Sunday, October 26, 2008

This Gift of Love — Part I: To Do and to Desire

This Gift of Love — Part I:
To Do and to Desire

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder

Stewardship Kick-off Sunday, October 26, 2008

II Corinthians 8:1-15

There is an old joke among management people about the five stages that people go through in planning and completing any project. They are:

[1] Enthusiasm
[2] Disillusionment and panic
[3] Search for the guilty
[4] Punishment of the innocent
[5] Praise and honors for the non-participants

It’s a joke, but we are familiar with the way these things often go: At a meeting of some volunteer committee or other someone feels moved to offer a suggestion. As a group, the committee begins to catch a bit of enthusiasm for the new idea. It’s exciting. A “we can do it” attitude emerges. Everyone is carried away with the possibilities, and new ones are being listed on the blackboard as fast as they are spoken. The excitement is so palpable that when the moderator asks who would be willing to do this or that, hands go up, “count on me’s” are spoken, and a sense of satisfaction accompanies the close of the meeting. We are finally getting somewhere.

Before too long, though — people being people — disillusionment sets in. Joe promised to make several phone calls about supplies but because of his heavy responsibilities at work, he never got around to it. Now, short on supplies, Amy can’t get the volunteers together to make the posters. Pete was hoping to speak to his service club about the project and ask about some free publicity at the radio station, but called at the last minute to beg off the committee completely. The next meeting of the committee is as depressing as the previous one was inspiring. Establishing blame becomes the chief unwritten item on the meeting agenda.

Eventually one of two things happens: either the committee members throw up their hands and abandon the project, or one person says something like, “we set out to get this done, and I, for one, will do everything I can to see it through. Who is with me?” It may turn out that two or three are, so a handful of people wind up completing a project more through determination than inspiration, and in the end, they are satisfied, but exhausted.

Variations on this theme are played out all the time among people who organize themselves to get things done. Why must it be so? Could it be different? What could make the difference?

One potent answer to those questions lies in Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth. The words we heard this morning concerned an offering that was being collected for the poverty-stricken Christians in Jerusalem. Times were very difficult in Jerusalem, and Paul had spent considerable time and energy during the previous year working to organize what we might call “JERUSALEM FOOD AID” or “HANDS ACROSS ASIA MINOR” day.

Lots of those new, struggling little churches of Paul’s were making efforts to put some money together for the effort. The Corinthian congregation, like the other churches, caught the enthusiasm and earnestly desired to do their part. Their hearts were fully in it. They were filled with enthusiasm for a great work.

Now, a year has passed. Their enthusiasm has lagged, probably some have taken to pointing an accusing finger at others in the church, wondering if they were doing their share. Disillusionment has set in. What their hearts had desired, their wills had not been able to accomplish. Being human, falling short of their enthusiasm, they were having trouble fulfilling the pledge of support made to Paul and Barnabas.

What would be the remedy? The natural response, one I have found myself using, is to find those two or three who could be more or less willingly overworked, and get the project finished in spite of those who made promises but failed to deliver. After the enthusiasms of the many fizzle, what are we left with, after all, but the resolve of the few? That is the way organizations frequently operate. That is how we may have expected Paul to deal with this. But he recognized another way.

Once in a Bible study I was leading, one person remarked that the real heroes of this passage were the Macedonians: the Philippians, Thessalonians, and Beroeans who seem to have had access to another sort of organizing strategy than the one available to the Corinthians. Why?

Remember, Paul pointed out that the Macedonian Christians were poor. Extremely poor. In hard times, the folks on the bottom of the social ladder always suffer the most and this was certainly the case in first century Macedonia. Paul mentioned this not to promote some vague idea about the nobility of poverty, but to point out at the outset that the meaning behind Christian stewardship is never riches or poverty.

The Corinthians were busily accusing each other, wondering who had more or less material wealth to spare for the collection, choosing up sides, comparing one with the other, trying to judge to see if everyone was doing their share. Mean-spiritedness had taken charge. Meanwhile, the Macedonians, with little or no concern for individual welfare — yet sure of their place within the community of faith — were making grave personal sacrifices to contribute for no reason other than a desire to respond to the gracious love in Christ that they had come to know. Anyone who has ever read Philippians cannot help but be impressed by the overflowing expression of joy that characterized that congregation. The Macedonians gave joyfully, even though an outsider might have described them as some of the least able to give at all.

Grace is the key word here. It is perhaps an overused word today which, more often than not, refers to a few words to be mumbled before meals. But that is certainly not the way Paul thought of it. He described the collection for the Jerusalem believers as “this gracious work". When we refer to someone as “gracious", we mean that they have a full command of social niceties. Not Paul. He meant it the way the New Testament means grace. It is a gracious work because of the enabling power of Jesus Christ. Christ is the author and finisher of grace, the one whose grace is described in the hymn as “amazing!".

Paul was reasoning with them. If we first consider the grace of Christ, then quibbling about the response to his amazing and saving love seems entirely out of place. The place to begin in Christian stewardship is not with wealth or poverty, not with sales pitches and snappy flow charts, but with hearts that have been moved by the unmerited love of Christ. Once convicted of the transforming power of Christ, no response we can make seems large enough. Human measure fails us. That is why the Macedonian example seems entirely surprising only if we are still on the needy side of God’s grace. Paul said, “They gave as much as they could, and even more...” (v. 3). It makes no logical sense. Take away our tax exemptions for charitable gifts and what would happen? Not only was Paul surprised, the Macedonians surprised themselves!

Paul mentioned the Macedonians, not for comparison (“If these poor folks could give this much, why can’t you people get with it?”). Instead, he spoke of the Macedonians in order to present a picture of a church in love with its Savior. Love cannot command — Paul even said, “I say this not as a command” — love can only be demonstrated. Having received God’s grace, generous giving seems only the most normal response. No amount of pleading will make folks who have not experienced grace into truly generous people.

A pastor in Virginia once asked, “How would you motivate people to give to the church or some worthy cause when they are apathetic, or fearful, or downright hostile? ’The church is always asking for money.’ Preachers often feel insecure or ashamed, or even demeaned when they must talk about money from the pulpit.”1

Paul knew about hostility. He had a stormy relationship with this congregation in Corinth. Paul knew that no one was likely to support the collection because of the force of his personality. So he said, in verse 9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” The experience of reading that verse for the first time has been compared to the experience of stepping suddenly into a deep pool while wading in a stream.2 The material and spiritual realms are lumped together without apology. To mention the lofty grace of Christ while seeking contributions for a collection of grubby old money is hardly a digression from the main point. It is the main point! It is the work of Christ that should be the beginning and ending of any discussion of Christians and our money.

This month and next you will be hearing over and over about the church’s need. I hope we’ll all have a clear idea about that need when commitment Sunday comes around on November 23rd. And as we prepare for that day, we desire enthusiasm of the sort that made the Corinthians enthusiastic. I am enthusiastic about it. We want resolve. I am resolved to do everything I can to make it work, and I know the commitment committee shares that deep resolve.

But I pray this will not be one of those human projects with the standard, depressing five stages. Why? Because the grace of Christ must be the beginning and ending of any of our talk about money. Any of us who may be lacking an experience of the grace of Christ will be enabled to give for only secondary reasons — if we give at all: noble motives (“Show how kind and good you are.”), human solidarity (“We are the world.”), personal recognition (“Get a free [hunger walk] T-shirt.”), inner satisfaction (“You will be glad you did.”), friendly competition (The “challenge” gift)...3

So, if you find the grace of Christ is lacking in your life, let’s get to first things first. Jesus loves us, died for us, was raised for us, and can save us. If that word of the gospel rings true to you in any special way today, please explore your awakening faith with a trusted Christian friend or one of the elders or pastors of the church. Once having experienced the grace of Christ, no jingles and fancy promotions are really necessary for successful church stewardship. Just a simple encouragement to respond with our lives and our wealth to the surpassing riches that Jesus has given to us free of charge. Praise be to God, who gives us this abundant gift!

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 C. Thomas Rhyne, “II Corinthians 8:8-15", Interpretation, October, 1987, 41, p. 408.
2 Fred B. Craddock, “The Poverty of Christ,” Interpretation , April, 1968, 22, pp. 158-170.
3 C. Thomas Rhyne, Ibid., p. 411.