“We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; 2for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 3For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, 4begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints – 5and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, 6so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you.” (2 Corinthians 8:1-6)
We are in the third and final week of my series of sermons on the second (and final) letter of St Paul to the church at Corinth and, as we might have guessed, as Paul winds his way towards the end of his correspondence with the Corinthian church he inevitably comes at last to the topic of money!
For those of you who have never worked as a Parish Priest and who have never held the office of church warden, let me assure you that when you receive that unexpected call from the Bishop or Archdeacon, letting you know that they are going to be dropping by for a friendly chat, you know full well that while various pleasantries may be exchanged and while numerous ministry issues may be discussed, there will inevitably be a point where the conversation shifts to the matter of church finances – whether you have enough, how it’s all being spent, and how you’re going to get more!
This is our third week looking at Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth and if in my first week we were dealing with Paul, the suicide bomber, and last week with Paul, the scorned lover, this week we are dealing with Paul, the money-man – chair of the fundraising committee!
It may not be immediately obvious how these three personae come together in the one man but we will get to that. However we understand the Paul of previous weeks though, his focus in this second letter to the Corinthians, chapters eight and nine, is unmistakable, and for those of us who have worked as Parish Priests or who have served as church wardens, there is a certain familiar ring to these chapters, both of which are focused entirely on St Paul’s drive to squeeze more coin into the offertory plate!
“I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something – 11now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.” (2 Corinthians 8:10-11)
Pledge cards had been circulated a year before. After some rousing sermons and hefty singing the good people of Corinth had pledged a significant amount that, in the cold light of the new tax year, looked far less appealing! Some were now having real trouble putting their money where their mouth was.
This is familiar territory for clergy persons and lay leaders, and it’s sort of comforting to know that Paul dealt with this too! We in Australia don’t normally do the whole ‘pledge’ thing at all. I assume that’s because we’re not game to try something that has even less chance of success than the last Diocesan mission where we were supposed to get 10% of Dulwich Hill on to our pews.
I did hear a story (probably apocryphal) of one Australian cleric who tried one Sunday to get pledges from his congregation and tried to be clever about it. Having been an electrician before going into the ministry he tried running electrical wires under the pews, and when on the Sunday he asked people to stand up and pledge $1000 towards the new building project he hit a switch and send a mild electrical current through the pews that indeed brought a few souls (who’d probably wanted to pledge anyway) to their feet. He then halved the pledge amount and sent a slightly stronger current though the pews, bringing more people to their feet. As he lowered the amount he increased the voltage and apparently would have taken a fortune in pledges if it weren’t for the three men who were electrocuted because they refused to pledge a cent!
Paul’s struggle, of course, wasn’t to get people to pledge. It was to get them to make good on their pledges, and so the entirety of 2 Corinthians eight and nine is one great appeal to the church to cough up the promised cash, and the confronting thing about Paul’s appeal is that he shows no compunction whatsoever when it comes to manipulating guilt in order to get what he wants!
I’m a professional fundraiser and speak with some authority on this subject. I worked out years ago that to keep our Youth Centre going for twenty years I had to raise around a million dollars, and I’ve probably raised about twice that much all told, and I can tell you that there are certain rules you have to abide by when asking people for money – some explicit and some unspoken.
Guilt-manipulation is to be avoided. If I’m raising money for Syrian refugees it’s considered bad taste to screen large and confronting images of hungry children with outstretched hands. It’s considered equally bad taste to tell you how much the Catholics contributed to the cause in order to shame you towards more energetic giving! Even calling on everyone to bow their heads in silent prayer to consider how much God has given you before you decide how much you should give, is considered to be in very poor taste by today’s standards. St Paul though had no compunction whatsoever with regards to any of these sensitivities!
“We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia” (2 Corinthians 8:1) – that’s how Paul starts the appeal, by pointing to the impressive generosity of the neighbouring church in 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. … They voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry” (vss. 2-4)
Paul urges the Corinthians to emulate the good example that has been set by the Macedonians, graciously adding “I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others” (vs.8).
Not content to let it rest with the Macedonians, Paul then gives them the example of Christ Himself: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9)
Of course we generally think of the ‘poverty of Christ’ as a metaphor for the character and suffering of Jesus, but Paul does not hesitate to translate this into tangible dollars and cents. Jesus had wealth but He gave it away for you! You likewise should impoverish yourselves in order to enrich others!
“I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you”, Paul continues, “but it is a question of a fair balance between 14your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.” (2 Corinthians 8:13-14)
Now by the time you get this far in the appeal you realise that you are not dealing with an ordinary kind of pledge event such as might be initiated by the local bishop. For one thing there is no percentage going to the Diocese! For another, none of the funds Paul is trying to raise are going back into the church of Corinth at all, nor are they going into any ministry or outreach program under the control of the church of Corinth! The entirety of Paul’s collection is in fact earmarked for the relief of hungry people in Jerusalem!
It is a matter of some speculation as to why the church in Jerusalem was in such dire need. Some suggest that it was due to the over-zealousness of the first Jewish Christians who, we’re told in the book of Acts, “sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need.” (Acts 2:45)
This model of extreme caring and share – sometimes referred to as the ‘Jerusalem experiment’ – certainly did a lot for the growth of the early church, but when famine struck the church had no reserves!
Middle-class Christians have been wagging their fingers at these fathers and mothers in the faith ever since. Whenever we need to justify hoarding our possessions we need only point to the tragedy in Jerusalem where church members faced starvation because they cared too much and shared too much
I don’t think St Paul though saw the poverty of the church in Jerusalem as a tragedy at all! On the contrary, Paul saw it as an opportunity to bind the worldwide church together in love! This is spelt out more in chapter nine which, due to constraints on time, I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that for St Paul there was more to helping the poor than just relieving poverty.
This is not to say that relieving poverty is not, in and of itself, a worthwhile mission and a worthwhile vocation for a follower of Christ – “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”
To care for the needy is to live the life of Christ. Even so, there are always benefits that flow from service to the poor that go beyond poverty relief too, and to care for the poor in this case, from St Paul’s perspective, would not only fill hungry bellies but would generate a groundswell of love and gratitude that would heal divisions within the universal church!
“For the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. … You glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing … while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you.” (2 Corinthians 9:12-15)
When we stand back and look at the big picture it all starts to make sense! The Christians in Jerusalem had a problem. They had no money (most likely as they’d shared what they had with those in need). The Christians in Corinth had a problem too. They weren’t Jewish enough! This wouldn’t have been a problem for us, of course, but the division between Jew and non-Jew in the early church was the greatest problem faced by St Paul and the church!
It’s hard for us to understand, but the Jewish Christians were emerging from an entire culture built around the unique and exclusive identity of the Jewish people, and it wasn’t easy for them to settle down and welcome non-Jewish people into their community as equals.
The solution that Paul’s opponents came up with was to bring unity through the Torah by having all male Christians circumcised, and so bringing them all under the law! Paul’s solution was to bind everyone together through love through this collection, delivered to the hungry Jewish Christians in Jerusalem – an offering of love from the non-Jewish Christians of Corinth and other parts of Europe. This, Paul believed, was God’s chosen way of healing the divide!
And this is where we see the three sides of St Paul come together – the lover, the zealot and the accountant! Paul was never interested in raising money for money’s sake. He was interested in responding to human need and, more than that, he was interested in healing the divide between Jewish and non-Jewish Christians and, more than that, he was no doubt hoping that this would lead to an end to the victimisation that he had been experiencing for so long – always the target of suspicion by other Jewish Christians, always needing to justify himself and his belief in the ultimate equality of all people under God.
By this act of love Paul believed that he would see a coming together of the races and a new multi-cultural, multi-racial community being formed – to the relief of the saints, to the unity of the Church, and to the glory of God!
People often say to me that I do too much and that I should give something up – either the boxing or the preaching or the bush camp or the multi-faith work or my peace efforts or the websites or … something. My response is that everything always seems to be so deeply connected. And I think things are connected. I think things are always connected. I think that’s what Paul found.
When you support a grieving brother or sister through their pain it’s never just a nice thing to do. Acts of love and kindness have ripple effects – bringing healing and spreading life beyond the immediate targets of our affection. Every act of love, every word of gentleness and encouragement and peace has the power to shape someone who will then go on to shape others, so that the love spreads and the light grows! Even the simple act of giving to the poor is never just a simple act of human kindness. It can have far-reaching effects, binding communities together and changing history.
“When you do it for the least of these, my brethren, you do it for me” said Jesus (Matthew 25:40), reminding us that there is no act of human kindness that is not also a mystical connection with the divine!
I remember reading many years ago some of the ‘Tales of the Hasidim’ (translated by Martin Buber) – stories of our Jewish fathers – where there was a story of a rabbi who was considered very holy by those who attended his synagogue, and this rabbi used to slip away after each synagogue service and disappear for a few hours at the same time each week.
The rabbi’s disciples wondered if their teacher might be communing with God in some secret place so one of them followed him one Sabbath and saw him go to the house of an old widow where he swept her house and washed her clothes before returning home.
The disciple’s peers found him and asked “did the rabbi ascend to the seventh heaven?” The young man replied “if not higher!”
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 28th of June, 2015.