gift, grace & generosity

Homily for July 1, 2018

Every so often in church we get to play Indiana Jones, when some old scripture passage helps us unearth what the earliest Christians were going through. This morning we pick up one of those old texts, blow off the dust and see what story it tells.

What artifact do we see this morning in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians? As you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness (If I didn’t know better I’d think Paul was buttering them up for something) – as you excel in all these things, so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. What do you think is happening here?

Paul is asking the Corinthian church for money! What we have just uncovered, nestled behind old baptismal fonts and musty prayer books is something seemingly more prosaic: we have just heard excerpts from the earliest stewardship pamphlet in the history of the Church. We want you to excel in this generous undertaking. But Paul’s message wasn’t prosaic at all: this was about responding to the grace of Jesus Christ with the gift of generosity. Indeed, he spoke of charis, a Greek word that means both generosity and grace.

But let’s not get too theological about this: Paul said this because he was raising money. In the mid to late 40’s there was a famine in Palestine, and Jerusalem was hit especially hard. The church was still anchored in Jerusalem, and the Christians there were struggling to get by, so they appealed to their brothers and sisters in the “gentile” churches – meaning places like Macedonia and Corinth – for financial support. This “Jerusalem Collection” was a part of Paul and Barnabas’ itinerant mission, so from its very beginning evangelism and generosity were closely tied together.

As a fundraiser, Paul was pretty good. Paul was speaking to a relatively wealthy church and believe me, he pulled out all the stops to get them to reach for their purses. It’s earlier in the chapter, but his comments about the church in Macedonia are especially, well, direct. Dear Church in Corinth, he was saying, Consider that the believers in Macedonia, who are a lot poorer than you, are generous despite their poverty, and didn’t just give to this campaign but even begged us to be a part of it!

Macedonia indeed had a tougher time of it. They knew poverty while the Corinthians knew wealth. Macedonia should have been wealthier because of their minerals and timber, yet the Romans extracted those resources and left them impoverished. The Macedonians met oppression with generosity, and in that they found spiritual freedom. Paul writes, “The Macedonians’ abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity…according to the means and beyond their means…begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in the ministry of the saints.”[i]

But there’s more to it, and it’s telling that an appeal like this actually became a part of scripture – a stewardship pamphlet became a part of scripture! Like all good fundraising, this was only partly about raising money: it was really about opening their eyes to the generosity of God, and inviting them to respond. Theologian David Ford tells us that “Coping with God’s generosity… is the central task of the Christian faith.” [ii]

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The word that Paul uses here – charis – teaches us something about the spiritual gift of generosity. You see, that’s the same word that he uses for grace. It’s the same word we use for gift – a charism is a spiritual gift; someone who is charismatic is filled with a spirited energy. Gift, grace, and today, generosity: we know the generosity of Jesus, and so our response is generosity of our own.  It’s the same word. It’s the same spirit. Grace, gift, and generosity are all part of the same spirit moving in and through us.

Coping with God’s generosity is the central task of the Christian faith.  When Paul asks the Corinthians to consider the needs of the saints, he invites them connect to their brothers and sisters through their money rather than let their money be something that separates them.

This is about far more than raising funds to help people out in a pinch: raising money, and giving money, is a part of becoming the body of Christ. Henri Nouwen reminded us that when we as Christians talk about money, we in fact enter a space made sacred by the very subject matter itself, where “those who need money and those who can give money meet on the common ground of God’s love.”[iii] Paul was inviting the Corinthians into this same place, where need and generosity could meet on the ground of God’s love.

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Even so, this was not ultimately about the church. This was about seeing the grace-filled relationship with Christ for what it is, and responding without reserve and without hesitation. Once we get past Paul’s rhetorical flourishes – “if Macedonia can do it, why can’t you?” and my favorite no-baloney line about it being a fine thing to want to contribute and feel good about wanting to contribute (he actually says that) but for it to count you actually have to do It– once we get past all that, we get to the heart of the matter: because Jesus loves us with his whole being, because Jesus made himself poor so that we might have abundant life, consider how blessed we are to be given opportunities to respond with gratitude and generosity.

Jesus’ grace and our generosity are expressions of the same incarnational gift. Consider that the next time you can share what you have. Jesus’ grace and our generosity are expressions of the same incarnational gift. Consider that the next time you have the chance to give to the needs of the saints, or to build the kingdom of God, or to join God in imagining what is possible.

Paul invites the Corinthians, after buttering them up for being excellent in all things, to a sacred space of generosity. His goal was not so much a donation as it was the wholeheartedness made possible by that gift. His goal was the awakened imagination and the new possibilities that happen when those with need and those with means could meet on the common ground of God’s love. Paul showed them something about grace that only generosity could teach.

Grace isn’t just another word for goodness or love or even selflessness. Grace, to Christians, “indicates that when done it will be God who does it.”[iv] Grace isn’t us at all: It’s God working in us and through us.

It’s God that prays in us. It’s God that does the Giving, when we let go our hardheartedness fall to the wayside and let God, through us, do something new in the world.

That it is not us, but God working in us, may be the greatest gift of all.

The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, NC

 

[i] 2 Corinthians 8:2-6

[ii] Ford, D. (2005). Living in Praise: Worshipping and Knowing God. Grand Rapid: Baker Academic.

[iii] Nouwen, Henri J.M, A Spirituality of Fundraising. Upper Room Books, Nashville, TN, 2004. p.22.

[iv] The Interpreter’s Bible: 2nd Corinthians, Chapter 8. Peirce & Washabaugh, United States, 1953. P. 367.

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About bernardowens

I'm an Episcopal priest in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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