Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
July 1, 2012
“It’s a Gift!” (2 Corinthians 8:1-9, 13-15)
There was a lot of talk this past week about how the federal government can force you to buy a product that maybe you don’t want to buy, and they do that by extracting money from you if you don’t comply. But what do we call that? Is it a “mandate”? Is it a “penalty”? Is it a “fine”? No, the Supreme Court ruled, it’s a “tax.” Well, whether you call it a mandate, a penalty, a fine, or a tax, it still is a matter of compulsion and coercion and force. That’s how governments operate.
Now when we come to your giving to the church, do we operate in the same way? Do we compel you or force you or coerce you into giving a certain amount of money? Like, “Do this or else”? No. Emphatically, no! Your giving for the work of the church is not a mandate, a penalty, a fine, or a tax. Rather, as we’re about to hear, “It’s a Gift!”
It’s a gift. That’s what comes through loud and clear in our text today, from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 8. In this section of the letter, Paul does talk to the Corinthian church about their giving. He doesn’t shy away from the subject. And so we’re not going to shy away from it, either. But we’ll come at it, hopefully, in the same way that Paul does. And Paul “gift-talks” it. He emphasizes the grace of giving, God’s grace that underlies and prompts and produces our giving. That’s what we mean by saying, It’s a gift.
Let’s look at this text a little bit at a time and make some observations as we go. The chapter begins: “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will.”
The first thing we notice here is this: It’s a gift from God that you have the desire to give. That’s what Paul says about the Macedonian churches and their giving. It was God that gave them the grace, the gift, of wanting to give.
You see, we are not that way by nature. According to our sinful nature, we are grasping, not giving. We want to hold on to, and cling to, whatever we got, because we’re essentially interested in me, myself, and I. Selfishness comes naturally to us. It’s in our DNA.
Oh, now some people may give to this or that, in order to be seen by men, as Jesus said of the Pharisees. They may even be big givers. But that is not truly the spirit of giving. And maybe some of that “Hey, look at me!”–that desire for attention and acclaim can creep into our giving and our service in the church. We all are sinners, even as Christians.
So it takes God to free us from that inherent selfishness of ours and to turn us into givers. And thank God he does this. He did it for the Macedonian churches; he gave them the grace to want to give. And he will do that same thing for our church, too.
Speaking of those Macedonian churches, look at what it says about them: They had “extreme poverty,” they were “in a severe test of affliction,” and yet, God’s grace among them was such that they had an “abundance of joy” that led to a “wealth of generosity” on their part. They didn’t let their poor economic conditions stop them from giving–and giving generously. They didn’t use “the bad economy” as an excuse. No, they gave “according to their means,” and even “beyond their means,” over and above what one might expect.
Can God’s grace do that sort of thing among us? I think so. I mean, by mentioning the example of the Macedonians, Paul was expecting the same sort of thing from the Corinthians. So why not among the Missourians? I see no reason why not. God’s grace hasn’t lost its effectiveness. There’s no expiration date on God’s grace in Christ. So God will give you the desire to give, also.
Let’s continue with our text. Paul says those Macedonian churches were, in his words, “begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.” In other words, Paul didn’t have to beg them. They were begging Paul to be able to take part in the collection. They thought it was a gift that you get to be able to participate in the giving. They thought it was something you get to do, not something you have to do; a joyful privilege, not a burdensome, grudging obligation.
See, that can transform your giving, looking at it as an opportunity to take part in the good things that God is doing in the world through his church. You get to help out in good work, God’s work. What a privilege, what an honor! God is entrusting us to be his stewards, to be his vessels of mercy, his channels of blessing in the world, his hands, his feet, the church as his mouthpiece to bring the good news of Christ to the world. This is a high honor, a high calling, that God lets us in on.
The particular work that Paul was collecting for in our text, a church-wide offering being gathered all across the Mediterranean world, was a collection to bring relief to the suffering Christians in Jerusalem–the mother church, really, of all the churches. The Christians there were suffering from famine and persecution, and the church decided to take up a special offering for them, and that’s what Paul is referring to here.
But the church today still is doing similar acts of mercy, to help out our suffering brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. And you and I can help out with this with our offerings. Not to mention also perhaps even poor and struggling families and individuals right here in our own congregation, in our own backyard.
So those are works of mercy we can participate in through our giving. Then of course there is the vital work of the church in the ministry of Word and Sacrament. The church’s ministry of preaching and teaching the saving gospel of Christ–here, in and through our congregation, and, more broadly, through the work of our seminaries, our district, and our synod. This too we get to participate in through our generous giving. I am not ashamed to encourage you to do this, for I am not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe. There’s nothing more important going on in the world, therefore, than the ministry of the gospel. What a joy, what an opportunity, what a stewardship from God, that we get to help out in this ministry through our giving!
It’s a gift, your giving is–it’s a gift that you give first to the Lord, then to the church. That’s what St. Paul says: “They gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.” So when you write your check and put the offering envelope in the plate, you are giving that gift first of all to the Lord. You’re not giving it primarily to a church budget. You’re doing this first and foremost as an act of worship to God, the God who has blessed you abundantly and who invites you to participate in the work he is doing. You give to the Lord. If that is not the spirit behind your giving, you’re missing this important point.
Further, this giving that you do–it’s a gift, not a command. So when Paul writes, “see that you excel in this act of grace,” namely, to excel in the grace of giving, he quickly adds, “I say this not as a command.” And so that is how we appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, in the church. We don’t force you, we don’t coerce you. Instead, we appeal to you to recognize the grace of God in all of its dimensions, and to act accordingly. We don’t charge dues. We don’t tell you how much you should give, a dollar amount. I don’t know how much any of you give, and I don’t want to know. But I do want you to have the joy of participating in what God is doing in the world, through his church. And so I am happy and bold to ask you to give generously. Trust in God that he will provide for you when you do. He will.
Finally, and most importantly, when we talk about our giving as a gift from God–that he gives us the gift that we want to do it, and we see it as a gift that we get to do it–there is an even more important gift that we must mention. And more than mention, it is the heart and soul of all God’s gifts. It is God’s supreme gift in giving us his own Son. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” This is the gift, God’s gift, that precedes and produces and far surpasses all our giving. Apart from God’s grace in giving Christ, there is no church, no salvation, nothing to talk about. But with that grace, the gift of our Savior Jesus, there is everything to talk about, there is everything to give for.
Paul puts it like this: “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.” What a wonderful verse that is! It’s worth repeating. Let me say it again: “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.”
Think of it! God’s own Son, Christ, eternal in his glory with the Father–Christ came down and humbled himself for our sake. He became poor so that we might become rich. That is what happened. Jesus Christ embarked on a humbling, serving, self-giving mission. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus did that for you. He did that for me. He did that for the whole world of sinners. We were dead in our trespasses and sins. We were in debt up to our eyeballs with God. But Jesus Christ did the divine bailout, once and for all. He paid for our sins, all of them, not with gold or silver, but with something far more precious–his own holy precious blood and his innocent suffering and death. He died on the cross, to pay the price we could never pay: the staggering mountain of debt we owed to God for our sins. But now, “Paid in full,” our bill reads. It’s dated Good Friday and validated on Easter.
Now you are debt-free! You have salvation in your pocket–guaranteed, a home in heaven, no mortgage hanging over your head. This is what Jesus has done for you. “Though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” And rich we are! Rich beyond all measure.
This frees up our pocketbook a bit, doesn’t it? It puts worldly wealth in proper perspective. Now we know what is most important in life, and it ain’t “stuff.” It is the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s how we live. That’s how we will live, forever. And so that is what we get to be involved with now, the ministry of that gospel, in works of mercy and in the church’s witness–yes, even through those offering envelopes you’re about to put in the plate. Dear friends, because of God’s grace in Christ, it’s not a penalty. It’s not a tax. It’s a gift!