June 22, 2016 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday, June 26, 2016.
An audio link is embedded below for those who’d rather listen.
Jesus and the Judean Poor Relief Fund
Back when I was in college, I used to take summer ministry jobs out east. Right before the collection trays were passed around, one of the men of the congregation would say a few words. I don’t know if the elders of the church had nudged this man to twist some arms because the giving was down or what. But when he spoke before the collection was taken, he quoted 1 Cor. 16.2 right out of good old King James:
Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come.
The brother went on to say that we have been commanded to lay by in store each and every Sunday until the Lord returns. It is a command!, he boomed.
Because I was just the summer preacher boy, and needed to work there again the next summer, I didn’t speak up at the time. But what I wanted to say was: Brother, unless Saint Paul himself is coming to gather what we collect, and take it to needy saints in Jerusalem, you might want to rethink what you just said. After all, the very next verse says: Then when I get there, I’ll send whomever you approve to Jerusalem with letters of recommendation to bring your gift. If it seems right for me to go too, they’ll travel with me.
Embarrassing little events like this one are why I’m always telling people not to dip in the Bible Kool-Aid when they don’t even know the flavor.
Anyway, that’s 1 Corinthians. Our reading today was from 2 Corinthians. Chapter 8 to be precise. It’s about a year after the church at Corinth had agreed to contribute to the Judean Poor Relief Fund. In the meantime, there’d been some intense drama between the Corinthians and Paul. We talked a bit about that a few weeks ago. Some highfalutin preacher boys from out of town had come to Corinth and tried to convince the saints there to ditch Paul and follow their church growth strategy instead. It was a hot mess. So 2 Corinthians is about Paul and the Corinthians being reconciled and getting their relationship back on track. One of the most pressing matters was the collection for Jerusalem. Presumably, during the troubles between Paul and the church, their zeal for the project had dwindled. The reading we just heard was Paul, more or less, encouraging the Corinthians to finish what they started.
Now, here’s what’s fascinating to me. What Paul didn’t do was try to guilt them into getting the collection back on track. Okay, he did a little. You may have noticed that Paul began our lesson today by bragging on the saints at Macedonia: they gave what they could afford and even more than they could afford, and they did it voluntarily. Paul knew his audience. I mentioned a few weeks back that Corinthian culture was extremely competitive. Paul knew they’d be embarrassed if those poor Macedonians beat them at giving. So Paul began by bragging on the Macedonian collection to light a fire under the Corinthians. Still, we don’t see Paul flexing his apostle muscles. He didn’t say, Remember how last year I told you: Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come? I’m an apostle, and that was a command!
No, Paul didn’t browbeat, guilt-trip, or nag his Corinthian friends. Instead, he drew a line straight from the collection for Jerusalem to Jesus: You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, he reminded them. Although he was rich, he became poor for our sakes, so that you could become rich through his poverty.
Paul pointed out that Jesus was a giver. Jesus was uber-generous. And, of course, it should go without saying that the point of everything we do is to become more like Jesus.
The Jesus model of generosity
I just love that smack in the middle of this very practical business of getting the collection back on track, Paul breaks out the incarnational theology. In other words, he wants the Corinthians to see whatever sacrifice they’re making for their sisters and brothers in Jerusalem; in light of the sacrifice Jesus made for them when he left his home with Father God to live and die on earth. Paul frames the Judean Poor Relief Fund as a matter of imitating Jesus. Jesus gave up the richness of life in heaven, in perfect union with Father God and the Spirit. And he became a human. And not a king or nobleman or business tycoon. No one rich or powerful or famous. Just a human. He came as a poor kid, born to an unwed teenage mother. And he grew up in a backwater town in Galilee no one had ever heard of. And he died a shameful death reserved for outlaws, slaves, and other defeated people. That’s Jesus’ generosity—or as Paul calls it here, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus did this as a gift, for the benefit of all humanity. As Paul says here: he became poor for our sakes, so that you could become rich through his poverty. So Paul wants the Corinthians to imitate the generosity of Jesus. He wants them to know that they aren’t just giving money to help feed some hungry Judean Christians. They were doing that, of course. But they were doing something much deeper, too. They were sharing in the grace of Jesus Christ.
Paul says that the Incarnation was all about Jesus becoming poor so that others could be made rich. It reminds me of something else Paul wrote about the Incarnation. In Phil. 2.5-9, Paul told his readers to: Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:
Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names.
This is who Jesus is. A self-giver. Someone who is generous with himself first. This was something that Paul praised the Macedonians for in our reading today, when he was bragging about them. He says that they gave themselves to the Lord first and to us, consistent with God’s will. Jesus had likewise given himself first to his Father’s will, then to needy humanity. In fact, if you read between the lines a bit, it almost sounds like Paul wasn’t entirely comfortable asking the Macedonians to join the relief effort, due to their intense poverty and persecution. But Paul says that, They urgently begged us for the privilege of sharing in this service for the saints. It was their idea to donate to the Judean Relief Fund. They gave at their own initiative. As soon as they heard about the need in Jerusalem, and the relief effort Paul had established, those poor, persecuted Macedonians lined up to help out.
They made an offering of their poor, persecuted selves; as Jesus had offered his poor, persecuted self.
This is the throbbing core of the virtue we call generosity: self-giving. Whether it’s the money you drop in the collection plate on Sundays; or the meal you bring to grieving family members; or dropping what you’re doing to help someone through a tough situation; or taking the time to listen well—generosity begins with giving yourself first. Generosity is always a personal investment.
It’s just here that I feel the need to pause and insert a warning. We have heard Paul gushing over the Macedonians, who freely gave even though they were poorer than a dirt floor, and persecuted to boot. Then we’ve seen him hold up Jesus as an example of generosity: Although he was rich, he became poor for our sakes, so that you could become rich through his poverty. Sometimes these words have been used to browbeat poor Christians into giving when they really can’t; or giving more than they can afford. Was Paul holding up the Macedonian Christians who—by his own admission—gave even more than they could afford as examples for every Christian to follow for all time? Moreover, if Jesus is our example, should we impoverish ourselves for others as he did?
I’m going to answer those questions with a hearty no! In our lesson today,
Paul taught the Jesus model of generosity. Let’s look again at what he said:
Although he was rich, he became poor for our sakes. Jesus had all the power and wealth of the universe, but gave it up to make us whole. Incidentally, that’s another reason why it’s inappropriate to try to shake down saints for money they don’t have. In fact, that’s the exact opposite of the Jesus way of generosity. The Jesus model is those who have giving to those who don’t—not those who don’t have giving to those who do. We see the same pattern in Phil. 2.5ff, which I mentioned earlier. There, Paul says that even though Jesus was God, he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. Again, what we see is Jesus giving up the privilege of his status, and embracing humanity by becoming one of us so he could serve our needs. The point is this: The Jesus model of generosity involves someone who has status, wealth, privilege, power, or talent giving something up, and giving themselves first, so that those who don’t have can be blessed. The Jesus way of generosity is humbling yourself so that someone else can be exalted.
The Jesus model of generosity assumes that you can’t give what you don’t have. In our reading today, we heard Paul say that: Although he was rich, he became poor for our sakes, so that you could become rich through his poverty. That’s fearfully and wonderfully true, and it ought to inspire us to imitate Jesus in self-giving. But to take this glorious synopsis of what Jesus did for us, and make it a legalistic requirement instead of an inspiration to follow him misses the point. That’s why Paul said what he did near the end of our lesson today: A gift is appreciated because of what a person can afford, not because of what that person can’t afford, if it’s apparent that it’s done willingly. Paul didn’t expect anyone to give what they couldn’t afford. But he did want those who could to give whatever they could afford willingly. Paul also said that he wasn’t interested in afflicting the Corinthians in order to comfort the saints in Jerusalem. Notice what he says here: It isn’t that we want others to have financial ease and you financial difficulties, but it’s a matter of equality. At the present moment, your surplus can fill their deficit so that in the future their surplus can fill your deficit. In this way there is equality.
Paul’s hope was that the Corinthians would understand that their generosity would contribute to equality among God’s people. He wanted everyone—the Macedonians, the Corinthians, the Judeans—to have enough. That’s why he concluded our reading today with a reference to the manna miracle in Exodus: The one who gathered more didn’t have too much, and the one who gathered less didn’t have too little. That’s a direct quote from Exod. 16.18. Paul wanted the Corinthians to know that all the saints are on a journey together toward their promised inheritance—just like the tribes of Israel during the Exodus. And—as N. T. Wright puts it—God wanted “to ensure that his people do not go hungry on their journey home.”
The Jesus model of generosity is that those who have give to those that don’t. Those who have abundance share with those who lack. Yes, this involves money—even the offerings we give on Sunday. But it begins—as it did for Jesus, and for the saints in Macedonia—with self-giving.
Generosity and fellowship
There’s one more thing I want to mention about the Jesus model of generosity. And it’s mighty important, but we often miss it. It’s the connection between generosity and fellowship. Paul wanted to make sure his readers didn’t miss how sharing creates community. Gifts can and do break down walls, ease tensions, build trust, and form friendships. The giver and the recipient are bound together by the gift. And in the bond of friendship and community, giving becomes reciprocal. Gifts are freely exchanged, until no one can quite remember who owes what to whom. Sharing becomes a way of life. This is exactly what Paul hoped for. Again, listen to what he said: At the present moment, your surplus can fill their deficit so that in the future their surplus can fill your deficit. Paul’s vision for the Judean Poor Relief Fund was to bind the churches he had planted throughout the Empire to the saints in Jerusalem.
More on that shortly. The point is, there’s this really cool dynamic achieved when we invest ourselves first; then invest our time or talents or resources. Then we find ourselves becoming more deeply invested in the work; in the sharing; and most importantly, in the lives of those with whom we share. That’s exactly what Jesus was getting at in the Sermon on the Mount when he said: Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matt. 6.21). My friend Mark Van Steenwyk likes to put it this way: “Your heart chases after your treasure like a dog chases after a stick.” When you invest yourself along with your time, talents, and treasures—like the Macedonians did—your definition of treasure changes. You begin to place different values on things. The relationship is the treasure. Seeing your friend hopeful and happy and growing and thriving is the treasure.
Paul began connecting generosity with fellowship near the beginning of our lesson today. While he was bragging on the Macedonians, he said: They urgently begged us for the privilege of sharing in this service for the saints. Literally, they begged for the grace—the gift—of fellowship. The Macedonians were just itching to let God work through their generosity. They saw the Judean Relief Fund as an opportunity to partner with God, Paul, and sister churches in reaching out to Judea. Not just to make sure the saints in Judea didn’t go hungry. But also for God, through whatever the Macedonians could share, to bind the communities in fellowship. The Macedonians wanted what Paul wanted: They wanted the gift they offered to plant a seed of friendship.
Toward the end of his letter to the Romans, Paul spells out why he launched the Judean Poor Relief Fund in the first place. I’m going to Jerusalem, to serve God’s people, Paul writes. Macedonia and Achaia have been happy to make a contribution for the poor among God’s people in Jerusalem. Incidentally, this is how we know Paul’s appeal in our lesson today did its job. Paul mentioned that Macedonia and Achaia had contributed; and Corinth was a leading city in Achaia. Paul goes on to explain his goal for the relief effort: They—Macedonia and Achaia—were happy to do this, and they are actually in debt to God’s people in Jerusalem. If the Gentiles got a share of the Jewish people’s spiritual resources, they ought to minister to them with material resources. Paul wants the Jewish and Gentile churches to see that they are all equally God’s people. Moreover, they need each other. After all, Jesus was Israel’s Messiah. The Gospel had burst forth; the Holy Spirit had been poured out; and the church had been born in Jerusalem. There wouldn’t be Gentile saints if there hadn’t been Jewish saints first. Paul wants the Gentiles to be vessels of grace for the Jewish believers who had first been vessels of grace for them. He wants them to recognize their indebtedness to each other. When friendship and fellowship flow from realizing that you need one another, you tend to stop keeping score of who owes what to whom.
The church was born and nurtured in this feedback loop of fellowship and generosity. Haven’t we all heard those utopian visions of the first Christian communities in the early chapters of Acts?
The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved … The community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, “This is mine!” about any of their possessions, but held everything in common. The apostles continued to bear powerful witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and an abundance of grace was at work among them all. There were no needy persons among them. Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales, and place them in the care and under the authority of the apostles. Then it was distributed to anyone who was in need. (Acts 2.42-47; 4.32-35)
We tend to dismiss this picture of the infant church as, at best, a necessity because many of the first saints were from out-of-town; or, at worst, a sign of their naiveté that was broken up soon enough by the reality of persecution. Both those ideas miss the point. What we see here is a movement from partnership to fellowship to sharing; which then leads to deeper partnership; closer fellowship; and more sharing. It all began with them sitting together to hear the apostles’ teaching. Then they were sitting around each other’s dining room tables. Before you know it, they were all living on the same block, and you were never quite sure whose house was whose. Everyone’s house was like Jerry’s apartment on Seinfeld—kooky people coming and going, grabbing food out of one another’s refrigerators, picking up conversations right where they’d left off. Like they all belonged there. Like they were a family or something.
Like I said, there’s a feedback loop between fellowship and generosity. Paul pointed it out in our lesson today, but we see it lived out in those early days of the church. I wish we still liked each other that much, don’t you? Generosity and fellowship working together like that has the power to transform a bunch of strangers from all over the world into a family. That’s how the Jesus model of generosity works. That’s what we find happening in those early chapters of Acts. And that’s what Paul hoped the Judean Poor Relief Fund would accomplish: bonding the Jewish and Gentile churches together as a family. A big, diverse, messy, rich, robust family that shows the world how generous God is.
When we follow the Jesus model of generosity—the self-giving way, the way of sharing-as-fellowship—it changes us. It transforms our hearts, our worldview, our values. We discover that our most valuable treasures are found in each other. And, like the man said: Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.