The Generous Church (2 Corinthians 8:7-15)
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, June 28, 2015
A Christian who lives in Carrboro, NC reads his paper and finds himself horrified by the actions of the ISIS militants in Syria and Iraq.
A church-going family feels themselves filled with joy and warmth as all five of them, Mom, Dad, and the kids gather round to read the letter from the child they sponsor in Ethiopia.
We as a family of believers last week wept for a church in another states, South Carolina where there was a shooting.
In a one of our church small group’s prayer meetings, there is mention of a friend known to only one of the group’s members, yet everyone in the group prays with deep feeling and genuine passion for that request.
Why? That Carrboro disciple of Jesus does not know a soul in Syria or Iraq. He has never been out of the United States. Why is in any way affected by what is happening in that part of the world?
That church family has never met the Ethiopian child they help go to school with their monthly sponsorship dollars. Why do they care so much about her? They don’t know her. So why do they act, seriously, as if Hyatt is a member of their family?
I don’t know anyone in Emmanuel Church in Charleston and before June 17, I did not of the church’s existence. What made it so natural for me to ask our church to pray for them and grieve with them? What ties us to them?
In the prayer group, someone says, “Could we pray for my friend’s boss. His marriage is falling apart. His name is Chris.” No one in the group knows Chris. Yet the group prays. What is going on?
Much of the New Testament is made up of letters written by early leaders to encourage congregations that existed throughout the Mediterranean world. Most of these letters, called epistles, were written by Paul who made several long journeys, planting churches as went from Jerusalem, through Turkey and Greece and finally all the way to Rome. One of the churches he struggled with the most was the church in Achaia, which was in Corinth. He wrote two letters to the Corinthians.
In 1st Corinthians 16, Paul writes, “Now concerning the collection for the saints: you should follow the directions I gave to the churches of Galatia. 2 On the first day of every week, each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn, so that collections need not be taken when I come. 3 And when I arrive, I will send any whom you approve with letters to take your gift to Jerusalem.”
Time passes, Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian church grows tense, and he eventually writes other letters including the material we find in 2nd Corinthians. He wants the believers there to give money weekly. He will pick it up and take it to provide for the needs of the poor Christians in Jerusalem.
I can imagine one or two Corinthians asking, why should we care about Jerusalem? What is that to us? Indeed, what is it that drives the people who find their identity in Christ to acts of kindness, prayer, and financial generosity?
In 2nd Corinthians 8:7-8, Paul names several of the themes he’s identified previously. He tells the Corinthians, “Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you[d]—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.” He mentioned faith, hope and love in 1st Corinthians, and here again, love is of highest importance. This time love is seen in generosity.
On more than one occasion Jesus was asked, “What is the top commandment?” He always gave the same answer. , “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbor, your fellow human beings as you love yourself.” All the law and the prophets, in other words, every holy word every written in scripture hangs on how we love God and love people.
Paul builds on this foundation in Romans 12, 1st Corinthians 13, Galatians 5 where it is the first of the fruit of the Spirit, and here. Paul wants the Corinthians to give money – a lot of money. The Jewish Christ followers in Jerusalem desperately need this. But for Paul it is not just a matter of accomplishing the goal. It is also about the growth of the Corinthians as disciples. He wants them to be filled with joy as they give the gift. He says in 8:8, “I am testing the genuineness of your love.”
Does Paul have the right do that? I think this feels presumptuous and needlessly blunt. Who does he think is? But then, we proceed to verse 9 where we find ourselves at the heart of the matter.
“You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul reminds the church, “that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”
Jesus was rich. Before he was born in that Bethlehem stable, Jesus existed in the joy of the trinity as God the Son, the eternal one. He basked in the glory of God and he left that glory and took on humanity. In Philippians Paul writes Jesus emptied himself. He was rich – as rich as words can describe. And he left that behind to enter the feeble poverty of human life. This is the incarnation – God with us when God did not have to do it and we did not earn it. This is grace. This is the gospel story – what God has done for us in Christ.
Paul emphasizes that his action, taking poverty of sinful humanity upon himself was effective. By his poverty – specifically meaning his death on the cross – the Corinthians and all Jesus’ followers became rich. That is, when we are in Christ, we anticipate the abundance of Heaven. Whatever our lives are like on earth, we know we will live in God’s luxury. We have the promise of eternity.
Moreover, today, as we live in service to God and in the joy of God, we have the richness of relationships. We live in the love of God and the love of neighbor. It all comes to us by Jesus’ sacrificial acts of leaving Heaven to walk as a human and then dying on the cross to take our place in death.
To collect money and give it to believers they had never met was not something the Corinthians did as a kind of a great spiritual accomplishment. Nor is it so for us. We do not sponsor children from impoverished places so we can earn Heavenly street-cred. We do not give our money or invest our time or shed our tears or pour out our prayers to God on behalf of strangers because we want accolades. We do not strive for goodness and righteousness so that in the eyes of God and men we are highly. At least we not live Godly lives for those reasons, not if they followed Paul’s reasoning.
Why do we care about people we don’t know? Why do people we will never meet in person burden our hearts and inspire to give and pray and act? It is because of Jesus. Generosity is a response to the riches we have received.
The generous church is the body of Christ-followers who know that they are who they are because of what Jesus did. We are alive, joy-filled, and bound for eternity because God loves us, Jesus died for us, and the Spirit lives in us. We know we are a created people – a people re-created as we realize what the cross and resurrection means.
It strips away any arrogance we might conjure up. Some in the church have done a lot in the eyes of men in terms of income, education, and social status. But we all stand on equal footing – no matter our jobs, our titles, or other measures of status. We join hands as people who realize our dependence on God and our love for one another.
In verses 13-14, Paul tells his readers, “it is a question of a fair balance between 14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.” In the Kingdom of God, no one goes hungry because everyone cares about everyone else. Knowing we have been saved by grace, we strive for this mutual caring on this side of Heaven. While waiting for the Lord’s return, in dependence on the Holy Spirit, we live into the Kingdom reality that will be ultimately fulfilled When Jesus comes.
By involving the Gentiles with the Jewish Christ-followers in Jerusalem, Paul may have imagined a fulfillment of the prophecy, Isaiah 55:5, which says, “Nations that do not know you shall run to you because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel.”
For Paul Corinth was the nation that did now know. In giving their offering to relieve the poverty of the Jerusalem church, they were “running to” Israel to be joined to God’s people. They did this because of the Holy One of Israel, Jesus. In Isaiah 60:5, the prophet says the wealth of the nations shall come to Israel, the home of the people of God. Paul envisioned the embodiment of this prophecy in the action of the Greek-speaking churches donating money to feed the hungry Jerusalem Christians. He saw the grand narrative of God’s story playing itself out.
Can we see at Paul saw? Can we commit to generosity as a gratitude response to the grace we’ve been given by God in Christ?
We’re going to take communion this morning. We’re going to take Communion by coming forward and taking the bread, Christ’s body, and the cup, his blood. As you stand in the line, moving forward, consider Paul’s joy as he carried the collection to Jerusalem. Ponder the hearts of the Corinthian believers as they put their contributions in for brothers in Christ they’d never meet. Imagine this movement of money to the city as if it were the Nations streaming to Jerusalem, to God, to Christ.
Now think about that Ethiopian child who is sponsored; and the Syrian believers huddled in a refugee camp; and believers in African American churches across America, and white churches joining with them, reaching for unity in Christ. Imagine all these in the line walking up to receive the bread and cup, the body and blood.
See yourself, one forgiven, made new, called in Christ. As you walk up and see your friends who have worshipped with you today, realize the hospitality of Christ who is the one that invites you to this table. In eating and drinking, open your heart to His Spirit. As you do this and we do this, He makes us the generous church, filled with gratitude, ready to give because we know doing so announces the grace of God.