Paul: On Saying Yes and Saying No

By Peter Gathje

Published in Hospitality, October 2003, vol. 22, no. 10

(An introduction to the on-line version by Ed Loring, Partner, The Open Door Community.)

The following Reflection was preached at the Open Door Community by Dr. Pete Gathje. Pete has written a history of the Open Door Community entitled Christ Comes in the Stranger’s Guise. He is the editor of A Work of Hospitality: The Open Door Reader, 1982-2002, he is a regular contributor to our newspaper, Hospitality, and he often visits and works with the Open Door Community. As Professor of Theology at Memphis Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tennessee, Pete is an activist scholar who brings the streets, the classroom and the sanctuary together.

The following reflection speaks in an amazing way to a central dilemma of our lives in our House of Hospitality as we seek to serve the oppressed. Called to love and serve without counting the cost, we are faced daily with saying “no” to our friends, even to Jesus who comes to us in the needs and cry of the poor. This painful place in which we stand, caught between God’s “yes and no” is interpreted and elucidated with power by Pete Gathje. Please read this reflection and pray for us all.

(Editor’s note: On August 3, 2003, Pete Gathje delivered the following sermon at Open Door worship. Pete, a professor at the Christian Brothers University in Memphis, TN, was a Resident Volunteer at the Open Door Community this past summer.)

Do I make my plans according to ordinary human standards, ready to say “Yes, yes” and “No, no” at the same time? As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been “Yes and No.” For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus, Timothy and I, was not “Yes and No”; but in him it is always “Yes.” For in him every one of God’s promises is a “Yes.” For this reason it is through him that we say the “Amen” to the glory of God. But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us, by putting her seal on us and giving us her Spirit in our hearts as a first installment. (2 Corinthians 1:17b-22)

I came to dwell upon this passage from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians as I reflected on my life at the Open Door this summer.

Paul’s opening question from this letter seemed to raise an issue I’ve struggled with here, and some of us in the community have discussed from time to time. “Do I make my plans according to ordinary human standards, ready to say ‘Yes, yes’ and ‘No, no’ at the same time?”

Paul’s question emerged from the on-again off-again relationship he had with the church in Corinth. The relationship between Paul and the members of this church was sometimes warm and friendly, and sometimes confrontational or angry. It was a relationship that was sometimes “yes” and sometimes “no.”

In this specific instance, Paul had changed his travel plans. He had said to the church in Corinth, “Yes, I’m coming to visit you” and then he had said “No, I’m not coming to see you.” So, once again Paul seemed to confirm what members of the church at Corinth believed about Paul. He was saying, “Yes, yes” and “No, no” at the same time.

Thus Paul was trying to address the criticism that there were contradictions between what he said and what he did. Was he a person who talked out of both sides of his mouth, saying “yes” or “no” according to the convenience of ordinary human standards? Did his words reflect his own preferences rather than a consistent commitment to practice the faith of Jesus Christ?

I’ve heard similar questions while I’ve lived here at the Open Door. Like Paul, those of us at the Open Door sometimes say “yes” and sometimes “no.” We say “yes” to serving breakfast or the soup kitchen, or offering showers or clothes, or meeting other needs on certain days and at certain times. But on other days and at other times we say “no.” And the direct responsibility for saying “no” largely falls on the person who is “working the door” or is on “house duty.”

So this summer besides often saying “yes,” I have sometimes said “no.”

“No, I can’t let you in for a shower because the shower list is already filled up.”

“No, I can’t let you in because we’re done serving breakfast.”

“No, I can’t let you in because we’re done serving soup kitchen.”

“No, I can’t give you a sandwich now because we give those out at 7:00 p.m.”

Are these “no’s” according to ordinary human standards-just our preferences for when we want to say “yes” or “no”?

For those of you who hear these “no’s” it may seem like we’re arbitrary in setting days and times for which the Open Door is open or closed and says “yes” or “no” to your needs. I’m not surprised then, that sometimes when I say “no,” I get an angry response or questions related to Paul’s question: “Do I make my plans according to ordinary human standards, ready to say ‘Yes, yes’ and ‘No, no’ at the same time?”

People who hear the “no’s” point to contradictions in our lives here:” Why is the Open Door closed?”

“Isn’t this supposed to be a place where you serve people?”

“I know you’ve got food in there, why won’t you give me a sandwich?”

“Why won’t you let me in?”

“This is the third time I’ve missed getting on the list for showers. Can’t you just add one more?”

“All I want is a t-shirt. Is that too much to ask?”

“You aren’t much of a Christian, are you?”

These questions are sometimes laced with a few well-chosen swear words, making hard questions all the more difficult to hear. And no matter how many times I had to say it, I never relished having to say “no.” What I’ve come to realize is that just as with Paul’s situation, the questions or anger directed toward me or other community members comes out of our alternating between “yes” and “no.”

If we at the Open Door always said “yes,” no one would ever point to contradictions and so question our commitment or our consistency. Yet, if we always said “no” we wouldn’t be here.

But because we say “yes” and we say “no,” Paul’s question lingers for us who live or volunteer here.” Do I make my plans according to ordinary human standards, ready to say ‘Yes, yes’ and ‘No, no’ at the same time?” What does it mean for our lives of Christian discipleship, to say “no” while also saying “yes”?

How might Paul’s relationship with and what he wrote to the church at Corinth help us ponder those questions and seek response to them in our lives of faith? Let me suggest at this point that Paul’s “no’s” to the church in Corinth reflected two elements in his relationship with that church. I’ll discuss a third type of “no” later.

First, his “no” reflected his human limitations. Paul was a limited human being. He couldn’t do everything. He didn’t know everything. He couldn’t be everywhere at once. His travel plans could change due to weather, or unforeseen events like imprisonment or sickness, or because other needs arose to which he had to attend.

Second, Paul’s “no” reflected his sin and that of his society. Paul, like other human beings, was a sinner. Paul wasn’t perfect. He could be short-tempered, self-centered, self-important, and dismissive of others’ concerns. Too, Paul shared in many of the sinful cultural assumptions of his society and struggled with them. Sometimes he, like other human beings, was complicit in the sin of his society.

Like Paul, many of our “no’s” here simply express our human limitations. It is humanly impossible for us to always be open and serving. We need Sabbath. We need rest. We need time for prayer. We need time to relax and to sleep. If we didn’t accept and live within these human limitations, we could not for very long meet any of the needs of the people who come to our door.

But like Paul, beyond our being limited as human beings, some of our “no’s” also reflect our sin. Sometimes we say “no” when we should have said “yes.” We make errors in judgment because our anger or fears, or our own hurt, blur our moral vision. Sometimes we might say “no” because in our pride we tried to deny our human limitations and now just can’t face another person’s need. Sometimes we become short-tempered, or our hearts get hardened in the face of repeated requests for help.

Like Paul, in addition to our limitations and individual sin, some of our “no’s” are also because we are part of a particular society. In this society, we are complicit in an economic and political system that excludes and punishes people who are poor, in trouble with addictions, out of work, struggling with mental illness, or simply “strange” or “difficult.”

Sometimes we are driven to say “no” because our society says so many other “no’s” that we cannot say “yes” all the time, because to do so would overwhelm us. And in this way our limitations as human beings, which are not sinful, sometimes get wrapped into the larger sin of injustice we cannot escape. The “filthy rotten system” makes us filthy and rotten too.

In our individual limitations and sin, and in our complicity in the systemic sin of the world, we stand in need of help. We need help that is beyond our own strength and good will. We need help that is beyond our society. We need help that is beyond this world that is so often “no” to our deepest desires for union with others, for justice, for peace. We need the help of God’s loving and liberating presence in our lives; we need the help of God’s saving grace. We need the gracious “yes” of God in Jesus Christ to save us in the midst of our “no’s.”

This is what Paul urges. He moves from his question about “yes” and “no” according to human standards to insisting that Jesus is not “yes and no but in him it is always ‘Yes.’ For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes'” (2 Cor 1:19-20).

Paul knows that if there is a life-giving and liberating consistency in his life even in the midst of the contradictions between “yes” or “no” in his life, then his life must be grounded in the larger “yes” of union with Christ, who is the “yes” of God.

But how is the “yes” of being grounded in Christ life giving and liberating? How does the “yes” of Christ empower us to keep saying “yes” in the midst of the “no’s” in our lives?

When I say “no” out of my limitations or my sin, I grow discouraged. When I say “no” and realize that my “no” indicates my complicity in the powers of sin and death, the powers manifest in this world’s “no” to life and love, justice and peace, I grow even more discouraged. The next step from discouragement is to despair, and from despair it is only a small step to joining in with the powers of sin and death. In other words, out of my discouragement and despair I throw in the towel and admit defeat. And in admitting defeat I move to join in with the “no” of the world. I accept defeat and say, “There is nothing I can do, so I’ll do nothing” and “That’s just the way the world is, and I can’t do anything about it.” I stop even trying to say “yes.”

If I am going to keep saying “yes,” even in the midst of recognizing my limitations and confessing my sin, even in the midst of my saying “no,” then I will not be able to rely on my own strength or goodwill or on mere optimism. My strength has limits, my goodwill falters and fails, and when I look around in my own life or in human history, I don’t see much reason for optimism. If I am going to keep saying “yes” then I need to know, I need to have faith that “no” is not the final word in my life and in human life.

The good news of salvation is that Jesus, in his life, death, and resurrection, affirms and accomplishes the victory of the “yes” of God’s promises over the “no” of sin and death. In this way, Jesus is “yes” to every one of God’s promises.

Jesus is “yes” to every one of God’s promises because in his life he fulfills the promise God makes in God’s covenant with us. God’s covenant, God’s agreement, God’s promise, first with the people of Israel, and then with all the people of the world, is that God is with us always. God will not abandon us to the powers of sin and death.

God liberates us from those powers and their multiple forms of “no”: hunger, homelessness, poverty, prison, injustice, wars, executions, addictions, hatreds, racism, patriarchy, fears, despair, pride, anger, lust, envy, greed, sloth, and gluttony. God is giving us a new heaven and a new earth and will live among us and wipe away every tear. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more (Rev 21:3-4).

These are God’s promises and in Jesus who overcame the powers of sin and death in his life, death, and resurrection every one of these promises of God is a “Yes.” Paul writes, “For this reason it is through Christ that we say the ‘Amen’ to the glory of God” (2 Cor 1:20).

Paul is so absolutely right! How else to respond to this “Yes” to God’s promises in the life of Jesus in which through faith we share, but with shouts of “Alleluia, Amen, Thank You Jesus!!”

But if Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection establishes and affirms “yes” in our lives, then why are we still hungry waiting for supper, not to mention justice and peace? Why do we who live and volunteer here continue to say “no” not merely out of our limitations but also because of our sin? Why do you who lack for basic human necessities so often continue to hear “no”? Why do we still have to keep saying “no” to homelessness and poverty and prisons and executions and war and “no” to the many other “no’s” that express our society’s sin?

Paul addresses these realities in terms of our efforts to faithfully live the “yes” of Christ in the midst of saying “no.” Paul writes, “But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us, by putting his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment” (2 Cor 1:21-22).

We who live in the faith of Christ and thus who try to say “yes” are but a “first installment” of God’s “yes” in Christ. We are still on a journey. The powers of sin and death have been mortally wounded, but they still thrash about in our lives.

In continuing to say “no” because of our limitations and sin, we share in the struggle of the whole of God’s creation, yearning for the fullness of “YES!”

Paul writes in Romans, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22-23).

The “no” that comes from limitation and sin reminds us that the fullness of God’s reign-the fulfillment of God’s promises-is not fully in our lives yet. We are still on the journey toward the full installment of God in our lives.

In fact, while we continue this journey, because we struggle against sin, we will even sometimes experience the grace of God as “no” in our lives. This is the third type of “no.” It is the redeeming “no” of gracious accountability that helps us to resist and overcome sin. This “no” holds us accountable for living the Gospel.

Some of Paul’s “no’s” to the church in Corinth reflected such gracious accountability necessary for living the Gospel. Paul told the members of the church at Corinth “no” when they tried to exclude the poor from the Eucharistic table. He told them “no” when they engaged in exploitative forms of sexual activity. He told them “no” when they tried to base leadership in the church on wealth and power. These “no’s” that Paul said were a kind of “tough love” that says “no” in order to affirm a larger “yes.”

This is the gracious “no” of accountability we in the community have to say to each other when we see a person doing something wrong. Here at the Open Door Ronald Williams has often been my instructor in this regard. Once this summer when I was on house duty in the evening I locked all of the doors of the house. The next morning came gracious accountability as Ronald told me “Don’t lock the doors to the front porch at night. Anthony and I ended up being locked out when we went out to smoke.”

When it’s something more serious in our lives, it’s hard to hear this gracious “no” of Gospel accountability. It is hard to hear that we must say “no” to our addictions, to our prejudices, to our self-pity or to our pride, to our own obstinate way of doing things.

This difficulty in hearing “no” goes beyond our individual lives. It is hard for our society to hear the gracious “no” of accountability; to hear “no” to the death penalty, “no” to war, “no” to harassing and arresting homeless people in parks.

We know the powers find it hard to hear these “no’s” and we know that in the face of the powers it is sometimes hard for us to say those “no’s.” We need God’s gracious help to strengthen us to say and to hear such “no’s” of Gospel accountability.

The “no” we say to discipline ourselves thus reminds us, like the other “no’s” we say and hear out of our limitations and sin, that our citizenship is not here, but in the fullness of life of the Beloved Community.

All of these “no’s” in our lives remind us that we await full salvation, liberation, and the completing of our lives from a source other than our own works, other than any earthly empire, other than the gods of state violence and economic domination, other than the gods that promise satisfaction for our desires but only deliver self-destroying death.

Thus, in the end it is recognition of the “no” in our lives that strangely brings us to seek after and to hear the “Yes.” The “Yes” that we await a Savior from heaven, Jesus Christ. The “Yes” that our lives only have meaning and purpose when we live simply and share, as Jesus did. The “Yes” that we share in God’s reign every time we gather together to share God’s gifts with each other-food, clothing, ourselves. The “Yes” that we share in God’s reign every time we resist and say “NO” to sin, to death, to war, homelessness, executions, poverty, or injustice of any kind. The “Yes” that we share in God’s reign here when we gather to remember the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ so that we may in our lives be empowered in Christ to be God’s “Yes” to those in need.

This “yes” which is Jesus in our lives helps us to recognize and accept our limitations so that we don’t give up and, in despair, become people who always say “no.” This “yes” which is Jesus in our lives helps us to admit our mistakes and confess our sins, because Jesus heals those who need a physician and not those who see themselves as healthy. This “yes” which is Jesus in our lives helps us to say “no” to the powers even when this is difficult and costly.

We pray in this Eucharist to grow in God’s “Yes” who is Jesus Christ. We pray to grow in the faith of Jesus who teaches us in word and deed that God’s “Yes” means working for the reign of God-the Beloved Community. We pray in this Eucharist to be strengthened in God’s “Yes” so that we will stand in solidarity with the victims of oppression of any kind. We pray in this Eucharist that we may be empowered to practice a discipleship that is costly, that says “no” to systems of domination and death. We pray in this Eucharist that we will say with our lives the “Yes” of Jesus who says with his life,

YES to the liberation of the poor!

YES to the end of suffering!

YES to the Beloved Community in which we all sit down together and enjoy fullness of life with each other in union with God our Creator and Redeemer!