The Grace of Giving

August 18, 2019

Categorised in:

Preached by Canon Mark Collinson, using 2 Corinthians 8:1-9 at Mattins on Sunday 18th August 2019, the 9th after Trinity.

About a year ago in one of our ministerial meetings we clergy resolved to preach more about stewardship. I confidently proclaimed that since so much of what Jesus said (apparently 11 out of 39 parables) talk about money and possessions it wouldn’t be long before we were all preached out about giving. How wrong I was! I think this is the first bible passage from the lectionary that I’ve had which addresses the questions of giving.

Before I launch into the context of Corinth, a few words of warning. Cultural attitudes to talking about giving in church vary enormously. When I was a priest in Amsterdam our church community was very multi-cultural. The Americans loved it when I preached about giving. ‘Tithe the ten percent’ they would say. Preach it, brother!

The Africans were also rather enthusiastic. We planted a new congregation in the part of the city that felt more like downtown Accra than Amsterdam. They sometimes had two or three collections during a service and it wasn’t a case of just passing around the bag. You would sing and dance your way to the front of church and put your gift into the collection plate with a great show. None of this ‘When you give to the poor, let not your left hand know what your right hand is doing’ (Matthew 6:3). And sometimes they held an auction after church, of things people had brought. People made a show of outdoing one another in their generosity.

The Dutch were rather similar to the Brits. They would rather that we didn’t talk about money at all. It’s one of those subjects that shouldn’t really be raised in polite company (like politics, religion and sex). But, they say, if it has to mentioned, let’s make it short and sweet.

So, assuming we’re mostly Brit’s, let’s see what I can say in eight minutes.

Culture of course is very important. Paul was speaking to Christians in Corinth. By and large, Corinthians had money, popularity, and spiritual gifts in abundance. In a tolerant, accept-anything kind of society like Corinth, Christians there were free to go about their business, they had freedom of religion, and lived good and comfortable lives, without much hindrance or persecution. Of course there were some in their midst who were just getting by. But for the most part, life was good.

Meanwhile, up in the north of Greece, in Macedonia, things were bad. The churches of Thessalonia and Phillippi were experiencing persecution. People didn’t want to trade with Christians and there was widespread poverty in the church.

Meanwhile, over in Jerusalem, things were worse. Jews were beginning to get fed up with Jewish Christians, and valuable business alliances were broken because they realised that Christians were distinctly different from Jews. Added to that there were several years of famine in Palestine and as a result the Jewish Christians were really badly off.

So Paul wrote to the Corinthians (as we see in the first letter) and advises them to set up an envelope scheme, just like we have here in the cathedral. He says, ‘On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.’ (1 Cor 16.2). ‘Great idea!’ say the Corinthians. Being rather proud of their accomplishments they are confident that they can administer a system that demonstrates their superiority by giving to the poor. And Paul waited and waited and no gift from the Corinthians came.

In the meantime Paul visits Philippi and Thessalonica, mentions that the Corinthians are giving to the Christians in Jerusalem. And what happens? From our reading we hear Paul reporting to the Corinthians:

‘And now, brothers and sisters, 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. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. And they exceeded our expectations.’ (2 Cor 8:1-5a)

They gave with Joy.

They gave generously.

They gave not only as much as they were able, but beyond their ability.

In fact they even pleaded for the privilege of serving the Lord’s people in Jerusalem.

What is Paul doing? He is shaming the Corinthians into action. He says, ‘look, you excel in everything, in speech, in earnestness, in love… excel also in this grace of giving.’ (2 Cor 8:7). Excel in it!

Now there’s just two brief points I want to make here. The first really challenges how we do fundraising here at the cathedral. Because there is so much going on in the cathedral, we encourage gifts for specific purposes – you could give to the Kings & Scribes, which was a separate fund to the ongoing mission of the cathedral. You could give to the organ fund, or the choir, or the Friends. All these choices we’re offered gives us the illusion that we decide who is the most worthy beneficiary of our gift.

Now you could say, that the Macedonians were choosing to give to the Jerusalem Christians. But whole point Paul is trying to make is that the church is one. You don’t distinguish between who gets the gift, you demonstrate the unity of the Body of Christ by giving from one to another. And that’s represented by the Macedonians recognising that they gave themselves first to the Lord. All our giving is primarily to God, rather than what we think is the most worthy cause.

The second point is that the grace of giving comes to us when we recognise the grace of Christ’s giving to us.

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. (2 Cor 8:9)

It is only by knowing the grace of Jesus Christ in our own lives, that we get our personal financial wealth into perspective. True richness comes through identifying ourselves with Christ’s poverty.

I’ll finish with a practical example of what has really helped me to find richness in Christ. Giving in absolute terms is really hard. Understanding your giving in terms £10 a week, or £50 or £300 a month is like wearing a straightjacket. But working out your giving by percentage can be utterly life-changing. Most people know what their weekly or monthly income is. Work out what 10% of the amount that hits your bank account is, and give that to the Lord. Or if you’re new to giving, start with 1% or 2% and work up. I think my eight minutes is up. Let’s pray.

Lord God, for all that you have given us, we give you thanks. May we know the grace of Christ so much that our whole lives are orientated by giving ourselves to you. Give us your grace, that we may excel in the grace of giving, so that your kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven.