This weekend I concluded our sermon series on Generosity by pulling, at random, scripture passages having to do with money and taught on them.
One of the passages in the mix that I didn’t get to preach on was from 2 Corinthians 9.11-13
It’s a good one too so I thought it worth a look here:
11You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others.
I always think of the Corinthians as this married couple who fight about sex and clothes and drinking, but really every time they fight they’re fighting about money.
Money comes up again and again in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.
But unless you read the Book of Acts you don’t necessarily know why is so focused on money. In the Book of Acts, Luke tells us that Paul traveled throughout the Greek-Gentile world planting churches but also taking up a collection for the Christians back in Jerusalem.
And one of the reasons for the collection was that the Christians back in Jerusalem were suffering both a severe famine but also an intense persecution for their faith.
The other reason Paul was taking up a collection was an attempt to unify the Church- that from the very beginning of the faith one of the practices of being a Christian was to give to others you’d never met, would never meet and with whom you had nothing in common except Christ.
So Paul, according to the Book of Acts, traveled from church to church, taking up this collection. Initially, we’re told, the Christians in Corinth, who were quite wealthy, were very enthusiastic about giving to the collection. But when it came time to kick-in what they had pledged…not so much.
I had a job going door-to-door when I was in college, and I always knew that when someone promised me they’d mail in a check rather than give it to me on their front porch that they weren’t going to give anything.
The Corinthians hadn’t given anything; meanwhile, the Christians in Macedonia, who were so poor Paul hadn’t even asked them to contribute to the collection, showed ‘rich generosity’ despite their poverty.
So that’s the context to all this talk of money in Corinthians.
To me, what’s really interesting in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians is how seamlessly Paul will go from the every day, nuts and bolts of our giving our money to imagery of God’s glory.
It’s even more interesting, as I mentioned this weekend, when you remember that the original manuscripts of Paul’s letters didn’t have any of the chapter and verse divisions that your bibles today do.
And so in a famous passage like 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul writes with this passionate rhetoric about how ‘if Christ has not been raised then we are still in our sins’ and where Paul mocks Death with a capital D “Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?’
And then the very next verse in chapter 16, verse 1 Paul tells the Corinthians to pass the offering plate.
Paul makes those kinds of moves, transitions that seem jarring to us, because for Paul our love of God and our love of neighbor is inseparable.
You see this in verse 12 where Paul uses the word ‘service’ to refer to giving to the collection.
The word there is λειτουργία, liturgy.
The word ‘liturgy’ originally was a secular term. In Rome, it referred to the ‘service’ of wealthy Romans supplying for the needs of the poor in their community.
The first Christians took that word ‘liturgy’ and used it to refer both to their worship of God and their generosity to the poor.
You see by using the word liturgy to refer to both practices, the first Christians made sure we would know that our generosity to others is a way we worship God and that our worship of God is a way that we serve others.
Too often we focus on our giving as an act of charity; it’s something we do for the poor and the needy.
But when we focus on giving as an act of charity we split the Greatest Commandment into two.
We focus on our love of neighbor but forget that our giving is one of the necessary ways we love God- that’s why Paul says elsewhere that ‘God loves a cheerful giver.’ Because if our giving is an act of worship it has to be done out of joy not compulsion.
You see this in v. 13 of this passage where Paul writes that the ultimate reason for the Corinthians’ giving isn’t for the hungry and hurting in Jerusalem, as important as that remains.
No, the ultimate reason for the Corinthians’ giving is to glorify God.
The primary purpose of our generosity, Paul says, is to witness to our faith, to give evidence of the reality of God’s grace in our lives by the way we handle our money.
Remember, the Christians back in Jerusalem hadn’t been supportive of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. They didn’t want Gentile Christians in the Church.
But Paul’s convinced that when the Jewish-Christians in Jerusalem see the extravagant generosity of the Gentile Christians they’ll have to come to the conclusion that God’s grace must be real and alive in these people’s lives.
And Paul was right.
If you go back and read the complaints that pagan Romans wrote about the first Christians, their biggest complaint- their primary observation about Christians- was always about how exceedingly generous Christians were.
Not just to other Christians but to pagans as well.
The first Christians made the Romans look bad they were so generous to others.
And the way the first Christians made converts was through the example of their exceedingly generous lifestyle.
The way they gave their money away, the way they welcomed strangers, the way they cared for widows and lepers, the way they rescued infants left to die in the fields- their generous lifestyle- not their doctrine, not their music, not their facilities- is what convinced unbelievers that Christ must be raised from the dead.
And that’s important to know in a culture like ours where 77% of the population will not attend any church this year.
Generosity is the single best way to witness to the grace and glory of God.
And even though it’s true that Christians as a demographic are more generous than any other group in the country, it’s also true that over half of all Christians give nothing.
Just imagine if Christians had the same reputation in the 21st century that they had in the first century.