Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
June 10, 2018
2 Corinthians 8: 7-15 (CEB)
Be the best in this work of grace in the same way that you are the best in everything, such as faith, speech, knowledge, total commitment, and the love we inspired in you. 8I’m not giving an order, but by mentioning the commitment of others, I’m trying to prove the authenticity of your love also. 9You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Although he was rich, he became poor for our sakes, so that you could become rich through his poverty.
10I’m giving you my opinion about this. It’s to your advantage to do this, since you not only started to do it last year but you wanted to do it too. 11Now finish the job as well so that you finish it with as much enthusiasm as you started, given what you can afford. 12A gift is appreciated because of what a person can afford, not because of what that person can’t afford, if it’s apparent that it’s done willingly. 13It isn’t that we want others to have financial ease and you financial difficulties, but it’s a matter of equality. 14At the present moment, your surplus can fill their deficit so that in the future their surplus can fill your deficit. In this way there is equality. 15As it is written, The one who gathered more didn’t have too much, and the one who gathered less didn’t have too little.
You know, one of the things that is fun about Paul’s writings is that these letters are real, raw. Certainly, when Paul writes these various letters to different churches around the Roman Empire, he usually has a specific purpose, some business to tend to at the local level, but he’s also so personal and authentic with the people and churches he is writing to. We often approach these letters as another book in the Bible, but we have to remember that they are a personal correspondence between Paul and the churches and congregants he loved.
As we continue on in 2 Corinthians this morning, we come to one of these very personal parts of this letter as Paul pleads and reasons with the Corinthians to support a “cause” that he is passionate about. The cause is the poor believers in Jerusalem. This offering is often referred to as the collection for the Jerusalem Church. This appeal for the offering for the Jerusalem Church comes up in more than one of Paul’s letters, and it is also mentioned in Acts. And whenever I come across a mention of this offering, I always think to myself, this is like taking up an offering for the “Mother Church.” The church in Jerusalem was the first church. But here’s the other thing we have to realize about the Jerusalem Church—it was filled primarily with Jewish Christians. The church in Jerusalem was Peter and James’ realm—Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. He was the one traveling out from the church in Jerusalem, sharing the good news and establishing churches in the Gentile world. So, just to summarize where we are at this point: the whole first part of this letter was Paul’s attempt to reconcile himself to the Corinthians. He is trying to repair a broken relationship. Then, once he feels like the relationship is sufficiently restored, he calls upon the Gentile Christians to take up a collection for the poor Jewish Christian believers at the “mother church” in Jerusalem.
Just put yourself in the place of the Corinthians for a minute. Can you feel the skepticism? My reaction would be something like this: “Seriously? Are you kidding me??? This guy’s already skating on thin ice here, and now he wants us to give our money to the Jewish Christians down in Jerusalem where the church started, where everyone is sending their special offerings! Why would we do that? Those Jewish Christians don’t even think we’re legitimate Christians because we’re Gentiles!”
When you think about all of this from the perspective of the Corinthians, can you see the uphill battle Paul had before him? But Paul understood the risk and challenge he faced in making this “ask” of the Corinthians, so he “pulls out all the stops,” so to speak. To begin with, and we didn’t hear this part this morning, Paul tells the Corinthians what a great job the beleaguered and impoverished Macedonians have done with this collection. To hear Paul’s description of the Macedonian’s collection, it sounds as if they eagerly participated in the offering, and despite some challenges and poverty themselves, they far exceeded the expectations of the apostles. But Paul’s not lifting this fact up to try and create some sense of competition between the Corinthians and the Macedonians. Instead, he is giving an example of enthusiastic and generous love in action. The heart of Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians comes in these verses we heard a few moments ago.
Here Paul actually makes “the ask,” appealing to the Corinthians to take up a collection for a different church filled with the different people in what surely felt like a completely different part of the world, and Paul begins by saying to the Corinthians, “Be the best in this work of grace.” He reminds the Corinthians that they are already the best in faith, speech, knowledge, commitment, and love. This is not about the money, this is about the Corinthians continuing to exhibit and to enact the generous love and grace of God that has been so freely shared with them. That’s why here, in the middle of this relatively mundane pastoral appeal for money, Paul breaks out one of the most beautiful and profound statements of faith that we have in all of Scripture. “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Although he was rich, he became poor for our sakes, so that you could become rich through his poverty.” This is the amazing grace of Christ’s love for us, and Paul lays it bare right here! “Although he was rich, he became poor for our sakes, so that you could become rich through his poverty.” And in a passionate plea, Paul writes, “I’m trying to prove the authenticity of your love….”
Several years ago, I read a book written by a Chaplain of the Maine State Warden Service. In her book, Here If You Need Me, Kate Braestrup describes her encounters serving as the spiritual presence in the Warden Service, and raising four children as a single mother after the death of her husband. Late in the book, Rev. Braestrup describes a conversation she had with her oldest son about the love of Jesus Christ and what it is to follow Jesus Christ and seek to live as Jesus lived. As Peter’s mind is opened to the radical love of Jesus Christ in the midst of this conversation with his mother, he comes to this conclusion. “If I really take Jesus seriously, if I really am willing to give up everything I am and everything I have in the service of love, if I really am a Christian…it seems to me I would have to give my place in heaven to someone else, someone who otherwise wouldn’t get to go…Right, Mom?”
Needless to say, Rev. Braestrup’s response to her son’s revelation was stunned silence. What he is proposing is an extremely radical idea that is shockingly hard for any of us to imagine. My first response was that not even Jesus has done that. Jesus still sits in heaven, at the right hand of the Father. But what Paul is urging to the Corinthians here in this second letter is the fact Jesus that did give up his spot in heaven for us. “Although he was rich, he became poor for our sakes, so that you could become rich through his poverty.” Jesus’ sacrifice was not only on the cross, but it began in heaven when Jesus laid aside his glory and agreed to come to earth. There can be no question, Jesus has made a radical sacrifice on our behalf, and if we take Jesus seriously, we will do the same in our own lives.
This is not some competition. Paul is not calling us to try and out-do one another or show up some other church. This is not even about money, at least not any more than our gifts are one reflection of God’s work of grace within us. No, what Paul is calling out of the Corinthians and all of us in this appeal is the fullness of our authentic selves—the people God has made us to be, full of faith, and knowledge, and commitment, and especially love and grace. Paul is asking for nothing less than a total, willing, even eager surrender of ourselves; a complete offering of all that we are and all that we have. And this is the call because this is precisely what Christ has already given us!
Here’s the truth that we need to understand. Christ made others rich, but not in the way the rich normally help the poor, by giving out of their fullness. Instead, Christ enriched others by giving out of the nothing he had to give. That’s a pretty amazing miracle, really. It makes walking on water look like child’s play! When was the last time you saw poverty create riches? Yet this is what Christ did; he made others rich by making himself a beggar, by being one of the disgusting have-nots, and by giving out of his nothingness.
As Christians, how we use our resources—our time, money, talents, and attention—is a reflection of what we believe about God and God’s actions in the world. But even beyond that, how those resources are used preaches a message to others. Paul offers here a joyful vision of God’s abundant love, and an invitation for us to be a part of enacting that love in the world according to Christ’s own example. Paul wants the Corinthians’ actions to be a reflection of the gospel in which they believe, and so it should be for us as well. Christ’s authentic self was most clearly revealed in the moment he died on the cross. The authenticity of our love for Christ is most clearly revealed when we too give of ourselves sacrificially, when we make ourselves poor so that another can be rich in God’s grace.