2 Corinthians 8:1-15
Forgive me! For the next three weeks in both our churches we are going to be looking at giving.
I am very conscious that I do not wish us to become churches that are always talking about giving and money. And if you have recently joined us, or started coming along, I promise you that we rarely speak about giving. You've just happened to come along at the wrong moment!
The reason I don't like talking about money is that people often think that the church is only after your money. Well, yes the church is after your money - but actually more seriously, the church really is after your life!
I'm also conscious that I am speaking about giving in the context of a serious recession. There are several members of our congregations who are currently unemployed. Salaries are being held back. Pensions have been squeezed. And most of us have had to tighten our belt and to cut back.
But it is about three years since we last seriously spoke about giving: and we need to do so. Not least because if we call Jesus, 'Lord', then he is also Lord of our money and of our giving.
We're looking this morning at 2 Corinthians 8.
One of the reasons that Paul wrote this letter is to do with money. There has been a famine in Jerusalem. Many of the Jewish believers are suffering significantly. The church in Corinth has made a pledge: 'we will raise money for the believers in Jerusalem' (we read about that in 1 Corinthians 16:1). Meanwhile neighbouring churches in Macedonia have also pledged to raise money. Paul is now sending Titus, and two others, to go round these churches in order to help with the collection and to bring the money back to Jerusalem. And so Paul writes this letter, either to send ahead of Titus, or for Titus to take with him when he goes.
And Paul begins by telling the Christians in Corinth about the astonishing generosity of the churches in Macedonia. They too were made up of people who were struggling. In fact the situation for them was worse than for the people in Corinth.
And Paul writes a strange thing: 'Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity' (2 Corinthians 8:2)
Their joy in Christ was not diminished because of their suffering, and their generosity was not reduced because of their poverty. They gave as much as they were able, if not more.
These were believers who, even though they were suffering, and even though they were poor, had discovered the joy of giving
And that is the starting point.
Paul does not start with tithing. I could say that the norm of giving in the New Testament is a tithe: that people should give a tithe, one tenth, of what they receive to the work of the Lord whether that is here or in the diocese or overseas.
Jesus said to the Pharisees on one occasion, 'You tithe so much that you even give a tenth of your spices (we're talking tithing your spice cabinet - cinammon, five spice, curry powder), but you neglect the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter without neglecting the former'. (Matthew 23:23).
In view of what I am about to say, it would in fact be much easier for me to say, 'As a Christian you ought to be tithing - or at least making tithing a target for your giving'.
But Paul does not say that here. In fact, while in the Old Testament tithing was a requirement for a Jewish believer, Jesus only mentions tithing twice. Once in the incident we've just mentioned, and once when he tells the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee. The Pharisee is boasting about what a spiritual person he is: 'I tithe' he says. But because of his attitude, and the way he looks down on other people, God refuses to listen to him.
Tithing is part of the Old Testament law; and as such it is a great guideline for our giving, especially for our thinking about how much we might give to the church for the work of the ministry. It is something that Alison and myself try to do. It is something that many people in our churches try to do. But we have no authority whatsoever for building a theology of giving on the requirement to tithe.
And it is significant that Paul does not mention tithing here or, for that matter, anywhere else.
Instead Paul appeals to something quite different:
He appeals to the reality of their Christian faith.
Paul is writing to people who have come to know the love of the Lord Jesus Christ. These are people in whom the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ lives. They know the grace of God, and they are beginning to be transformed by the grace of God.
So Paul writes (v7), 'you excel in everything - in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in love'. And he says to them, 'Excel also in the grace of giving'. In other words, live up to the Spirit who God has put in you.
And he reminds them that the Spirit of God had given them a deep desire to give, just as the Spirit had given the believers in Macedonia a desire to give. So he says, (v10), 'a year ago you started not only to do this work but also to desire to do it'. Fascinating. Many of us give but we give reluctantly. We do not necessarily desire to give.
The very heart of God is generous love. God loves to give, God desires to give and God gives.
"For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich" (2 Corinthians 8:9)
Everything that we have is gift. Life, each other, our possessions, our gifts and abilities. We did nothing to merit birth; we did nothing to merit that we should be born at this particular time in history, in this particular place. We did nothing to merit any of the good things in life: love, joy, happiness, creativity, laughter or beauty.
And while we may not have done anything to merit birth or life, we certainly have done quite a bit to deserve death. We have rejected God. We live as if there is no God, no ultimate accountability. We have lived as if I am god. We have taken the good gifts that he has given us, we have treated them as if they are ours by right, as if we somehow deserve them, and we try to hold on to them.
And because we are fallen people, we do not naturally give. I'm not talking about the money that we might give to members of our family, to the people we love, to the people who might help us out when we're in a bad way; I'm not talking about the £1 or £5 or maybe £10, £20 or even £50 that we might occasionally give - because we feel bad, or because we would feel shamed if we did not, or because the issue has personally affected us, or because we want our name up in lights: 'The Rogers wing'.
If we do give, in most cases it is because we have some sort of self-interest in giving; or because we have to - and we'll do whatever we can to wriggle out of it (I guess you could include taxes in that), or we give because there is an emotional gun pointed at our head.
But we do not naturally give. For instance, most of us would sell a bigger home for a smaller home for financial reasons, or because our current home is too large for us. But most of us would really struggle to voluntarily sell a larger home for a smaller home in a worse part of town in order to be able to give - even though it means that, as far as the world is concerned, we will have a lower, less comfortable standard of living.
And I am going to say something that is very controversial, but I am concerned in the current economic climate when it is Christians who are in the forefront of people going on strike to protect their pension or their salary - particularly if they are relatively well paid. I know that many of you are involved because you are concerned about the integrity of your profession and that is important, but we have to remember that it is not all about me keeping my current standard of living.
Naturally, we try to hold on to that which we have.
But that is not the way of God. It is not the way of Jesus, and it is not the way of the Holy Spirit who lives inside the believer. "Self-giving love", as someone said, "is the signature of the Trinity."
God gave his son: 'For God so loved the world that he gave'.
In his great love for us, God not only gives us life and love, he also gives us his very self. He sends his son Jesus into our world to live among us.
And Jesus gave up heaven in order to come and live on earth. He gave up 'sapphire paved courts for stable floor', in the words of the hymn that we are about to sing.
And he was willing to suffer and to die - not because he had to, not out of guilt, not for people who could do anything for him, not even for friends - but so that we, who had rejected him, might be forgiven, and so that we might begin to know God, and so that God himself might come and live within us.
It really is all gift: life, love, forgiveness, stuff, his steadfast promises, fellowship and friendship, hope, joy, peace, purpose, eternal destiny, the kingdom of God: and as we begin to realise the astonishing grace of God - the way that he has lavished blessing upon blessing on us and as we begin to realise that it is all gift, and to receive that gift, to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit of God - so we really are set free to give.
And that is why when Jesus brought salvation to Zacchaeus, he did not have to command Zacchaeus to give - Zacchaeus freely gave away half his goods to the poor (Luke 19:8)
It is why Jesus does not command those who follow him to give; he simply says, 'When you give'(Matthew 6:2)
It is why the early Christians did literally sell their property so that they could give to the poor and to the work of the ministry (Acts 4:34f)
It is why the Macedonian Christians did have a desire to give, even in a situation of great hardship
It is why Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 9:7, "Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver".
And it is why many of us do have a desire to give - to give not because we have to, not out of a sense that it is what we 'ought' to do, not out of guilt - but out of a simple gospel passion, and out of Holy Spirit inspiration. And we are beginning to want to give so that others - completely unknown to us - may not only have material possessions but - far more importantly - may have the opportunity to hear about Jesus Christ, about forgiveness and about eternal life. Because, as Paul puts it, if people do not hear, they cannot believe.
The greatest act of love that you can do for any man, woman or child, is to sacrifice yourself, and sacrifice what we have, so that they have a greater chance of hearing about the love that God has for them.
That is why Paul does not talk about tithing. If you are speaking to Christian believers you do not need to tell them to tithe. They will want to give, far more than a tithe.
For some people, even though they really want to give, a tithe is too much (particularly if they are in debt). For others a tithe is nothing: someone with £1m who gives £100k. It is a cop out. They still have £900k left. They could easily afford to give so much more, but it would mean a change in lifestyle. That is why Paul says in verse 12, 'For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have'. When you have an abundance in comparison to others you give of that abundance abundantly.
And that is why Paul reminds the Corinthians of the example of the Macedonian Christians. They gave themselves first to the Lord and then they gave to Paul and his collection.
And although we are talking about giving, and financial giving to the church - today I am not going to talk about the financial situation of the parish or of the diocese here. I'm not today going to suggest reasons why we should give - but I wish to simply focus on the fact that if you are a believer, if the Spirit of God lives in you, and if you are being guided by the Spirit, then the desire to give will be there - and you will want to give.
And if you do not have that desire to give, or if when the plate comes round you give simply because you feel you ought to, then could I take the radical step of suggesting that you do not give, at least to the work of the ministry of the church. God won't love you any the less, and you will feel much happier about it.
I like the story that is told of the mother who wanted her daughter to learn about giving, and so gave her a 20p and £1. She said, 'You can put either into the collection and keep the other'. As they were going home, mum asked her which she had put in. She said, 'Well at first I thought I would put in the £1, but then the preacher said that God loved a cheerful giver, and I thought I would be much more cheerful if I had the £1. So I put in the 20p'.
But the astonishing thing is that if you do decide not to give, and you then realise that God still loves you, and that you are absolutely welcome here, you might begin to realise a little of what grace actually means. And you might discover that what you really desire to do is to surrender to this God of love, this God of grace. He really does want your life.
And if you do desire to give, then all I will say today is what Paul said to the Corinthian Christians: 'Be wise. We do not wish to see you overburdened. But don't let things come in that stop you from doing what you really want to do, from what you were made to do. Don't let forgetfulness, or laziness, or procrastination, or fear or spiritual drowsiness get in the way. Go home, even today, and write that cheque or set up that standing order or put that cash in the envelope and give it. Do it.
A man called Richard Stearns writes, "In 1987, the largest, single-day stock market crash since 1929 took place. In one day [my wife, Renee] and I lost more than one-third of our life's savings and the money we had put aside for our kids' university education. I was horrified and became like a man obsessed, each night working past midnight, analysing on spreadsheets all that we had lost, and the next day calling in orders to sell our remaining stocks and mutual funds to prevent further losses. (Of course that turned out to be the absolute worst thing I could have done.)
I was consumed with anguish over our lost money—and it showed. One night when I was burning the midnight oil, Renee came and sat beside me. "Honey," she said, "this thing is consuming you in an unhealthy way. It's only money. We have our marriage, our health, our friends, our children, and a good income—so much to be thankful for. You need to let go of this and trust God." Don't you hate it when someone crashes your pity party? I didn't want to let go of it. I told her I felt responsible for our family and that she didn't understand. It was my job to worry about things like this.
She suggested we pray about it—something that hadn't occurred to me—so we did. At the end of the prayer, to my bewilderment, Renee said, "Now I think we need to get out the chequebook and write some big cheques to our church and ministries we support. We need to show God that we know this is his money and not ours." I was flabbergasted at the audacity of this suggestion, but in my heart I knew she was right. So that night we wrote some sizeable chequess, put them in envelopes addressed to various ministries, and sealed them. And that's when I felt the wave of relief. We had broken the spell that money had cast over me. It freed me from the worries that had consumed me. I actually felt reckless and giddy—"God, please catch us, because we just took a crazy leap of faith."