Sermon / November 8th, 2015 / Pastor Terry Defoe / 2 Cor 8 / Giving Joyfully & Generously
Our sermon text is found in Paul's second letter to the Corinthian Christians, chapter 8. I'm reading verses 1, 2, & 4:
And now, [fellow believers], we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. (N.I.V.)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!
This morning, we continue a journey of learning and Christian growth. Here at Mount Olive, we've been participating in a stewardship initiative called "The Lifestyle of Faithful Stewards.” This program takes us into God’s Word to hear what it has to say to us about the management of our God-given resources. The past few weeks -- in sermons, Bible Studies, bulletin inserts, and the like -- we've enountered Christian stewardship in its various forms. As I always do, I pray that God would bless our consideration of His Holy Word this day – that, as His Holy Spirit works, we may hear His word, understand it, and live it out in our daily lives!
I've said in the past that individuals in every age and generation have a few basic needs. We need hope for the future. We need meaning in our lives. It's important that our lives have purpose. We need to be forgiven as well as to learn how to forgive. As imperfect human beings, however, our most pressing need is for reconciliation with a holy God. Our broken relationship with God must somehow be restored. Thankfully, God has met this most basic need through the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. Thankfully, our needs are met in full by the Savior we proclaim. In Jesus, in addition to our need for reconciliation with God, we have hope for the future. In Him, we have reconciliation and healing for our relationships with others. In Jesus, we have meaning and purpose in our lives. In Him, we can live an abundant, joyful life in the here and now and He has promised us a place in His presence in heaven. God’s love stooped down to us in Jesus Christ. We are aware that our faith is a most precious gift -- not our own doing. We know that faith is the empty hand that reaches out to take hold of God's rich blessings.
Jesus Christ died on a cross of suffering and shame so that our sins might be forgiven. So it's most certainly the case that God meets our needs – and blesses us – by his grace in Christ. The concept of grace was central in Jesus' own teaching ministry. Grace was central to the Apostle Paul's proclamation. The same was true for Martin Luther. Grace is an important component of our Lutheran theology -- and is the basis of our emphasis on salvation "by grace alone." And, we teach that true Christian generosity -- true Christian stewardship, if you will -- is the result of God's grace at work in our hearts. God saves us, by his grace. He transforms us, by his grace. He forgives us, and promises us eternal life, all by his amazing grace. We receive that grace when faith is sparked in our hearts, as the Holy Spirit works. And then, for the rest of our lives, we live out that 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 are expressing God's grace.
So why do Christians give, according to the Apostle Paul? Why? Well, because Christ first gave His all to us. Why do Christians give? Because Christ, who had all the riches of the universe at His disposal, willingly gave it all up, when he came to this earth to take on human flesh and die on a cross. Why do Christians give? Because God has already graciously given us all things. Faith prompts us to give ourselves wholeheartedly to the Lord and to His work. And that same faith prompts us to give of ourselves – in service to others. In our text for today – from Second Corinthians, chapter 8 – the Apostle 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.
In First Corinthians, chapter 4 and verse 2, Paul says:
Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. (N.I.V.)
Back in Paul's day, the Christian church at Jerusalem was the "mother church" of Christendom. The church at Jerusalem was the place where it all started. But, by the time the book of Second Corinthians was written, the mother church was in serious trouble. We need to remember that the Christians at Jerusalem were mostly former Jews who had left Judaism to follow Jesus. Many of them had been ostracized by their families and friends as they took up this new faith in Jesus. They struggled against a dominant Jewish culture that viewed Christianity as a threat. Add to this the fact that the church at Jerusalem was enduring a famine. And they were heavily taxed – not just by the Romans, but also by the Jews. Because of these challenges, and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul decided to take up a collection from among the Gentile churches for the believers at Jerusalem.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul asked them to assist in this humanitarian endeavor. It was as if he was saying:
The Macedonians, despite their own troubles, have been very generous in this initiative. I would be pleased if you Corinthians would do the same. You are not facing poverty. You are not being persecuted. If the Macedonians can help out as generously as they have, surely you can participate, too.
Paul encouraged the Corinthian Christians, in 2 Corinthians, chapter 8, verses 7 and following, with these words:
But just as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us – see that you also excel in this grace of giving. I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ…
The Apostle Paul encouraged the Christians at Corinth to put their faith to work through this offering. He reminded them of what other Christians had been able to do – with God’s help. And, in Jesus’ name, he encouraged them to step up and do their part.
Now this is where things get interesting. That's because the congregation at Corinth had caused Paul much grief in the past. Some of the members there had gone overboard with a misguided interpretation of spiritual gifts. Some of them had been using their gifts selfishly. To add insult to injury, some of the Christians at Corinth had misused the Lord's Supper and, in so doing, had brought disgrace on the sacrament and on the name of Christ. Add to this the fact that the Corinthian congregation had allowed itself to be split into competing factions. A previous letter from Paul to these people had been strongly worded. But now, thanks be to God, things were returning to normal. The Corinthians were maturing in their faith. And Paul knew that an important expression of Christian maturity is generosity – a reflection of God’s own generosity in sending His Son as the Savior of the world. Now that the Corinthians had been blessed, the Apostle Paul wanted them to act in such as way as to be a blessing to others.
We need to remember that the Apostle Paul was vested with full apostolic authority – authority granted to him by the Lord Jesus Himself. Although Paul had that kind of authority, he chose not to use it here. He didn't issue a directive ordering the Corinthians to give to the church at Jerusalem. Instead, he graciously requested their help. When it comes right down to it, that's the Biblical motivation for all of our giving -- God's grace. We give to meet needs. We give, because God has first given to us. We give, graciously, as God has given graciously to us through His Son.
In the New Testament letter of James, chapter 2, and verse 16, the Apostle James described an individual enduring poverty. James said:
If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. (N.I.V.)
The Apostle James was troubled to know that some Christians were willing to receive God's grace, but were not willing to share that grace with others. Those who know me well know that I'm constantly saying that all of life is a matter of stewardship – wisely managing all that God has given us, including our financial resources. It’s so easy for us to say “Lord this is yours, and this is mine,” when, in reality, it’s all His.
Albert Einstein once said that there are only three ways to teach a child. The first is by example. The second is by example. And the third is, again, by example. That’s exactly what the Apostle Paul was doing with the Corinthian Christians in our text this morning. He was teaching them about Christian stewardship by way of the example of the churches of Macedonia. As I say, Christian stewardship, the wise management of our God-given resources, is prompted by God’s love and grace at work in the hearts of His dear children. Paul pointed out to the Corinthians that the Macedonian Christians were living examples of outstanding Christian stewardship. Enabled by the Holy Spirit, they had given themselves first to the Lord, and their management of God’s good gifts flowed from that reality. Their stewardship was motivated by the amazing grace that they had experienced in and through Jesus Christ. Their stewardship was motivated by their robust relationship of faith in the Lord Jesus. God’s grace was the primary motivating factor that enabled the Macedonian Christians to give generously to people they had never met. They barely had enough to live on, but, still, they were able to find something to share with Christian brothers and sisters in need. The Macedonian Christians were rich in generosity, not in material goods. Their riches had to do with their hearts. They were not rich in money, not rich in possessions; they were rich in single-minded, selfless, humble devotion to God and to others.
In our Bible text this morning, the Apostle Paul describes the Macedonian Christians. In Second Corinthians, chapter 8, verse 5, he says:
And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us, in keeping with God's will.
The Macedonians had learned what Jim Elliot, that great missionary martyr in Ecuador once said,
"He is no fool who gives away what he cannot keep, in order to gain what he cannot lose."
The churches in Macedonia responded promptly and generously to Paul's request. Despite the fact that they, too, like the Jerusalem Christians, were experiencing persecution, and despite their own poverty, they gave generously. One Bible scholar says:
The poverty of the Macedonian Christians didn't diminish their generosity. And their tribulation didn't diminish their joy.
Because of their shared faith in Christ, the Macedonian Christians were willing to share of their material resources, to help meet the needs of people hundreds of miles away.
Whenever Paul spoke to Christians about giving, he always said the same thing: "Give according to your means." In other words, see to it that your gift represents an appropriate percentage of your total income. If you have much, you can give much. If you have little, don't feel ashamed to give little. That way, it's fair for everyone. Jesus Himself had said during His ministry, "To whom much is given, much is required." For Jesus, and for Paul, and in the Scriptures generally, the size of a financial gift is always secondary to the attitude of the giver and the resources of the giver. When incomes rise, gifts can rise, too.
Jesus said, in Luke, chapter 12, verse 48:
From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (N.I.V.)
I close with this. The whole of the Christian life is a matter of stewardship. We have been blessed by God so that we might be a blessing to others. In Luke, chapter 6, verse 38, Jesus says:
Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
Martin Luther once said,
"I have held many things in my hands and I have lost them all, but whatever I have placed into God's hands, that I will always possess."
May God enable us to be stewards pleasing to Him -- for our good, but, most of all, for His glory!
And now, may the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in this same Christ Jesus. Amen!
DEAR HEAVENLY FATHER – We know that you have met – and continue to meet – all of our needs in Christ. Enable us to provide resources for the work you have given us to do here at Mount Olive and around the world. Remind us of Christ's willingness to give up his riches for us, at the cross. Help us grow in the grace of giving. May our response to your grace always be Free and Joyous Stewardship. In Jesus' precious name we pray. Amen.