Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Giving Gladly

Giving Gladly
2 Corinthians 9:6-15[1]
Some of you know that I did my seminary training, both my Master’s and Doctorate, at a Southern Baptist Seminary. The Southern Baptists have a cooperative giving program that is a little like our per capita. Out of it they fund the various agencies and institutions, including their Seminaries. Their “Cooperative Program” giving was enough that all seminary students received a scholarship that covered their tuition. We simply paid a small registration fee. One of my professors once reminded a class I was attending that our education was being funded by gifts that were offered to God. He charged us to avoid the temptation to take that for granted. I’ve always remembered that, and I’ve never taken for granted the fact that my livelihood comes from gifts offered to God.
In part, one of the reasons for this is that, despite any difficulties I’ve been through in a life of service to the church, I’ve always believed that I am a part of something bigger than myself. I’m not just talking about this church, or our denomination; I’m talking about what Jesus called the “kingdom of God,” which refers to everything God is doing in this world to implement his merciful justice and unlimited compassion to set right all that is wrong. While my experience of life has not always confirmed that faith, I still believe in the kingdom of God as the reality that is ultimately true in this world. And I still believe God’s kingdom will have the last word.
I think it was that vision of belonging to something bigger than himself that inspired St. Paul in much of his ministry. From the very beginning, he was compelled by the conviction that he belonged to the “Body of Christ.” And so he did not hesitate to proclaim the Gospel, even when to do so put him in harm’s way. In fact, his commitment to proclaiming the gospel and serving the kingdom of God brought him into life-threatening situations on more than one occasion. And yet, Paul didn’t despair or lose heart because of the threats; instead he saw what he was going through as a way of “fulfilling the sufferings of Christ” for the sake of the church. Even in the lowest moments of his life, he was inspired by the vision that his life was a part of something much bigger than himself, bigger than Judaism, bigger than the Roman Empire.
In our lesson for today, he’s trying to encourage the people in the Church at Corinth to see themselves as part of something bigger than themselves—that they too were part of the “Body of Christ” which encompassed believers of all kinds—all races, all ethnic groups, all social classes, all walks of life. In that day and time, the most significant division in the church was the one between Jewish and Gentile believers. It caused serious problems on more than on occasion. And yet, the reality of the church in that day was that just about every Church everywhere included Jewish and Gentile members. So it’s understandable that St. Paul saw this as one of his most important tasks in ministry.
One way in which he set about to enhance the unity of a church that was being pulled apart by this division was to raise a collection. For whatever reason, it would appear that the believers in Jerusalem and Judea were living in a state of poverty, and it was a great burden to them. Since most of the churches Paul served were in the Gentile world, and were composed of a majority of Gentiles, he decided to raise an offering from the Gentile churches to the Jewish churches to help alleviate their suffering. From what he says about it here and elsewhere, it was his hope that this offering would help strengthen the bonds of fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians. He hoped that it would help the fledgling Gentile churches see themselves as a part of the larger “Body of Christ.”
Apparently there was some reluctance on the part of the Church at Corinth regarding this offering. For that reason, in our lesson for today, Paul encourages them to give “gladly.” He uses a variety of strategies to encourage them to do this. He points out that other churches had given generously despite their own difficulties. He reminds them that the one who “sows sparingly will also reap sparingly,” while those who “sow generously will reap generously” (2 Cor. 9:10 NET). He comes close to suggesting they will receive a material reward for their giving, but the language throughout makes it clear he is thinking about the spiritual benefits of their generosity, for themselves, for others, and for God’s kingdom. The bottom line is that he wants them to “give gladly,” not “with regret or out of a sense of duty” (2 Cor. 9:7, TEV). It seems to me that the main motivation for their ability to do that was for them to recognize that they were a part of something bigger than themselves.
We live in a time when many of us are longing to feel like we are a part of something more than just our own lives. I wonder if that’s not part of what drives our “mania” for getting over-involved in our lives. I don’t think that really satisfies our longing. But the message of our faith has always been that we who have identified with Christ have aligned ourselves with something that truly is bigger than anything we can imagine. We are a part of Christ’s Body in this world. We are a part of God’s kingdom, and we are called to promote that kingdom amidst the various “kingdoms” of our world. The way we do that is by investing our gifts and our lives in the work of this church. I hope that the vision of community, compassion, service, and faith that we stand for is motivation enough to lead us to make that investment by giving gladly.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/13/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.