For God so loved the World
For God so Loved the World
“For God so loved the world He gave...”: A Sermon on Stewardship
Texts: Isa. 55.6-13
2 Cor. 8.7-24
+ May I speak and may you hear, in the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Take another look at that rather long and rambling reading we had from Paul’s second letter to the early Christian community at Corinth: “So we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking” and “I do not say this as a command” and “It is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something--now finish doing it.” What is Paul on about? And why for goodness sake, why does he beat about the bush so? Why not just come out and say it--whatever it is he is on about? And by the way, in the original Greek Paul is even more illusive than he appears from our English translation. That statement, “so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking” in the original literally reads: “So we want you to excel also in this grace?”
That modern translators here render “this grace” with “this generous undertaking” gives the game away. Yes, Paul was talking about money, about capital, about dosh, or whatever you prefer to name it. You see, Paul had a project, a pet project--if you will. He was raising funds for the Christians in Jerusalem--the Jewish Christians who lived in Jerusalem. Two facts weighed heavily on Paul’s mind. First, the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem, because of the persecution which they suffered at the hands of other Jews, were in dire straits. Their situation was very serious indeed. The Gentile Christians of Asia Minor, Macedonia and Greece, among whom Paul ministered, may not have been particularly wealthy, but they were much better off. Second, there was real tension, some of it theological and some of it cultural, between the two branches of the early Church, Jewish and Gentile. Now, if the Gentile Christians, who enjoyed a great deal more prosperity, could be induced to part with some of that prosperity for the sake of their poorer brothers and sisters in Jerusalem, if the Gentile Christians were to prove their love in such away, just what might become of that tension, both theological and cultural, which existed within the Church? Might it not dissolve away and a greater unity come to full flower? But money, the raising of money, the suggestion that his people should give away some of their money, must have been as sensitive an issue in first century Corinth that it is in Twenty-first century England. And so Paul treads very carefully, one might almost say gingerly, around the issue: “You excel in everything -- in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you -- so we want you to excel in this grace also.”
In the previous paragraph, not part of today’s reading, Paul begins by bragging about the Christians in Macedonia; how generous they had proved to be. Then, in our reading, he lets it drop that the Corinthian Christians had begun some time ago to set aside money for the collection, but it seems they had quietly let the whole thing drop. So Paul is writing to encourage them to get on with it, so that when he arrives it will be ready and he can take it on to Jerusalem. And, moreover, he discusses at some length the preparations for the journey to Jerusalem. He wants no one to suppose that he will abscond with the dosh. So he informs them that Titus will be with him, as well as “the brother who is famous among all the churches” and also “our brother whom we have often tested and found eager in many matters.” Just who these last two are is no longer clear to us, but would have been very clear to the Corinthians.
And for Paul the fundamental principle is nothing less than the example of Jesus himself. Paul writes: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that although he was rich for our sakes he became poor, that through his poverty we might become rich” (2 Cor. 8.9). Jesus was in the very form of God, equality with God was his birth-right, so to speak. Yet, out of love for the human race, he emptied himself and became a man. Indeed, he took the very form of a slave, that through his poverty we might become rich (cf. Phil. 2.6-11). Paul’s point, though unstated, is altogether clear. If Christ so loved us, we ought to love one another. If Jesus so loved you, you ought to love your brothers in Jerusalem -- and love them not just in word, but also in deed.
Paul penned these words more than fifty years before the Apostle John put reed to papyrus. But Paul was motivated by the same truth which we find classically expressed in the latter’s Gospel: “For God so loved the world, he gave...”
Now, as I have already intimated, talking about money and giving is not easy. In fact, it is rather difficult. And if I may be so bold, it is rather more difficult for the English than it is for your typical American. But we have to speak about it. We have to because the Church of England has changed--at least in this area--beyond all recognition from the Church which the Victorians left to us. It is today the State Church in name only; gone are the legacies and endowments of their era. The crash in the property markets of 1989 was just that last dramatic event in a long and slow decline. If we do not support our Church through our gifts and tithes, the Church of England will fade away and eventually disappear.
We need to speak about money and giving because giving is what God in Christ has done for us and we are called to be transformed into his image. And we need to speak about money and giving because we cannot claim that Jesus is our Lord unless we allow him to be lord of our pocket books and our household finances. We cannot say that we do not support the Church financially, but instead we give, e.g., of our time. For that would mean that Jesus is Lord of our diary, but not of our pocket book. It would mean that we pick and choose which areas of our lives we allow him to exercise lordship over; which, of course, would mean that we were still the lord and not Jesus.
Now, let me say something about our giving at All Saints’. We are not in dire straits; we are not in a particularly challenging situation. We clearly have more in common with the saints of Corinth than those of Jerusalem. Every year we set a budget which is challenging but should be “meet-able” and every year we fail to meet it. We are just that much short year after year. We pay our bills, we do everything we absolutely have to do, but not much more. Now the reason we set a challenging budget is precisely so that we might do more; so that we might not just pay our bills, but also share our prosperity with the saints in Jerusalem of our day. In other words, the challenging budget is about mission, local, national and international.
And one must remember a substantial portion of our income as a parish comes via the two halls or renting out the parsonage or Ascot Week and not through regular, committed giving. So what happens when the takings from the halls drops off or we have to put a curate in the parsonage or a recession hits Ascot Week particularly hard? Fund raising projects like renting out the halls or Ascot Week are well and good, but in and of themselves alone are not a way to support the work of the parish.
When I was a teen-ager I was introduced to the startling statistic that in any given parish, 5% of the people do 95% of the work. At All Saints’, I think, we do a great deal better than that. Here there are so many people who contribute in so many ways to the life of our parish. Nonetheless, in the area of giving, according to the most recent figures, just under 15% of the givers contribute just over 50% of all our gifts.
So I want to ask all of you to do something. I would like to ask you to pray about your giving, both how much God wants you to give and where He would like you to give--for I do not suppose for one moment God intends that all your giving should be through All Saints’ parish church. Over the next months, think and pray about your giving. How much should you give and to whom. And do not be surprised if the amount which God lays on your heart is a great deal more than you think you can afford. If, for example, you are currently giving 3% of your take home pay, and the figure you arrive at through prayer is more like 5%; or you now give 5%, which by the way is what the General Synod recommends, and God lays 10% on your heart. And do not be distressed if there is no way you can give that right away. Just work up to it. Over five years add a percentage--or whatever.
One last thing: Note that Paul acknowledges that the giving in Corinth had to be in accordance with the Corinthians ability. He had no intention of impoverishing his people. There are some in our parish, pensioners, students and others, who simply cannot give more than they now give and others who cannot give at all now. I understand that, the Stewardship committee understands that, the PCC understands that and I believe the regular givers understand that. When I was a student, and immediately after my student days, I did not give or gave very little. But I never allowed myself the luxury of suspecting that that time was anything other than a “time out” and that in time it would come to an end. “For God so loved the world he gave...” I will not tell you how much you should give. That’s between you and God. But if Christ is to be the Lord of our lives, he must also be lord of our finances; and that includes our giving.
Revd Dr Darrell Hannah