28 June 2015

The Call to be Generous

2 Corinthians 8:1-15

5th Sunday after Pentecost/ 28th June 2015

Preaching from Paul’s letters is always a bit of a challenge.  That’s because reading his epistles is like reading someone else’s mail.  The letters have a specific audience in mind, addressing issues or crises that were relevant to a particular congregation.  Paul knew his audience; they knew him.  Paul wrote as pastor, theologian, friend, he wrote as judge and healer, evangelist and prophet.  Paul never wrote his letters with the thought that they would be read by other churches, centuries, millennia after him.  They were never written with us in mind. He would be stunned to know that Presbyterians in Catonsville are reading and hearing his words today.  Reading the epistles is like reading someone else’s mail.

That’s the challenge.  How do we discern what applies to both Paul’s church and ours—and what doesn’t?  Paul’s understanding of the Church is in many ways alien and far removed from how we view and “do” church today, with denominations and institutions and hierarchies, professional ministers, multi-staffed congregations, choirs, congregations with enormous buildings and budgets.  Yes, reading someone else’s mail. 

 However, this is also part of the “fun”—if I can use that word—of reading Paul.  His letters, written (approximately) between 50 and 60 AD, are actually older than the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Reading Paul means we are actually closer to the historical Jesus, closer to Jesus than the gospel narratives, which were written to look and sound like histories (although they’re really not, technically, histories). 

When we read Paul we are given a window into what life what like in the early Church.  We discover how churches are birthed and then nurtured.  We see how churches struggle and fight and get themselves into trouble.  We see how Christians wrestle with their identities, wrestle with who they are vis-à-vis a broader, alien culture/society that doesn’t understand or value its message and ministry.  We see how Christians slowly come to reflect theologically on grace and salvation, reconciliation and service.  And here, in particular, in this eighth chapter of 2 Corinthians we discover a lot about what the first followers of Jesus and their worshipping communities were like.

So, what were they like?  Generous.  They were generous because they knew something of God’s grace.  Grace and generosity always go together, hand-in-hand.  Paul’s not demanding that the Corinthian Christians need to become generous.  He’s not commanding them.  It’s something else, as we will see.

 Paul wants them to know what has been occurring in other churches, in other communities of Christ.  “We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” ( 2 Cor. 8:1-2).
While it’s not exactly clear what the “severe ordeal of affliction” was, the generosity that Paul is referring to here is the way they responded to the giving campaign he organized, which provided support for Christians in Jerusalem.  This is what’s known as the Jerusalem Collection, “the contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” (Romans 15:26).

Paul spent close to ten years soliciting funds for the collection, “a collection he took up among the Gentile churches to help Judean believers who were facing harder than usual economic times as a result of a famine during the mid to late 40s. Paul and Barnabas made an initial famine-relief visit to Jerusalem in A.D. 46 and delivered a monetary gift from the church at Antioch (Acts 11:29-30). At that time the Jerusalem church expressed the hope that the believers associated with Paul would continue to remember the Judean believers, which Paul was more than eager to do (Gal 2:10).”[1] The collection effort was successfully completed in A.D. 57.  Paul and a group of delegates chosen by the contributing Gentile churches delivered the funds.

Raising funds of this kind required enormous investments of time and energy. Why did Paul do it?  Three possible reasons.  First, “the need was genuine. The Jerusalem collection was first and foremost an act of charity. Famine on top of persistent food shortages, double taxation [levied by the Roman Empire] and overpopulation crippled an already precarious Palestinian economy. The situation was undoubtedly aggravated by a voluntary pooling of assets in the early years of the church's existence (Acts 2:44-46; 4:32-37) and the constant need for the mother church to support the itinerant activities of its members and extend hospitality to visitors from other churches. Then too it was common, as it is today, for diaspora Jews to settle in and around the ‘holy city’ at retirement; the result was a steady increase of widows and elderly in need of assistance.”

Second, “the relief fund served as an important, visible expression of the interdependence of believers worldwide.” Finally, the collection was a tangible representation of the heart of the gospel—that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, not male and female (Gal 3:28). In particular, Paul may have had high hopes that the relief fund would allay any lingering fears and concerns Jewish Christians had regarding [his] Gentile mission.[2] "Their hearts will go out to you," he says, "because of the surpassing grace God has given you" (2 Cor. 9:14).

We could be crass and say that Paul was effectively being a fundraiser here, enticing the Corinthians to support the campaign.  It’s true; Paul wants the Corinthians to give more because he knows how wealthy they are.  He knows there’s money in that community.  And since in Christ we are part of a larger, ecclesial family, engaged in a ministry beyond the confines of a particular church, the body of Christ has an obligation to care for its sisters and brothers who are in need.  It’s a “question,” Paul says, “of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance” (2 Cor. 8:14).  That’s what Paul hopes for, a sharing of resources, but that’s not where he begins his appeal to the Corinthians.

Instead, he tells them about the Macedonia churches and what he saw at work in them.  He begins with a reference to God’s grace—the unsurpassable, unearned, benevolence of God, which we have come to know most profoundly in the life and witness of Jesus Christ. What is grace? The novelist Marilynne Robinson describes it as “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”  I wish to thank President Barack Obama for providing the Robinson quote.  He referred to her definition of grace in his eulogy/sermon preached at the funeral for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, on Friday in Charleston, SC. Thank you, Mr. President. I, too, am a huge Marilynne Robinson fan.

“A reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind.” Grace is not what we expect. It’s never logical.  It’s the unexpected, surprising outcome that can’t be deduced or explained from the evidence or description of present circumstances.  It would be logical, rational for Paul to say to the Corinthians: “Look, you have more than you need, be generous to others in need.”  But that’s not the story he tells.  Instead, he says of the Macedonian church: “for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” 

It doesn’t make any sense.  Joy found in affliction.  Abundant joy found in “severe ordeals of affliction.”  Not despair in affliction.  Not sorrow in affliction.  Not worry, anxiety, or fear in affliction.  Joy.  Lots of it!

And poverty.  Poverty, suggesting, rationally, logically, that they have nothing left to share.  Poverty that should cause them, we assume, to be stingy and selfish, to save and horde their resources.  But, no.

Joy in affliction mixed with extreme poverty overflowed in a wealth of generosity. This is a really good description of what grace looks like and feels like.   For, “as I can testify,” Paul writes, “they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints—and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us,” …so that we might “complete this generous understanding…” (2 Cor. 8:3-7).   It’s not logical.  It doesn’t make sense.  But that’s what grace does.

And that’s why Paul doesn’t demand that they be generous.  Generosity doesn’t work that way.  He can’t force them to give more.  He can’t make a command out of grace.  He doesn’t want to test them or force them.  He could have said, “Look, here’s our need.  There are 100 people in this church, let’s divide it up evenly.”  That’s too rational.  That’s too logical.

But, in a way, there is a test involved. He is testing them—or asking them to test themselves around one issue: “the genuineness of [your] love.”  Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21). Paul is basically asking them: Where’s your heart?  Where’s your treasure? Where is the love?  Where is your love for God, for what God has done for you and shown you in Jesus Christ?  Where is the love of Christ overflowing in your lives?  Where is the grace?

Grace itself, when it’s understood or apprehended, when it’s experienced, is always generous, and abundantly so. The experience of grace yields generosity.  That’s the result.  Grace is an bottomless reservoir of goodness.  When we know this—and know it again and again—when we discover or rediscover this grace throughout our lives—or, better, when grace discovers us—generosity begins to flow like an ever-flowing stream.  That’s how we become generous.

It’s been said that Christians are generous people because we serve a generous God. We’re not the only generous people around, of course. But there’s something within our experience of God’s love in Christ that allows us to be remarkably giving. It’s a generosity that stunned the ancient world—and still amazes the world today.  Early Christians cared for their own members, within the church.  And then they did something radically new and different—they began to care for those in the wider community!  They cared for people who weren’t in their immediate family or household or clan or tribe (which was the norm in Roman society), but fellow followers of “The Way,” former strangers now friends in the body of Christ. And then the body of Christ cared for strangers and saw within the face of the other the face of God. Fast forward several years and we will see the origins of the monastic movement, communities that cared for the needs of wayfarers and strangers.  Christians could do all of these things because their hearts were changed and transformed. The pagan Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate (361-363) once said of early Christians, “The godless Galileans feed not only their poor but ours.”[3]  The Romans considered Christians (and Jews) godless because they didn’t believe in the gods.  The Romans also considered Christians “unethical,” by the standards of their day, because Christians cared for their neighbors, they cared for strangers.[4] 

Paul invites, he doesn’t command, us to “excel” in generosity, in caring for the needs of the saints. We have no excuse, knowing how generous God has been toward us.  Paul extends an invitation.  He invites us to examine the “genuineness of [our] love” (2 Cor. 8:8) for God and what God means to us, and what we mean to God, both individually and collectively as a church.  And then in gratitude—deep gratitude—with full and overflowing and open hearts he invites us to to be:
generous (or more generous) with our financial resources; 
generous with our time;
generous with our gifts and skills and talents; 
generous with grace; 
generous with our love;
generous with our hearts.

All of this was true for Christ’s people in Paul’s day and—as we all know—it’s still true in ours.

           





[1] For a concise summary of the Jerusalem Collection, see.
[2] For more on the Jerusalem Collection, see
[3] Cited in Dan Clendenin, “This Grace of Giving.” See also “Julian the Apostate: Jewish Law and Christian Truth,” in Robert L. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 164ff.
[4] See also Wayne A. Meeks, The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).