic one. The miracle of sharing is that it is never a one-way proposition. Find someone who has given, and you will also find, in that same individual, someone who has received. Faith is the ingredient necessary for people to discover this miracle; to risk sharing their talents, gifts, resource and, indeed, who they are in order to discover who they are.
A preacher announced, “ I have good news and bad news. The good news is that we have enough money to meet all the church’s expenses for the next year. The bad news is that it is all in your bank accounts.”
This preacher might have gone on to say that there are enough resources on the earth to provide for all the world’s poor, too, but guess where it is?