June 28, 2015 “Kingdom Economy”

posted Jul 15, 2015, 10:17 AM by David Hawkins

Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 8:7-15

Now as you excel in everything — in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you — so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.

I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something —  now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.

For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has — not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little."

Sermon: "Kingdom Economy"             Rev. David Hawkins

For the past several months, we have been looking at what it means to live in fellowship, what it means to live in Christian partnership with one another, to find ways to be the church, even when it is difficult, even when it seems like it would be easier to not even try.

For the past few weeks, we’ve been exploring this theme in a letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to a church that he had started some years before,  a church that finds itself engulfed in conflict, split between differing ideas about authority, theology, doctrine, and personal disagreements. Paul has been in contact with this church a few times, and while we don’t have all of the correspondence between him and his church, we do have enough to know that his relationships with them, and their relationships with each other were fragile and in danger of collapsing all together.

Some of the problems that have plagued the church have been self-inflicted. Some members of  the church have sought positions of power, and once they have achieved these positions, have used their power for their own gain. They have lorded their money and material goods over others, and their arrogance has driven a wedge in between groups of different economic classes in the church.

In addition, there have been instances of certain people in the church using their Christian liberty in ways that are embarrassing to the church. There have been examples of licentiousness and sexual immorality that have brought shame to the congregation.

But for Paul, the worst of the problems facing his little church in Corinth comes from the outside. There has been a corrupting influence of what Paul calls, ‘Super Apostles’ or ‘Judaizers’, traveling evangelists who claim to be preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but who are, in fact, preaching a different Gospel, one that requires the believer to adopt the rituals and religious codes of behavior of the Jews in order to be a part of the Christian faithful.

Paul absolutely detests these people. In one of his letters he writes that he hopes that these ‘super apostles’ might accidentally cut too much off when they circumcise themselves. He sees them preaching a false gospel, one that places the gift of salvation in the self-serving hands of a broken humanity, rather than in the self-giving arms of a loving God.

For Paul, the idea that we can, by our own actions, earn salvation, runs counter to the idea of God’s sovereignty and grace. It negates the work of Jesus Christ, and it reduces faith to a business transaction that we do in order to get what we want, rather than trust and hope in a merciful God.

And it is this antipathy that Paul has for these super evangelists that makes today’s plea for the Corinthians to follow through on a monetary pledge that they had made to the church in Jerusalem so strange and unexpected.  

It seems to come out of the blue, this exhortation to remember their financial commitments to the wider church. Today, in a sudden turn, Paul moves from the abstract theology of Christian fellowship and unity to the nuts and bolts of a stewardship campaign.

The change in tone and focus is so sudden that Bible scholars think that maybe this part of the letter actually comes from another letter that Paul wrote to the church, that this book of the Bible we call 2 Corinthians might be a collection of letters that Paul wrote over a series of months, or maybe even years, in which he carries on a long distance discussion about a wide range of issues.

 But, regardless of whether today’s scripture is part of the original letter, or part of another letter sort of stuck in here, Paul’s request is still strangely out of character. Not because Paul isn’t in the habit of collecting money for ministry, but because the money that he is collecting is destined for the church in Jerusalem.

And the deal is, Paul doesn’t really have the greatest relationship with the church in Jerusalem.  In fact, Paul has a really pretty cruddy relationship with the church in Jerusalem.

Paul has a hard time with the church in Jerusalem because of the fact that these super-apostles that he dislikes so much all come from Jerusalem. They are Jewish Christians who believe that one must follow the Torah in order to be a Christian, and they come from the Jerusalem church

We see some of this theological conflict of the early church in the book of Acts, when Peter visits the house of a Gentile, and eats at his table. You may remember that Peter had seen in a vision that God had released him from the dietary restrictions of the law. But when he returned to his church, he was confronted with the fact that he had broken the commandments, that he had gone against the teaching of the law. And Peter’s church was not happy with him at all.

When we read the book of Acts, we see that the church in Jerusalem was conflicted about the place of the law in the Christian faith. And when we read some of Paul’s other letters, especially the letter to the church in Galatia, we see that the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas might have had more to do with the various ways they thought about the law, rather than whether or not John Mark was a suitable traveling companion.

And the reality is, the issues surrounding the place of the law in the Christian faith have not been completely settled. We still see remnants of a ‘Jerusalem’-style church in the writings of James, who strongly implies the necessity of following the law in order to receive salvation. And, we still see ‘super apostles’ today, preaching a Gospel that puts our salvation in our own hands, that turns the grace of ‘God into a commodity that must be earned.

And so it is very strange that Paul, of all people, would be advocating for the church in Corinth to remember its pledge to the church in Jerusalem. It seems like he would at least be ambivalent about the idea of the church giving to those whom he considers to be adversarial to his way of thinking.

But Paul is not at all ambivalent. He is fully engaged in reminding the church that they had made a promise, and they need to keep it.

And in today’s scripture, he employs all the rhetorical tools that any good preacher might use to persuade his congregation to pull out their wallets and their purses and contribute to the cause.

First, he uses flattery:

“Now as you excel in everything--,” he says, “in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you — so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.”

These are complimentary words indeed. But they’re not just fluff. The church in Corinth really is an accomplished church. They are educated, they are wealthy, they are successful in many different areas of life. Paul is pointing out that they are good at what they do, and he appeals to their pride and sense of accomplishment in all areas of life.

And Paul isn’t above using a subtle little bit of competition, either. He mentions, almost offhandedly, how much the Macedonian Church had raised. It’s sort of the like the way the Lion’s Club and the Rotary club compete every year to see who raises the most money during the Salvation Army Bell Ringing Christmas campaign. It pains me to the core to confess that the Lion’s club kicked our rear end this last year.

And Paul reminds the church in Corinth that they are much wealthier than the Macedonians. Not that it matters, of course, not that everybody has to give the same amount, or that everybody has to give everything that they have. But Paul encourages the church to give out their abundance, that those who have much might make up for those who have little. It’s not a commandment, he says. But it is something to consider.

And finally, after using flattery and encouraging a little friendly competition, Paul gets to the heart of the matter, and talks about the theology of giving.

For Paul, giving is a the very heart of the Christian message. There is something about giving that is critical to the existence of the church, that reflects the gospel in such a way that if the church in Corinth doesn’t give, then perhaps they haven’t understood the whole point of Christ’s sacrifice, that they haven’t grasped the whole meaning of his coming to earth in the first place.

For Paul, this issue of whether or not to give to the church in Jerusalem has nothing to do with whether or not Paul agrees with them, or is friends with them, or even if he likes them. It has to do with our understanding of Jesus coming to us from the riches of heaven to wear the poverty of human existence, not because he agreed with our theology, or because we had proven our worthiness, but because selfless, unconditional giving is at the very heart of who God is.

For Paul, this issue of giving, this issue of maintaining the relationship between churches, even when in sharp dispute, was of critical importance. It would be easy for the church to withdraw, to cut off all ties with those with whom we disagree. But Paul argues that this tendency is the very antithesis of what it means to be in Christian Fellowship. That even when we disagree, even when we find ourselves in conflict, our unity in Christ outweighs our disunity it the ways we practice our faith.

It is this discipline of giving that demonstrates our understanding and acceptance of the gift that God has given us in Jesus Christ: a gift that is given freely to each of us, a gift that is not dependant on our theology, or worthiness, or even our willingness to reciprocate.

And so, Paul tells the church, give. Give because you promised you would. Give because the church needs it. Give even when you’re not sure if you agree with everything the church is doing. Give out your abundance. Give what you can, when you can. Give because others can’t give. Give because God gave us the gift of his son, not because we earned it, but because we could never earn it.

This is the heart of our faith. We love because we are loved. We give because we have been forgiven. We welcome because we are welcomed. We are merciful because we have been shown grace. Our lives are not lived in order to gain God’s attention and love. Our lives are lived in ways that reflect the good things already given to us, riches beyond counting, blessings beyond our imagination.