Bread for the Journey: Riches
Scripture: II Corinthians 8:7-15; John 6:51-58
Rev. Charles Svendsen, May 7, 2017
We are finishing today a three part sermon series with our theme "Bread for the Journey." And of course we are in the midst of a five year journey prayerfully and physically supporting the Manna Food Pantry in Thousand Oaks. Our goal is to raise $75,000 to rebuild the Westminster Room, shelves, and storage to help individuals and families put food on their tables month to month. We been with "Bread for the Journey: Restoration." Isaiah 58 the poet prophet calling Israel to "rebuild ancient ruins," to be "repairers" of the breach," and "restorers of streets to live in." So we are called in our day to restore neighborhoods and nation, to restore fair laws and food pantries.
Last week, Pastor Steve opened the story of Jesus making himself known to the two walkers on the road to Emmaus, "Bread for the Journey: Roads." And now, today, from II Corinthians 8:7-15 with our theme! Verse 9, "For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ that though he was rich yet for your sakes became poor so that because of his poverty you might become rich." And along with Isaiah 58 (restoration), Luke 24 (roads) and II Corinthians 8 (riches) we have been listening to John's gospel chapter 6, all 71 verses, with the key verse 35, "Jesus said to them, 'I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whosoever believes in me will never be thirsty." Just think if you were and Episcopalian like my sister Elisabeth up in Salem, Oregon, you would have to stand up for all 41 verses of this gospel lesson - which reminds me of the Episcopal priest who said one Sunday morning, "There's something wrong with this microphone," and his people responded, "And also with you!"
So to second Corinthians 8:7-15. To those (like me) who were reared and still practice giving a tithe of our annual income to the ministry and mission of the church, this text will at first appear strange. Elsewhere in the Corinthian letters the Apostle Paul did not hesitate to give out commands surrounding certain behaviors like to the man living with his stepmother in I Corinthians 5 or the institution of marriage in I Corinthians 7, Paul uses strong commanding language when it comes to those issues, but here in II Corinthians 8, when it comes to participation in the monetary collection for the poor Christians living on the margins in Jerusalem, here Paul doesn't command the Corinthians to give, he commends the Corinthians to give. He commends. Paul advises them to participate in the collection (verse 7), "Now, as you excel in everything - in faith, in speech and in our live for you - so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking." In the midst of this positive, encouraging word, Paul writes in verse 8, "I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others." And in making his case he simply advises the Christians in Corinth to give generously to the sisters and brothers of like precious faith struggling in Jerusalem. Paul appeals to the wealth and poverty of Jesus. Jesus who left the riches of heaven and came to earth to become poor for your sake. You Corinthians, verse 9, "So that by his poverty you might become rich." The Gospel has accomplished the wealth of blessing, of forgiveness, of wholeness, of life into eternity with God beginning today - all for you believing Corinthians: "Jesus by his poverty has already made you rich. So live and give into that accomplishment of the Gospel in your hearts by opening your hands in generosity." The next couple of verses are interesting, not only does Paul not command the Corinthians to give but advises them to share based on the riches spiritually they have in Christ. Now he repeats his advise by advising them that since they began last year a "small fund" that would help the poor in Jerusalem, now is the time to take that fund and the desire, your desire to give, you spiritually wealthy Corinthians, now is the time to take your collected funds and desired collected funds, and give. Now what is unusual about this campaign is that Paul seems to say that the Corinthians desire to give is as important, and probably more important, than the collected funds so far. Paul puts it this way in verses 10 and 11, "It is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something. So now finish doing it so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means."
Now usually people speak of making a commitment to a project, $75,000 over the next 5 years to Manna, and then completing that commitment over the months ahead. In sixty months we will have given $75,000. Paul reversed that order when it came to the Corinthians giving to the fold in Jerusalem, "You have started a collection but I know you want to give, so now live into that desire." What Paul is saying implicitly is that giving is a result of a free and voluntary, a desirous, decision not made from compulsion. Paul in the very next breath makes the implicit explicit in verse 13, "For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable."
Now that's strange. At Finance Committee meetings on the third Tuesday of the month at 4pm in the library we talk a lot about our church budget, what we have on hand and what is projected. I have never heard Elders Dickinson or Felberg say a word about whether our resources received or projected were given out of desire or compulsion. But who does? If you or I receive a check, we make sure the dollar amount is correct and that it is made out to us and properly dated and signed. That's it! Motive in writing the check doesn't really cross our minds. But, for Paul, the spirit of willing, joyful, happy giving - that is desired - that generous spirit is of equal if not more importance than the gift itself. So our attitude in giving cannot be separated from our gift itself.
In the final three verses in the II Corinthians 8:7-15 lesson, Paul appeals to the Corinthians' sense of balance. The gentile Christians in Corinth were wealthy; the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were poor. "but it is a question of fair balance between your present abundance and their need so that their abundance may be (someday) for your need in order that there may be a fair balance." Yet still Paul understates his appeal to give as he begins verse 13 with the advice, "I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you." Rather, Paul writes, "look at the generosity of Jesus and then you Corinthians draw your own conclusions."
Three more observations about this text in II Corinthians 8:7-15. Paul undergirds his appeal for fair balance giving by quoting Exodus 16:18, but his quote is more like a paraphrase. And of all things, Paul recalls the story of the Israelites' receiving Manna in the wilderness morning and evening, this mysterious bread, "manna," the Hebrew for "what is it?" fell to the ground. Paul paraphrases, "the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little." So part of the miracle of manna was that no matter how much or how little people gathered there was never too much nor too little. So Corinthians, share your much with Jerusalem's little. That is the first note.
The second note is that giving crosses racial and cultural divides. Those Christians at Jerusalem were converted Jews, no doubt practicing many of their Jewish traditions and ceremonies. The Corinthians were Greeks, Hellenistic gentiles living and working in a secular world foreign even to Jesus and the twelve. Yet Paul urged Corinthian Greeks to give to Jerusalem Jews across a cultural and racial gap that New Testament scholars tell us rivals any of our modern world.
Thirdly, these Jerusalem Jewish Christians were led by Peter and James. While Peter and James and their wing of the church were not enemies of Paul, if you read Acts, there was some friction between these two camps. The Jerusalem church retaining many Hebrew customs and Paul turning his back on ceremony and tradition because, by being baptized and clothed with Christ "there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, even male or female, we are all one in Christ." Yet Paul, a more inclusive Christian, urged his Corinthians' church, where he spent 18 months of ministry, be appealed by the generosity of Christ to give to these more exclusive Christians in Jerusalem steeped in their conservative tradition.
So our giving to Manna or any other worthy ministry should be voluntary out of desire to share out of abundance with the needy, and our giving as well is across cultural, racial, social, political and even theological lines. It's simply giving because we follow the generous example and act of Jesus "that though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich.
We turn briefly to our Gospel lesson in John 6:51-58. This is a wonderful and insightful Scripture text as we prepare ourselves for this table of grace. We do this on the first Sunday of each month and on special occasions like Maundy Thursday, choir retreats, and hospital rooms. Jesus, in this long John 6 chapter is now in the midst of a debate with his fellow Jews who, after hearing Jesus say in verse 51, "I am the bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." That difficult saying provoked an argument among the Jewish authorities. Is that a literal eating of flesh? And, as Jesus throws gasoline on the fire, is that a literal drinking of his blood? Two points made Jesus. First of all, eating and drinking is more than belief. It's participating in discipleship with Jesus. Coming to this table is more than intellectual or emotional assent. It's going all in, consuming Christ! And as we do so we "abide in Jesus" and Christ abides with us and all who believe in Jesus. The second promise: When we eat and drink we are given eternal life. Eternal life for Jesus and in Christ is not just a continuance of life after death. It's not simply more of the same life. Some wouldn't choose that kind of life - more of the same. Eternal life is a new life in quantity and quality. Life in God is authentic life. Eternal life is life fulfilling all God's perfect intentions and purposes.
So we gather at the table. All who seek the love of God, the grace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit in the church and in hearts are welcome. The people who come to this table are as diversified as a subway pole in New York City and in Los Angeles we have subways. Look at the poles; look at the hands that grasp those poles as the train shutters and shakes. They are young smooth hands and old wrinkled hands and everything in between. They are dirty and manicured hands and everything in between, but they all cling to the Gospel that God is in Christ reconciling the world to God and entrusting to us the ministry and mission of reconciliation. Come eat; come drink. Come holding on for dear, and eternal, life.
For the grass withers and the flower fades yet the promises of God abide forever.
Westminster Presbyterian Church