The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost June 27, 2010
2 Corinthians 8:1-9,13-14
537, 440 (alt tune TLH: 478), 351, 54
Moreover, brethren, we make known to you the grace of God bestowed on the churches of Macedonia: that in a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded in the riches of their liberality. For I bear witness that according to their ability, yes, and beyond their ability, they were freely willing, imploring us with much urgency that we would receive the gift and the fellowship of the ministering to the saints. And not only as we had hoped, but they first gave themselves to the Lord, and then to us by the will of God. So we urged Titus, that as he had begun, so he would also complete this grace in you as well. But as you abound in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all diligence, and in your love for us—see that you abound in this grace also. I speak not by commandment, but I am testing the sincerity of your love by the diligence of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich…For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened; but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack—that there may be equality.
Dear fellow-redeemed in Christ Jesus, who loved us with an everlasting love:
“Welcome, friends, to St. Miserlius church where we believe that we can do great things as long as we can do them with other people’s money. In a moment we will hear today’s message on happiness and personal well-being. But at this moment I have been asked to relay a special request for one of our members. Frieda Schnibbler needs a new transmission for her car which she uses to deliver her home-made pies to area restaurants. It has been suggested that we take up a collection to help her out. We’d hate to see her go out of business since she is largely the reason our bake sales do so well. So, Deacon Meyer, would you start the plate there at the back. Yes, that’s right. Just think of poor Mrs. Schnibbler and her pies waiting to be delivered. Every little bit helps…Like I said, Fred, every little bit helps—yes, that’s better. OK, let’s keep the plate moving. Say, Deacon Meyer, make sure you get the plate over to those folks in the back pew—yes, they are the ones. I saw them drive in with a Jaguar this morning.
“Hey, everyone, did you see Theresa, here—she gave ten dollars. Surely, if Theresa, of all people, can kick in ten dollars, you all can do much better.
“Alright Deacon, bring that plate up here—let’s see how Mrs. Schnibbler did…hmmm…twenty-seven dollars and forty-two cents. That’s sure not going to get any transmission fixed!”
(from the back) “What about you, Reverend? You didn’t give anything!”
“Well, now, that’s not exactly true. I’m the preacher here. I give a lot of my time to people like Frieda (especially when the pies are fresh). You can’t expect me to give money too on what you pay me! Go on, Deacon, pass that plate again.
There are ways to take an offering, and there are ways to practice true Christian stewardship, and they don’t always look the same. They certainly do not accomplish the same things. Not surprisingly, the apostle Paul was confronted by some stewardship problems among the Corinthian Christians—a congregation in which he also had to correct many other problems. The stewardship problem became apparent as Paul was arranging to take a collection for the relief of members of the Jewish church back in Judea.
The non-believing Jews were very antagonistic toward the Christians. The Gentile believers in the young churches Paul planted in Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Greece got a taste of how hard it was for the Jewish believers back in Jerusalem when they saw how the Jewish traditionalists persecuted Paul even in their own lands.
Many of the Gentile churches were eager to help their Jewish brethren, but the offering was lagging behind in Corinth even after they had cleaned up their act in many other areas. Now Paul sets out to instruct the Corinthian members, not in fund-raising techniques, but in the grace of giving. We’ll see that this grace I. Finds its motive in the gift of Jesus Christ, and we’ll see that this grace II. proves itself through its own giving spirit.
We are embarking on an adventure soon. It is the sort of adventure that will take you places you never thought you’d go. It will call upon you to do what you never thought you could do. It will allow you to accomplish things you could never have done on your own. This adventure is known as a life of grace and it plays itself out in your life whether you travel to a strange new continent, or do nothing more than commute back and forth to work. Your adventure in grace finds its motive in the grace of Jesus Christ.
Back in his first letter, Paul pointed to some extraordinary things people do, which, he said, accomplished little: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become a sounding brass or a clanging symbol…and though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). But now he points to what he saw as truly extraordinary: the grace of God that was given in the churches in Macedonia. These would be the churches at Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. What Paul saw was that “out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.” [v.2 NIV] This was pretty strange arithmetic: severe affliction + deep poverty + the grace of God = abundant joy and abundant generosity. In simple terms, Paul noted how these believers in the much less prosperous towns north of Greece—Christians who had encountered real persecution because of their faith—responded amazingly well when Paul shared with them the need for the collection he hoped to take back to Jerusalem.
Frankly, he hadn’t expected much of a contribution, and maybe he didn’t even get a large offering, but what he saw going on there was much better. The prospect of participating in that collection set off an inspiring response which Paul would never forget. They gathered more money than Paul thought they could afford to give, and then they begged Paul to take the offering to their Jewish brethren.
Such an act was clearly not generated by the clever schemes of men. This, Paul said, was God’s grace which was active like an unseen, but evident, force. Such living by grace is an adventure that arises with the knowledge of the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
The Corinthians, of course, knew all about Jesus Christ, but did they really know Him? Did they see what He had done for them, what role He had played in their eternal salvation? Did they grasp the selflessness that marked His every word and every deed? Paul set it forth in these beautiful terms: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.” [v.9] Do we know the grace—the unmerited love—of God in Jesus Christ who had all glory and power and majesty? Who was the very Word through whom God called the world into existence? Who left it all to enter our forlorn and miserable world and become one of us, one with us in the human condition?
Paul doesn’t mention the poverty of the Corinthians, but it was there. The greatest poverty in this world occurs when people are so full of their material goods or so exalted in their opinion of themselves that they don’t realize the vast gulf that one’s own sins create between God and men. In one of the letters dictated by Jesus through John to the churches in Asia, the Lord rebuked the Laodiceans, “you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked“ (Revelation 3:17).
Yet, Jesus came, the poor infant, the lowly carpenter’s son, the itinerant preacher in Galilee, and gave His all in order to bestow on sinners His own perfect righteousness. He rose from the dead to establish the promise that we too will conquer life’s greatest and last enemy. He ascended to the right hand of the Father to show us where our real life and treasure are. He assured us that we have a good and kind Father in Heaven to whom we can bring our every concern. What we are through Him is incomparably rich and astonishing. But this is just the beginning. It is what we have through Christ and what we are that makes life with Him a true adventure. It is an adventure, even when we are confronted by the offering plate or by a needy brother or sister.
The grace of giving proves itself through a giving spirit. In advising the Corinthians on the matter of this offering, Paul had certain goals with different levels of importance.
The lowest level of importance was the material offering. Yes, it was important for the money that could be gathered would provide much relief to those Jews who had been cast out of families, driven from their homes, and denied business and employment all because of their confession that Jesus is Lord.
It would be foolish to think of ourselves as being so spiritual that we don’t need to think about money. Without offerings to our congregation a suitable place of worship goes away, a full-time ministry by one who is trained in the Word of God becomes unlikely, the ability to share in the work of missions and training pastors and teachers is lost, and the ability to offer a Christian education in this day of “what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Timothy 6:20), becomes impossible. It is the Lord who uses our offerings to bring these things about.
So, yes, the offering was important, but there are even more valuable benefits which Paul sought to cultivate. For one thing, the grace of giving would teach them about faith. Paul noted for the Corinthians that the Macedonians “first gave themselves to the Lord, and then to us.” [v.5] That means that these people were so moved by God’s kindness and His promises that they were freed up from being enslaved by material concerns. They heard the Lord’s call to follow Him and they saw themselves as privileged and rich because they were certain of their standing before God. Fear for their own material well-being and love of their possessions soon receded into the distant background.
Paul also showed that their giving proved itself as fullness. He reminded the Corinthians of the many “qualities” which they boasted that they possessed: “you abound in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in your love for me.” [v.7] These things were easy to claim, harder to prove. They had often boasted in their great “knowledge” but were dismally short in other graces such as sincerity. But now Paul was giving them a chance to materially prove the abundance of grace that they claimed.
Nobody can judge our hearts except God, but He gives us ample opportunities to let our love speak through our actions. Paul said he wanted to “test your sincerity through the generosity of others.” [v.8] Does that mean he intended to shame the Corinthians into keeping up with the Macedonians? No, but he was using the Macedonians as an example of how this grace works, and it works wonderfully!” We don’t just have opportunities to show love through giving, we also have many opportunities to learn of the joy in giving from the generosity of others.
Finally, Paul wanted the Corinthians to learn that giving was a part of the fellowship of the body of Christ. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul instructed them concerning the mystical nature of the Body of Christ, how it was made up of many diverse members, but all functioned in response to the Head (Christ) and for the benefit of the whole body. Here again, Paul shows that even in this matter of giving there is a balance.
The biggest balance factor between the Gentiles and the Jews is that the Gentiles owe the Jews a debt of gratitude since the salvation of the Lord came through them. It doesn’t seem unreasonable then if the Gentiles are called upon to share with Jewish Christians some material things.
Paul may also see a balance in place between the Corinthians and the Macedonians. The Macedonians’ faith may have been larger than their offering, while the Corinthians’ had more wherewithal to send to the Jewish Christians but were much less mature in the faith and would benefit greatly from following the Macedonians’ example.
This whole question of stewardship is important to the church because it shows that what we do with our material things speaks volumes about our spiritual state. It is also the means by which God would create a truly divine balance between the rich and the poor in His kingdom.
In our synod, and even in our congregation, we have faced some financial challenges and have often found that the Lord had His own way of helping us through them. May God grant that we not just blindly take the miracle of His grace for granted and go blithely onward wrapped up in ourselves, but that He cause this grace of giving to be at work in our churches, even as it was in the churches of Macedonia, so that we may truly be to the praise of His grace. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.