Saturday, June 30, 2012

Christian Giving: Who Benefits?

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 1st, Year of Our + Lord 2012
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
2nd Corinthians 8:1-15

It is more blessed to give than to receive.  That is, you are blessed when you give; Paul even calls it a grace for you.   

I thank the LORD for our financial health.  I’m glad we don’t face an ongoing budget struggle which might drive me to preach, teach and talk about money all the time.  It happens, including here, in the past, but not during my ministry, not yet at least.  It doesn’t sound fun.  But perhaps these days of abundance really aren’t the best time to talk about giving.  Perhaps a bit of a crisis would sharpen our minds and open our hearts.  Perhaps we’d learn the LORD’s lessons about money and Church better if we were struggling to make budget.  Indeed, Paul mentions the strange combination of an abundance of joy and extreme poverty, overflowing into a wealth of generosity.  Great giving comes from extreme poverty, mixed with joy?  What is this?  More about that later.  Today our circumstances are what they are, our finances good, and this text in front of us.    

You might be surprised I’m not preaching on our famous Old Testament text – great is Thy faithfulness, LORD – or on the double miracle for the woman and the dead little girl in our Gospel – if only I can touch the hem of His garment, I will be made well.  Talitha cum, little girl I say to you, arise.  Great passages, both, but several things struck me as I studied this passage from 2nd Corinthians. 

First, Paul is bluntly asking for money to support the Christians in Jerusalem and Judea, who are suffering from a famine, but he doesn’t care how much the Corinthians give.  Fundraising experts will tell you to always be specific with dollar amounts, but the Apostle asks for no particular level of giving.  No tithe, or tenth, is required or even suggested to them, no amount at all.  Paul simply isn’t concerned with how much they give, but rather with why they give, and what giving will do for them. 

For Old Testament Israel, God did give specific percentages, the tithe or tenth offering.  Under Moses, no option was offered; along with various other occasional offerings, you gave a tenth, period, no options, that was the Law.  But Paul is an Apostle to the New Israel, the New Testament Church which is free in Christ, and so no suggested giving levels are to be found in our text.  Give what you want.    

The why of what you might want to give is found in the second thing that struck me in these verses, especially verse 4.  Paul uses some unexpected words to discuss the financial giving he is calling the Corinthians to complete.  Unfortunately, much of the impact is lost in translation.  Our verse 4 goes as follows:  Paul reports how the Macedonians were “begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.”   Now, that is impressive.  Who among us has ever begged for the opportunity to give money to help people far away, whom we do not know?  Willing to give, ready to give, sure, but begging to give?  Impressive.  But wait, there’s more. 
First of all, the Macedonians’ begging was with paraclesis, or exhortation, translated ‘earnestly’ in our reading.  Paraclesis is a word usually associated with the Holy Spirit, indeed Jesus calls the Spirit the Paraclete, the One who does paraclesis.  Paraclesis means to exhort, comfort, encourage, entreat.  The Macedonians begged like the Holy Spirit works.  And what they begged for was the charis, the grace, the gift from God, of giving.  And they begged like the Spirit for the grace of giving, not just to take part in a good cause, but to have koinonia, that is fellowship, or communion, in this giving.  The same word, koinonia, is used for our communion with God and each other in the Holy Supper.  Finally, this act of giving, this relief of the saints, is actually a diakonia, that is a ministry, or service, to the saints. 

Paraclesis – exhortation, the work of the Holy Spirit.  Charis – grace, a free gift from God.  Koinonia – fellowship or communion in the things of Christ.  Diakonia – ministry or service.  Giving a financial contribution entailed all of these holy things, all done for the saints, the holy ones of God.  As Paul describes Christian giving, it sounds like a lot more that a nice thing to do.  It sounds fundamentally entwined with the life of the Church of Christ. 

Indeed, Paul goes on to say the Corinthians excel in all sorts of other Churchly things, like faith, and the word, the ‘logos’, and in knowledge and earnestness, and in love.  Here again, our translation misses a bit, for in our verse 7 the list of things the Corinthians excel in concludes with “and in our love for you,” which, if you think about it, sounds funny.  How do I excel in your love for me?  A more literal translation again will help.  Paul says the Corinthians excel in the “from us to you ‘agape’,” that is, they excel in “the selfless love, ‘agape’, which Paul brought to the Corinthians.”  What selfless ‘agape’ love is Paul referring to?  The love of Christ poured out on the Cross, of course, the love of Christ Paul had delivered to them through the preaching of the Gospel.  They excel in ‘agape’ love by eagerly gathering to receive it, again and again. 

Finally, and most importantly as it relates to the topic of stewardship, as they excel in all these clearly divine things, like faith, word, knowledge, earnestness, and ‘agape’ love, so also Paul wants them to be completed by excelling in the grace of giving.  Why does Paul want this grace of giving to be completed in the Corinthians?  Not out of obedience to any commandment, but to prove, or demonstrate, that the ‘agape’ love amongst them is genuine.  That is to say the completion of their giving will bear witness to the truth that the living Christ dwells among them. 

Which brings me to the third, most striking thing about this passage.  The beneficiary of Christian giving, at least as Paul describes it in this passage, is first and foremost the one who gives.  Doesn’t that seem odd?  I mean, Paul is raising funds to take to Jerusalem to help the Christians there who face a desperate famine.  It is clearly true that the Christians in Judea will benefit from whatever generosity the Corinthians or anyone else offer.  That’s what we still do with our Mission Sundays, isn’t it?  We choose three causes a year to support with a portion of our giving.  Sometimes we can only get some display items and some materials to describe the work being done, for which they need our money.  Far better is when someone from the mission or ministry can come and speak directly to us, as the Saville’s did when they were missionaries in Venezuela.  We hear, we learn, we enjoy fellowship, we give, and the ministry or mission benefits.  Seems kind of obvious, the receiver of a gift is the one who benefits. 

But as we look closely at what Paul says, the need and plight of the saints in Jerusalem are hardly mentioned.  Paul spends much more time describing the joy of the Macedonians, who gave beyond their means, giving first to the LORD, that is, maintaining their support of their local congregation and pastor, and then also to Paul and his special cause.  Paul wants the joy of the Macedonians to also be the joy of the Corinthians.  It’s almost as if Paul knows God will take care of the Christians in Jerusalem, somehow, with or without the Corinthians. Great is His faithfulness, after all.  But the reason he gives for the Corinthians to give is that they have grace and joy and be complete, for these are a sure sign of Christ’s agape love among them.   

Paul’s concern in this passage is all about the benefit of the giver.  It’s not that he’s not concerned for the starving saints in Judea, but in his encouragement of the Corinthians, Paul never describes their desperate plight, no images of smiling but oh-too-skinny-children to tug at their heartstrings, no questions about who will  help them if you don’t, in summary, no guilt whatsoever.  Instead of using guilt, Paul instead talks about the joy of giving, of how the Macedonians combined extreme poverty and joy to produce an overflowing wealth of generosity.  Strange economics here, for overflowing generosity to come out of extreme poverty.  How does that work? 

Well, to put it simply, Paul is talking about Christian giving.  That is, the economics of Paul’s fundraising are fundamentally different because this is giving by and amongst the followers of Jesus Christ, who, though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.  The poverty of God’s Son changes everything, for His poverty was caused by the debt of all humanity’s sin.  Jesus, for the joy set before Him, left all of the richness of glory at His Father’s throne, and took on all your sins.  All your petty meanness, all your laziness, all your selfishness and greed, all your lust and deep, hidden wickedness, all these, Jesus took on Himself, becoming by your debts the ultimate Poor Man, paying once for all on the Cross, so that you might, through Him, become rich.    

The poverty of God’s Son changes everything, because for Christians, that is for sinners who believe their sins are washed away in Jesus’ blood, giving now benefits you, the giver.  Now, in Christ, to give is more blessed than to receive.  Why?  Because to give is to imitate Christ, and in all things, the closer we are to Jesus, the better for us.  The woman with the flow of blood was healed just by touching His garment.  The little girl was raised to life when Jesus went personally into her room and took her by the hand and commanded new life into her.  And so also, when you as a Christian give in a way that reflects the giving nature of Jesus, you are blessed by this imitation of Him.    

To better understand, let’s go back to that list of special words Paul use to describe the blessing the Macedonians found in giving.  Paul says they begged with exhortation for the grace of fellowship or communion in this financial ministry or service to the saints in Judea.  Exhortation is a Holy Spirit word, which fits, as their desire to give was a work of the Holy Spirit in them.  Grace of course is the attitude of favor that God has towards us, and this giving was a concrete example of God’s grace among them.  Fellowship or communion is the close relationship God has re-established with sinners through the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, fellowship we enjoy again and again in Word and Sacrament, fellowship which then creates a bond between all Christians, a communion which we rejoice to visibly participate in, both at the altar, and in mutual support. 

Ministry or service is then the act of delivering the good things God has given to another person, be that the ministry of the Word and Sacrament, delivering the Gospel of Jesus Christ to sinners, or ministry to the needs of the body, joyfully done to support another saint, another sinner who, like you, has been declared to be holy by God, for Jesus’ sake. 

So you see, giving to support fellow Christians is an integral part of being Church.  Our giving does not create the Church, any more than our fellowship with each other creates our fellowship with God.  No, everything starts in God, and most particularly, in the grace of Jesus Christ, who, though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.  Christian giving is a natural outflow of the new richness we have first been given in Christ Jesus.     

So, Christian giving is good for you, the giver.  Paul praises the Corinthians for their beginning, their commitment to take an offering for the saints in Judea.  A good thing, to start.  Even better is when a God-given desire begins to motivate your plan to give.  And best of all is when the desire to give reaches completion, so that you and the Church around you get to see the visible proof of God’s grace and ‘agape’ love among you.  It doesn’t matter how much you give, but rather that you desire to give, from the joy you have, because Christ has given Himself to you. 

In my eight years of ministry to you here, it has been a great joy to see how God has provided for all our needs.  Financially, the LORD has made use of fire and flood and oil wells and many other earthly things, to create the circumstances for our opportunity to rejoice in the grace of giving.  Through it all, of course, the key has been God causing His Word and Sacrament to go forth, bringing forgiveness to sinners like you and me, grace and mercy abounding and giving us hearts that desire to give. 

Perhaps in years to come the LORD will give us tougher times, as He has in the past.  Or perhaps our earthly bounty will continue.  No matter, as long as we are centered on the One who, though he was rich, yet for our sake became poor.  We have everything we need, for ourselves, and for others, in the poverty of Christ crucified, and in the riches of Christ resurrected and ascended, ruling right now at the Father’s right hand.  God grant us ever to find our poverty, our wealth, and our joy, in Jesus, Amen. 

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