Sermon for Third Sunday after Trinity – High Mass Sunday 28 June 2015
TRINITY 4, 2015 HIGH MASS PREACHED BY THE VICAR, FR ALAN MOSES
Readings: Wisdom 1: 13 – 15, 2: 23 – 24; 2 Corinthians 8: 7 – end; Mark 5: 21 – end.
“For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” 2 Corinthians 8: 9
In this verse, Paul gives us the gospel in a nutshell. He does so at the heart of his efforts to persuade the Christians of Corinth to support his collection for the poor of the Church in Jerusalem.
This collection was hugely important for Paul. It was not just a charitable gesture toward the poor in Jerusalem, worth supporting for that reason alone. More than that: it had great symbolic significance as a concrete expression of solidarity between Gentile and Jewish Christians.
Its destination is “the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” (Rom 15: 26); poor Jewish Christians, part of the community led by Peter and James. A reading of Acts and Galatians reveals a tension between them and Paul. But Paul says nothing of fact that collection will go to those whose understanding of the gospel differs from his.
The needs of the Jerusalem Christians were real, but more than that, the fragile unity of Christ’s Church hinged upon the success of this collection. Would there be one Church for Jews and another for Gentiles? Would Christ’s body remain united? So practical concerns and spiritual ideals are deeply interwoven in his appeal. Paul hopes that, by the grace of God, it will symbolize and make real their unity.
When Paul had first made the appeal, the Corinthians had responded eagerly, but now their enthusiasm has cooled – along with their loyalty to him. So he sets out to convince them to make good their earlier intentions. The result is his most extensive treatment of the question of financial stewardship: an abundant resource for modern Christians.
He uses the range of meaning in the word charis: grace, generous act or undertaking, favour, thanks, privilege, blessing, to show that taking part in the collection is sharing in the same reality as the grace, the generous act, of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul is familiar with the persuasive techniques of classical rhetoric, so pitches his appeal to the Corinthians at several levels:
Firstly, in the lead-up to our passage, he holds up to them the example of the Macedonian churches (8:1 -5). He uses the language of grace to describe the way they have responded. In spite of their affliction and poverty they had begged for the privilege of taking part in the collection. They had then exceeded what could have reasonably been expected of them. Paul tells the Corinthians this in order to put their own love to the test: “I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your faith against the earnestness of others.” (v.8) While he is not ordering them to match the giving of the Macedonians, he is giving them a measuring rod for their faith.
Paul then changes tack. His relationship with the Corinthians has been fraught with difficulty. After he had left them to carry on his missionary work, other preachers had undermined his authority, criticized his competence and conduct. Harsh words had been written. Now he seeks to rebuild their relationship. He praises the excellence of their faith, speech, knowledge and earnestness and their love for him.
The Corinthians were keen to excel in all matters spiritual. But this passion had a negative side (not uncommon in churches with a reputation for being ‘spiritual’): a tendency to spiritual one-upmanship, that leads to division. Paul seeks to channel their zeal into a worthy purpose, into enthusiastic commitment to “this generous undertaking.” Should they not wish to, “excel in this act of grace also?”
Some commentators come over holier than Paul at this point. Surely, they say, the apostle should not be trying to either shame the Corinthians or flatter them into giving. I wonder if they have ever had to deal with a real congregation. It can help some individuals and congregations to see that what they consider generous might not be in the light of what is given by others, often poorer than themselves.
In the Diocese of London, we have something called “The Common Fund.” Each year parishes are asked to give as much as they can to support the work of the diocese. They are told in advance how much it will cost to keep their priest or priests in post, and that the greater part of what they give will go towards this. Parishes which are ‘well-off’ and ‘successful’ in financial terms, are asked to contribute more to support poorer ones; not to prop up failure or encourage a dependency culture, but to maintain the parochial ministry across the diocese. In our deanery, that means parishes like this one giving more so that the ministry of St. Paul’s, Rossmore Road can be maintained. We appeal to those parishes which are doing well to translate that into generosity in giving. Sometimes, archdeacons or area deans and finance advisers point out to the prosperous but tight-fisted who look at it as a tax to be avoided, that poorer parishes are often being more generous than they are in proportion to their income. We encourage them to share their bounty with others.
Good pastoral leadership is both realistic in seeing people as they are, but also hopeful in seeing them as they can be. Even our flaws and weaknesses can be transformed into virtues and strengths by God. Striving for excellence is a Christian virtue only when excellence is properly defined: in Christian not worldly terms.
So, underlying both of these approaches, we come to the theological heart of Paul’s appeal: “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.”
In his self-emptying, Christ relinquished the supreme possession – he laid aside his divinity. As the Gospels make clear, the lifestyle of the historical Jesus was one of modest possessions, if not poverty – certainly one of dependence on others:
“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8: 20; Luke 9: 58)
Although he does not say so here, Paul had adopted a similar lifestyle in his mission.
For all its immense significance for Paul, the collection is a matter of grace not of obligation. He does not say, “Jesus gave himself for you, therefore you are obliged to give for others.” Instead, the generosity of Jesus is stated and the Corinthians are left to draw their own conclusions. Although he is not shy in issuing commands on other matters, in this case Paul does not give orders but advice. The gift must be the result of a free decision rather than made from compulsion, or it will not be a gift. Christ gave up everything for them; what portion of their abundance can they give to brothers and sisters in need?
His case depends on the claim that, in the gospel of Jesus Christ, God has made available to Christians the gift of acting out among themselves the same love they see and experience in Jesus Christ who reveals to them the nature of God as self-giving, generous love.
The Christian attitude to wealth and material possessions, begins with humble gratitude for God’s self-emptying and self-giving in Christ. That should prompt an eagerness to give in response.
A year ago, Paul, says, many of the Corinthians were setting aside something each week for the Jerusalem church, and eager to do so. Paul speaks now not just of honouring their pledges but of recapturing that eagerness to express gratitude to God. `For if the readiness – the eagerness – is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has – not according to what one does not have. (v 12.)
Generosity is measured not by the size of gift, but by its proportion to what the giver has. Larger gifts offered by the wealthier members of the community are not more acceptable than the smaller ones of those of more modest means. We should not expect to get our names on a plaque because we have given more, if we have more to give in the first place. Excellence in Christian giving is measured not in pounds, but by the desire to give, which stems from gratitude to God. What Paul says echoes what Jesus says about the widow’s mite: in contrast to the rich worshippers who gave ostentatiously from their wealth, she gave quietly all that she had. Paul gives them some practical advice. The guideline should be “fair balance”. The poor of the Jerusalem are in need now, and the Corinthians should give out of their abundance to meet that need. In the future, it may be the other way round.
Paul reinforces this principle with the story of God’s gift of manna in Exodus (16.18). Part of the miracle of manna is that, no matter how much or how little individuals gathered, no one had too much or too little.
“The Lord loves a cheerful giver” Paul will say in the next chapter. This is not because God is the treasurer or the chancellor of the exchequer trying to balance the books, or even because it helps the needy, but because it is good for the giver: it makes them cheerful, happy, blessed. It transforms human beings into the likeness of the generous self-giving Christ.
In no area of human life is this more challenging than in that of financial stewardship. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Measuring worth and success through personal wealth and material possession is nothing new, though many would say we have taken it to new heights in our society which views the poor as failures. Members of comparatively affluent Gentile churches probably struggled as much as we do with the same temptations to give as little as they could get away with to those in need. They were probably just as prone to measure their giving against that of their peers: not to emulate their generosity but to make sure we don’t give any more than we have to.
We worry that if we are too generous, then we will lose out in what the economists call a “zero sum game.” There is only a limited amount of resources available. If we give too much of what we have away, there won’t be enough left for us. We fear that power will go out of us and we will lose it forever. The way out of this fear is to see that God’s economy does not work like that. Unless, that is, you listen to the prosperity gospel popular in some quarters. Its theme song is Janis Joplin’s, “O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz? My friends all have Porsches, I must make amends.” God’s economy, says Paul, teaches us that it is in giving that we receive.
The way out of this fear of losing is, Paul says, to trust in the God who provides for all our needs, so that in sharing our abundance with others we find that there will be enough and more for us all.
In generosity we not only bless others but find ourselves blessed by the one who became poor that we might become rich; not in this world’s wealth but with the riches of faith, speech, knowledge, eagerness and love.