Sermon \ June 28, 2015 \ Pastor Terry Defoe \ 1 Cor 8:1-2 \ Blessed to Be a Blessing
And now, [fellow believers], we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. (N.I.V.)
Christians are interested in the growth of the church. It’s God's will that his church grow. Modern-day Christians have studied the characteristics of growing churches. Those who study this kind of thing have found that a primary characteristic of growing churches is their desire to meet the needs of the people in their communities. In other words, healthy Christian congregations seek to "find a need and meet it!" Our sermon text from Second Corinthians chapter 8 this morning reminds us of what we already know – and what we have personally experienced – that God meets our needs. Once we have been blessed, God wants us to share those blessings with others. God seeks to establish "equality" among us. I pray that God would bless our consideration of His Holy Word this day!
In order to be a blessing, we need to listen carefully – first to God's Word, and then to others. The story is told of the days when blocks of ice where cut from frozen lakes and rivers and stored in icehouses for use in the summertime. That ice was covered with sawdust. In one of those icehouses one day, a worker lost a valuable watch. He and his fellow workers carefully raked through the sawdust, looking for the watch, but were unable to find it. A young boy heard what was going on and slipped quietly into the icehouse after the workers left. To their utter amazement, he emerged, after a short while, with the watch in his hand. They were amazed and wanted to know how he'd found it. He said:
"I closed the door and I lay down in the sawdust, keeping very still. Soon, I heard the watch ticking."
When we seek to determine the needs of others, we need to remain very still, and listen very carefully, so that we can hear what God is saying to us in his word, and what others are saying to us as well. People in every time and place have a few basic needs. First, it's critically important that we have hope for the future. People who have hope for the future bear up remarkably well under life's troubles and burdens. Second, it's important that we have meaning and purpose in our lives. Third, it's important that what we do is recognized by others as useful and worthwhile. Fourth, we need reconciliation and forgiveness so that broken relationships can be healed.
According to the Holy Scriptures, our most important need – our most basic need in life – is reconciliation with God. Our relationship with Him, broken by sin, must be restored. We proclaim the Good New that God has met our need for reconciliation through his Son, Jesus Christ. Our Heavenly Father delivers his blessings to us through his word. He channels those blessings through Baptism and Holy Communion. He blesses us so that, we, in turn, can be a blessing to others. We believe, teach and confess that God meets our needs through his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus died on the cross of Good Friday so that our sins might be forgiven. We believe, teach, and confess that God meets our needs – and blesses us – by his grace. Those who read the New Testament soon discover that the concept of grace is central to Jesus' teaching. If we understand what grace is all about, we will understand what makes Christianity unique.
The concept of grace – which simply means undeserved blessings from God – was basic in Paul's teaching. Grace is mentioned several times in this morning’s text from Second Corinthians, chapter 8. It shouldn’t be surprising that the concept of grace was also critically important for Martin Luther, back in the 1500’s. Grace is a cornerstone teaching of our Lutheran Church. We often talk about salvation "by grace alone." Bible Scholar Dr. Donald Barnhouse defines grace this way:
"Love that goes upward," he says, "is worship."
"Love that goes outward is affection.
“Love that stoops down is grace."
According to the Holy Scriptures, there's no doubt about it. God is gracious to us, and to the whole world, in Christ. And God expects us, in turn, to be gracious to others. God's grace isn't stern, or rigid, or hardline or cold-hearted. God's grace warms the coldest heart. So God meets our needs through His Son, Jesus Christ. He meets our needs by his grace, through faith. Faith is the hand that, enabled by the Holy Spirit, reaches out and takes hold of God's blessings in Christ. Faith, a gift of God, prompted and enabled by His Holy Spirit, connects us – directly and permanently – to the grace and forgiveness of our Savior. In our sermon text this morning, the Apostle Paul points out how the Macedonian Christians
"… gave themselves first to the Lord, and then to us..."
Faith prompts us, too, to give ourselves to the Lord. And faith prompts us to give ourselves in service to others. As I say, we are blessed for a reason. And that is to be a blessing to others. So, to repeat: God meets our needs so that we can help meet the needs of others. Our love for Christ prompts us to love others. When members of a Christian congregation, for example, give a quilt to a burned-out family, they are expressing Christian love. They have found a need, and they have met it, in Jesus' name. One congregation in the U.S. has what it calls a "panic pantry." That pantry contains items for use by families who are going through a crisis. Lutheran Pastor Donald Deffner relates the following story of what happened after one family received items from that “panic pantry” during their time of greatest need. The congregation received this letter which said:
I want to thank you for bringing joy into my life. The food and money you shared (were) deeply appreciated. You will never know how hopeless it seemed. My son had been in three different prisons. My one daughter is on drugs and has two children, but no husband. My life has been one disappointment after another. Most days it looks too hopeless.
But when I needed some help, you people were willing to share. Please tell your people that God's love came to me and my family through your generosity.
Thank you. And God bless you.
Our gifts for others may seem insignificant to us. But that's not the way they look to those who are going through a crisis. Very often our gifts for others cost us little or nothing. But the benefits for others are great. Again, God blesses us so that we, in turn, can be a blessing.
In St. Paul's day, the Christian church at Jerusalem was, in a very real sense, Christendom's "mother church." It was the place where it all began. When the letter called Second Corinthians was written, the church at Jerusalem was in desperate need. They were struggling against a dominant Jewish culture that saw Christianity as a very real threat. Those Christians struggled with poverty – there simply wasn’t enough to go around. So St. Paul asked Christians in other places to help their brothers and sisters in Christ at Jerusalem. The churches in Macedonia responded generously. Despite the fact that they, too, were experiencing persecution, and despite their own poverty, they responded generously to help meet the needs at Jerusalem. As one Bible scholar says:
“The poverty of the Macedonian Christians didn't diminish their generosity. And their tribulation didn't diminish their joy."
Paul was impressed with the Macedonian Christians because they were willing to give to people they didn't know. Simply because of their shared faith in Christ, the Macedonian Christians were willing to share of their material resources, in order to help brothers and sisters in Christ hundreds of miles away. There’s no doubt about it. The Apostle Paul was very much impressed with the generosity of these Macedonian Christians. And in this, his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul asked that they, too, pitch in. It's as if the Apostle Paul was saying to the Corinthians,
The Macedonians, despite their poverty and the persecution they have been facing, have been very generous. I would be pleased if you Corinthians could do the same. You are not facing poverty. You are not being persecuted. If the Macedonians, with all of their challenges can help out, surely you can, too.
It's important to remember that the Apostle Paul was faced with many challenges in Corinth. As a matter of fact, the Christians there had given him much trouble. They had gone seriously overboard with their emphasis on spiritual gifts. They had been using those gifts selfishly and in ways God never intended. Add to that the fact that they had been misusing the Lord's Supper and had thereby brought disgrace to the name of Christ. All in all, the Corinthian Christians were a very unhealthy congregation - split into competing factions. Some of Paul’s letters to these people had been strongly worded, and for good reason. But, thankfully, that was all behind them, now. Things had begun to turn around. The Corinthian Christians were now maturing in their faith. And Paul knew that part of the process of maturity was a willingness to help the people at Jerusalem.
In our text for today – from Second Corinthians, chapter 8 – Paul tells us why Christians give. He says, in verse 9:
"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."
So why do Christians give? Because Christ gave his all to us. Why do we give? Because Christ, who had all the riches of the universe at his disposal, willingly gave it all up for us, when he came to this earth to die on a cross. Why do Christians give? Because God has graciously given us all things needful, in Christ. As I say, God blesses us so that we, too, can be a blessing. True Christian generosity is a result of God's grace at work in our hearts. True Christian generosity always comes from the Gospel – never from the Law. True generosity can never be coerced. St. Paul was vested with full apostolic authority – authority given to him by the Lord Jesus Himself. Although Paul had that kind of authority, he didn't use it here. In other words, he didn't issue a directive ordering the Corinthian Christians to give to the church at Jerusalem. Instead, he graciously requested their help. Paul's method was to "pull," rather than to "push." He led people, by the power of the Gospel, to where they ought to be. He didn't push Christians into action by the Law.
In our Central District of Lutheran Church - Canada there are many needs. There are small and struggling congregations that couldn't exist without financial support. Work is being done at Camp Lutherland that needs our financial assistance. Work is being done among different ethnic groups – people new to Canada – people who are very much open to the Gospel. We have missionaries in the Ukraine who need our support as well as in Thailand and Central America. Like the Macedonian and Corinthian Christians of so long ago, we, too, are being asked by God to give to people we don't know.
Whenever the Apostle Paul spoke to Christians about giving financially, he always said the same thing: "give according to your means." Jesus Himself said, "To whom much is given, much is required." Our gifts of love – it doesn’t matter whether they be time, talents, or treasures – are meant to be a blessing to others. Sometimes those gifts can be an ongoing blessing to others, even after we are gone.
Years ago, a Pastor by the name of Rehwinkel served in the Alberta-British Columbia District. Pastor Rehwinkel retired in St. Louis. Before he died, he instructed that his household belongings be auctioned off, after his death, and the proceeds given to the students at the seminary in St. Louis. My good friend, Pastor Tim Richholt, now serving at Zion Lutheran Church in Wetaskiwin, Alberta, was a student at the seminary when Dr. Rehwinkel died. Pastor Richholt bid on a kitchen table that Dr. Rehwinkel had owned. That table is now in the Richholt home. Years ago, Kathleen and I visited Pastor Tim and his wife Melissa, when they were at Rocky Mountain House Alberta, to talk about our new Family Confirmation Program with the people there. We had supper with the Richholts. We ate a meal from Dr. Rehwinkel's table. Here’s my point. Dr. Rehwinkel's generosity is still being felt, even today, long after he has gone home to be with the Lord.
Christian giving – whether it be time, or talents, or treasures – is always an act of grace. Pastor Charles Swindoll has written a wonderful book titled "Grace Awakening." And, in that book, Dr. Swindoll says that if we are willing to receive God's grace, but not share it with others, there’s something drastically wrong with our faith. God saves us, by his grace. He transforms us, by his grace. He forgives us, and promises us eternal life, all by grace. We receive that grace, by the enabling of God's Holy Spirit – working through the Sacraments. And then, for the rest of our lives, we express that amazing grace in various ways. When we forgive others, we are expressing God's grace. When we give, to our own congregation, or to the work at large, we express God's grace.
Paul said to the Corinthian Christians, "I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with earnestness of others." St. James, writing in the book of James, chapter 2, verse 1, says, "faith, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead!" Paul encouraged the Christians at Corinth to put their faith to work. So how does the Church grow? When we "find a need and we meet it, in Jesus’ name." We are blessed to be a blessing. Amen.
Let's Pray: DEAR HEAVENLY FATHER -- You have met all of our needs in Christ. Help us reach out, beyond the boundaries of our own parish, to meet the needs that exist all around us. Remind us of Christ's willingness to give up his riches for us, at the cross. In His name we pray. Amen.