Jen Bloesch February 24, 2019
Encouragement to be Generous
2 Corinthians 8:1-7; 9:6-15
Imagine that you are Paul living in the first century. You have been sitting in an Ephesian prison for months, with no release date in sight. The conditions are squalid, as any Roman prison would be. You are allowed visitors, but your friends come sparingly because they are afraid to be associated with you. You have been beaten many times over, and you are not sure if you will make it out of prison alive. This is all exceedingly awful, of course, but what really troubles your spirit is something else.
You have spent years now traveling constantly, sharing the gospel of Jesus as the Messiah, the suffering, yet risen King who was sent by God for the sake of all people. So far you’ve had good luck—while many people have closed ears, there are Jews and Gentiles alike throughout the Roman world who have come to listen. They are forming small congregations to celebrate the life and death of Jesus. But you have recently gotten bad news. The church in Corinth, with whom you had developed such a powerful and spirit-filled bond, is riddled with strife. They have broken down into disagreement, arguing over who was their preferred leader and over some key moral issues.
What had gone wrong? You had prayed with them, baptized them, broke bread with them. What is to become of the church now? Will the people remain faithful and unified as followers of Jesus? If you’re lucky to survive this abysmal imprisonment, you wonder what will be your next steps.
This scenario in Paul’s life is not confirmed in history. We don’t know for sure that Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus, but the Anglican scholar N.T. Wright, to whom I am much indebted for this sermon, believes this is likely what happened given the evidence we have. In any case, we do know that by the time Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, he had undergone something awful, and he is dearly concerned with the fraying relationships within the Corinthian church.
Somehow, Paul and the Corinthian church overcame their struggles. Paul writes with relief to the Corinthian church in his second letter, expressing his utmost joy for their reconciliation. Just as Jesus was resurrected after death, so was Paul’s hope resurrected by God’s grace through this Corinthian community of believers.
Having experienced the delight of restored relationships within the Corinthians, Paul quickly moves on in his letter to the project at hand. There is a group of Jesus followers in Jerusalem in need of financial help. Jerusalem had recently been hit hard by famine, and Paul was working to raise money in the Roman churches to send to the poor Jesus-followers suffering in Jerusalem. These are the passages of which we read portions today from 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. Paul entreats the people of the Corinthian church to contribute to the effort. In his letter, Paul describes how the church from Macedonia, although poor themselves, gave to the fund generously. Surely the people of Corinth, wealthy by comparison, could also find it in their hearts to give to their sisters and brothers in Jerusalem.
We can imagine that Paul felt equally as awkward to ask for money as we do today during stewardship season. You may notice, that conveniently for Susan, the weekend I asked to preach fell on Stewardship Sunday, and so I am tasked for the second year in a row to preach to you on this uncomfortable occasion. But the discomfort around asking for money is not the point at hand. Instead, I’d like to explore how these passages in the first nine chapters of 2 Corinthians is a beautiful illustration of Paul’s underlying theology. Then we’ll come back to the “stewardship” part of things.
N.T. Wright in his biographical book on Paul, shows how Paul’s theology of Jesus was deeply rooted in his Jewishness. See, Paul believed that Jesus marked the fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures, the Messianic promise heralded in the book of Isaiah. As it went, the God of all creation would send a servant, who would take on suffering and renew the world. Paul believed Jesus was just that guy and that through Jesus, God had brought heaven and earth together. Jews believed that the Temple was the place where heaven and earth mingled together, but Paul said now it is in Jesus that people can encounter that sacred place and participate in the continual renewal of the world. So in Paul’s world, no longer was the Temple needed in order to bear witness to God’s great works. All people had to do was exhibit whole-hearted devotion to a crucified and risen Lord.
Paul prayed for people’s devotion to the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. For Paul, God had instituted a new era through Jesus, which required that people come together to participate in God’s desire for the people. These people would not just merely come together to believe, but to live in a new way based not on human standards, but on God’s standards. This meant that people would share in common with one another, treat each other as equals before God, care for one another, and give to the poor. Paul believed that if communities were to form for the sake of following Jesus, they would certainly be communities of high moral character.
Herein exists to be what I believe is one train of logic core to Paul’s theology, and it goes like this:
click here to see illustrative graphic.
And here in this theological logic is where we find some parallels with the second letter to the Corinthians. Paul opens the letter by describing his suffering. He has endured great physical harm, perhaps even imprisonment. Even worse, however, is that Paul despairs for his relationship with the Corinthian church. But that’s not the end of the story. Paul remembers that strength comes from weakness and life from death, as Jesus proved to us in his resurrection.
Then, Paul’s and the Corinthian church’s relationship is restored once again. It must have felt to Paul like a direct blessing from God. In chapters 5-7 he rejoices with the Corinthians and reminds them of their faith in Jesus as the risen Lord. He offers thanks for the good things that have arisen from grief.
And then Paul moves into chapters 8 and 9 where he is asking the Corinthians to give money for his collection for the “saints in Jerusalem,” who are hungry and in need. And Paul pulls out all the stops—he guilt trips them, he flatters them, he proofs texts from Hebrew scriptures, and he promise rewards for generous behavior—all the things you hope someone doesn’t do when asking you for money!
It may seem out of place in his letter for Paul to start suddenly asking for a collection. But I think it fits right in with the logic of his theology. If you are someone who truly follows Jesus, the one who instituted God’s reign on Earth, the one who suffered for all of humanity, you will be naturally overcome with gratitude for those gifts. And gratitude, my friends, in turn becomes a commitment to be good to others—to care for them, have mercy on them, and give generously to those in need. A collection for the poor people of Jerusalem is exactly the manifestation of a faithful people who believe in the gifts God has given to them.
So what does all this mean for Eliot church on Stewardship Sunday? I think our church can relate to the situation of Paul and the Corinthians. The church in Corinth was in a place of struggling, and I think we at Eliot can understand that. Times of transformation are hard for any church, and Eliot is no exception. Eliot has a road ahead filled with many decisions and changes, which can be scary.
ut for Paul, uncertainty and even suffering are not the end of the story. Paul argues in almost a counterintuitive way that from suffering comes enormous blessing. Eliot is also a blessed church, endowed, even in times of trial, with abundance—in talent, in material wealth, in love for the gospel of Jesus. You all represent the blessings of this church, with what each of you have to offer to the community. Take a brief moment to reflect on the blessings you believe this church has received from God and from each of you.
Paul reminds us that from the blessings emerges a community of faith, people who believe in God’s good works and who come together to participate in God’s continual renewal of heaven and earth. It is from a place of gratitude that we celebrate our Christian faith, baptizing our new members and sharing communion with one another. We become church so that we can honor God and so that we can carry on Jesus’ ministry in our day and our context. We become a church because God so blessed the world and now we carry the light of Jesus to those who need it most. In your own heart, why do you believe that Eliot is a church? Why is it that you come and participate in this community of faith?
Each of you see different blessings bestowed upon our church Eliot and each of you have a reason to be thankful for the life and mission of this church. For me, my reason for gratitude is obvious. After taking some time away from grad school, I have been gifted with a new ministry opportunity in western Massachusetts. As if my dreams had been directly answered, in my new role, I will not only be caring for youth spiritually but also managing a vegetable farm with the youth. Eliot and the Metropolitan Boston Association both have agreed that I can become ordained in this role. I am grateful beyond words, and it is thanks to my committee in particular—to Susan, Reebee, Robert, Doug, Josephine, and Ginny, but also to all of our Eliot family that I can now do my best to share Jesus’ love with others. It is through me that Eliot has birthed new life and new ministry. There is much to be grateful for and to rejoice—not only for me, but for our whole church.
So, with that, I can be to you as Paul was to the Corinthians, and I say that friends, it is from our gratitude and our faith that our generosity overflows. Not unlike in Paul’s time, we live in a culture that encourages our selfishness and indulgence. But we know as Christians that our faith calls us to something higher—to see all our neighbors as brothers and sisters, equal before us, and that we properly care for others when we give of ourselves generously, whether in time, in money, in talent, in sheer love. Stewardship Sunday is not merely a day to remember your checkbooks or to calculate your pledge for the next year, but to be inspired by the vision for what this world could be like if we all lived as Jesus taught us and as God would have it. Stewardship Sunday not an exercise for the church’s own benefit, but a Christian expression of God’s blessing for all.
I conclude today with a benediction from Paul at the end of 2 Corinthians: Finally, brothers, and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.