Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 28, 2015
2 Corinthians 8:7-15 Commentary
A sermon on this text will touch nerves, because it touches money. Many preachers don’t want to touch that subject with a ten foot pole. But it’s a good thing that the lectionary confronts us with this text on this 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, because money looms large in every Christian’s life as we await the return of our Lord. The acquisition, preservation, and distribution of money occupy a large part of our time and attention and, unfortunately, our hearts. Jesus warned his disciples that “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” And Paul said bluntly that “love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Our text for today is part of the Bible’s most exhaustive treatment of an aspect of money management that isn’t mentioned frequently Money or Fortune magazines, namely, giving.
This text is a case study in how to ask for generous giving in a positive pastoral way. The sometimes abrasive Paul shows us how to approach this sensitive subject with a gentle touch. The church at Corinth in Greece was not having the budget crisis that modern day Greece is experiencing. They were, however, struggling with the financial pledges they had made the year before when Paul wrote his first letter to them. Now it was some months later, and Paul writes this letter to them about their year-end giving, the way our Deacons do at the end of every year. Paul treats giving not as an obligation, but as an opportunity. Even though these Christians needed a bit of a push, he doesn’t blast them with guilt; rather he praises them with grace.
Though the lectionary reading begins at verse 7, I’m going to back up to verse 1 because that’s where Paul begins his circle of praise. What a brilliant place to start a sermon on giving! It’s hard to over-estimate how much people crave praise? Picture a cat being petted—eyes closed, back arched, undulating under the strokes of your hand, purring deeply. That’s how normal human beings react to praise. We love it. We need it. We can’t get enough of it. There is nothing quite so nourishing to the human soul as praise, approval, affirmation. Many of us grew up loved, but not affirmed. To this day we have an insatiable need for praise.
Well, in these words God praises the givers at Corinth through the circle of praise that Paul creates. That’s a good thing to do in church—create a circle of praise. It is so easy to get caught up in a circle of negativity, a gossip circle where we only pass on bad news about people. Even high minded Bible Study groups can turn into circles of criticism. Paul does the opposite: he creates a circle of praise by passing on positive reports about other people. He begins in verse 1 by praising the churches of Macedonia, which was a bit north of Greece, churches in places like Thessalonica and Philippi. “And now, brothers and sisters, I want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty well up in rich generosity.”
Paul had already been praising the Corinthians to the Macedonians. In II Cor. 9:2, he says, “For I know your eagerness to help, and I have been boasting about it to the Macedonians, telling them that since last year you in Greece were ready to give; and your enthusiasm has stirred most of them to action.” In those few words we see the circle of praise of praise; around and around it goes. Paul praises the Corinthians to the Macedonians and then praises the Macedonians to the Corinthians. He is stirring them up to generous giving by praising them for their generous giving. You can almost hear them purr, can’t you?
We can learn much about giving from these words of praise. I was struck by the strange formula for giving in verse 2. In Money and Fortune, you can find formulas for investing and for retirement, but what’s the formula for our giving? It probably goes something like this. I gave this much last year. How much should I give this year? How has the Lord blessed? How will he bless? Let’s see, I’m going to retire, so my income will be less than it is now, but my expenses will be less, maybe. Who knows? I will give this much to this cause and that much to that cause.
Here’s the formula of the Macedonians. “Severe Trial plus Extreme Poverty multiplied by Overwhelming Joy equals Rich Generosity.” Wait a minute! Severe trials could make us pull back in our giving. And when you add in extreme poverty you are sure to get a reduction in giving, just for survival reasons. But there was another part of the formula, their overwhelming joy at what God had done for them in Christ. The result was rich generosity. No wonder Paul praises them.
He goes on with an incredible testimony. “For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability, beyond their financial means.” They didn’t do this because Paul had mugged them with commands and laid a guilt trip on them. No, says Paul, they did this “entirely on their own.” It was their idea. And they were so passionate about giving that “they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints.” Isn’t that astounding? No wonder Paul praised them. He didn’t have to plead with them to give. They pleaded with him for the privilege of giving. That’s how they saw stewardship. It is a privilege to give, not an obligation. They saw it not as letting go of their hard earned money, but as providing a service to others.
What in the world would give the Macedonians such a praiseworthy perspective on giving? Remember, they didn’t have a lot of money. In fact, they were extremely poor. So it can’t be wealth that made them generous. And their lives were anything but easy. They had been severely persecuted, according to the letter to the Thessalonians. Why did they practice extreme generosity? In the following verses Paul gives us two reasons or perspectives as he praises them.
In verse 5, he mentions the first. They “gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will.” Before they gave their money to the church represented by Paul, they gave themselves to Christ. Well, of course! Why in the world would anyone give any money to the church? The church is filled with difficulty, even scandal. Who knows what “they” will do with it? Who knows if “they” are managing things well? “They” often do things we don’t like. Sometimes we’re very unhappy with our own church. So why give to “the church?” Well, says Paul, stewardship begins when you take your eyes off that human institution and fix them upon Jesus and give yourself to him. Generosity flows out of a heart that is surrendered to Jesus. “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee. Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold….” That’s the first reason for the praiseworthy giving of these poor Christians—before they gave their money to the church, they gave themselves to Jesus.
They did that because they knew that Jesus had given himself to them. Verse 8 spells out this second reason with as rich a description of Jesus’ work as we find anywhere in Scripture. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” That explains everything. They were gracious in their giving because they never forgot the grace of Jesus to them. If he could become poor in order to make them rich, then they could give generously even though they were poor. As Paul puts it in verse 7, they excelled in the grace of giving because they had been the recipients of overflowing grace from Christ. As John Calvin said about this verse, nothing else can explain such giving. It was grace, all grace.
Having praised the Macedonians (and by implication the Corinthians) for their giving, Paul now “makes the ask.” He moves from the indicative to the imperative, except that his imperative isn’t very demanding. Indeed, Paul emphasizes that this isn’t a command (verse 8); rather it is advice (verse 10). There is a subtle force to his advice; in verse 8 he says that this matter of giving is a test of the sincerity of their love. And he challenges them to excel in giving as they already excel in Word ministry (faith, speech, knowledge) and in character (earnestness and love). In other words, you aren’t a complete Christian unless you excel in the grace of giving. That’s pretty direct, but Paul doesn’t lay a burden on them. In verse 10, he says, my advice about this is “what is best for you,” what will benefit you. He is not talking about some financial reward there; this is no “give in order to get” health and wealth gospel. Paul sees this matter of giving as a grace thing, not a reward thing.
But precisely because they have been the recipients of so much grace, they should “finish the work….” That’s the closest Paul comes to an outright imperative here—just “finish.” Last year you were the first church to be moved by the needs of the church in Jerusalem; you were so willing and eager to take up an offering to alleviate their poverty. In the interim, something (perhaps the flap over the overt sinner in the midst of the Corinthian church) had hindered the completion of this benevolent project. Now it’s time to match your initial willingness with completion of the offering. It doesn’t matter how much you give. Give according to what you have been given by God. What matters is that your heart is in it, “for if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable to God.”
With those words about proportional giving, Paul leans into his profound conclusion about equality. He has already hinted at this in his reminder about how Christ exchanged his wealth for poverty so that we who are poor might become rich. Now he is explicit. His goal in this matter of giving is “that there might be equality.” In this age of growing income inequality, Paul’s words will strike some of our hearers as more than a little socialistic, if not communistic. But Paul is not talking about communism; he is talking about community. He is not encouraging a government-driven income redistribution; he is calling the community of Christ to voluntarily and graciously give of their wealth so that the needs of all are well met.
We must be as careful as Paul when we preach this part of the Gospel. Paul is very clear that he is not interested in making the Jewish Christians rich by making the Corinthian Christians poor. He simply desires that everyone has enough. He advocates for a leveling in the church—not a lowering so that all are equally poor, but a raising so that all are equally rich. He is not talking about making the rich poorer, but making the poor richer. His is not a “take from the rich and give to the poor” philosophy; rather he invites the rich to give voluntarily and graciously, so that the poor won’t be poor anymore.
Paul is realistic. He is not calling for an endless, one-way flow of benevolence with the result that the recipients become dependent on the givers. Elsewhere Paul preaches on hard work and the responsible use of money. Here he says, “At the present time, your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need.” In other words, what goes around comes around. In a community formed by grace, we take care of each other according to our ability, so that there may be equality. Paul is not advocating for the abolition of property and wealth; he is advocating for the abolition of poverty by the free sharing of our wealth.
The cartoon shows two men standing outside the door of their church. They are dressed only in their boxer shorts and t-shirts. They have a dazed expression on their faces. One guy says, “That was the best stewardship sermon I ever heard.” “Yeah,” said the other one, “I feel like the man in the story of the Good Samaritan, like I’ve been jumped by a gang of thieves, robbed, beaten, stripped, and left for dead on the side of the road.” Have you ever felt mugged by a stewardship sermon? Preaching faithfully on this text should leave people feeling richer, because they catch a vision of gracious giving.
But won’t giving some of our hard earned money cause us to be poorer? Well, yes, if there were a limited sum of money available in the world. But the world is not the dispenser of wealth. God is. The hymn, “God, Whose Giving Knows No Ending,” acknowledges in lovely poetry that “every good and perfect gift is from above.” (James 1:17)
“God, whose giving knows no ending, from your rich and endless store:
Nature’s wonder, Jesus’ wisdom, costly cross, grave’s shattered door,
Gifted by you, we turn to you, offering up ourselves in praise;
Thankful song shall rise forever, gracious donor of our days.
Skills and time are ours for pressing toward the goals of Christ, your Son;
All at peace in health and freedom, races joined, the Church made one.
Now direct our daily labor, lest we strive for self alone;
Born with talents, make us servants fit to answer at your throne.
Treasure, too, you have entrusted, gained through powers your grace conferred;
Ours to use for home and kindred, and to spread the Gospel Word.
Open wide our hands in sharing, as we heed Christ’s ageless call,
Healing, teaching, and reclaiming, serving you by loving all.
As Paul says in II Corinthians 9:7, “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all you need, you will abound in every good work.”
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