We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; 2 for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 3 For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, 4 begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints— 5 and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, 6 so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you. 7 Now as 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 also in this generous undertaking.
8 I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. 9 For you know the generous act 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. 10 And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— 11 now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. 12 For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. 13 I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. 15 As it is written,
“The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”
This is but one of three passages Todd chose to use to address the question of the week: “Who is my neighbor in the broader community?” I chose this one because it was not immediately evident to me how this solicitation for funds fit into the series and on first reading, Paul’s tactics for gaining support seemed suspect. I wanted to explore both.
It turns out that Paul was soliciting funds for the church in Jerusalem. There was a famine in the middle east and the fellowship in Jerusalem was literally starving. Gathering money to support them was a form of disaster relief and mission outreach that was foreign to first century minds. To further complicate matters, the Jerusalem church was a Jewish Christian church and viewed gentiles as acceptable only after they had adhered to Jewish traditions. Who could be called a ‘real’ Christian was a question that had not been settled.
Carla Works (a commentator on workingpreacher.org and professor at Wesley Theological Seminary) writes “…God’s Spirit is at work among predominantly Gentile communities to minister to Jewish believers. In an ironic twist, people who might not have been welcomed at the dinner table (according to Galatians 2:11-14) are the very ones who are providing the resources for the food.” In that regard, it would be difficult to find a better example of what it means to be a neighbor in the broader community. The broader community always includes people who are different and people we are not comfortable with. But, responding to human need is based upon the gospel. It has nothing to do with agreement or likability. Our shared status as God’s children takes precedence over any human valuation. At least most of the time we do not vet people’s beliefs when they are in danger, we give because we see hungry or endangered people and we believe with Paul, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”
But of greater interest to me is how do you communicate those ideals and responsibilities without it feeling manipulative and guilt producing? The first reaction in FIRL was that this passage was more about closing the deal than preaching the gospel. Paul compares the giving of the churches in Macedonia to the giving in Corinth. He suggests the higher piety is a willingness to give beyond our means and then takes it back saying: “ I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance.” Similarly he says he is not offering a command but he is offering a test of “the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others.” And finally he uses Jesus sacrifice as model and reminder of how we should act and give. These are all tactics used in stewardship appeals across the centuries. Secularly, they have the feel of a sales pitch and are generally not well received. In FIRL the tone of the reaction was, ‘Why does he keep making it about the money?”
It is very difficult to give out of gratitude. We preach it and if you have tasted grace, you know something of what it means—but our broader community is secular and it is very difficult to view the world and relationships from a Christian point of view.
This week, I listened to two different stories regarding gift giving and responsibility. One woman had her meal paid for by the person in line in front of her. She did not know this person and had no idea it had happened until she tried to pay her bill. Her reaction was, ‘this must be a mistake’; ‘are you sure it was meant for me’. There nothing that could explain the gift and there was nothing she had done that ‘deserved’ the gift. Her only choice was to accept or refuse. The gift had been given.
In real life, her predicament is a common one. Many of us have trouble receiving simple compliments—much less grace. Even if we manage to say thank you, there is frequently an internal ‘yes, but…’ that suggests the gift was somehow given in error. Or perhaps an internal skepticism about the other person’s motive—’what do they really want?’ For most of us, there is no such thing as a ‘simple’ gift’. When I was in high school, one of classmates told me her family always bought and wrapped some generic Christmas gifts—in case someone visited and brought a gift they had not expected. Even Christmas gifts can have an obligatory reciprocity built in. We are likely to feel unworthy, suspicious or obligated—all of which interfere with grace. It is no wonder that teaching the gospel is so difficult.
The second story has to do with our responsibilities and how we receive them. I frequently see couples that are in conflict over their sex lives. One pattern which is fairly common is a religious expectation that couples save themselves for marriage. Any other sexual encounter is viewed as a weakness of the flesh and shameful. Sex is bad before marriage but is expected (a wifely duty) after marriage. But there are two predictable problems. First, wedding vows do not magically alter years of negative thinking and second, sex out of obligation rarely leads to connection. What occurred to me as I listened was how often it is true that we respond with guilt and obligation—even to expectations we agree with—-whether they be in our marriages or our spiritual life. The vast majority of individuals in marriages want to be good spouses but when that desire is born of obligation, there is a very high risk of resentment. The line between service out of love and service out of obligation is a blurry one but it is a difference you will notice when you cross it.
There is an economy of grace that is very different from the economy of works. In the economy of grace, our first job is to learn to receive—-and once filled, to offer love. In the economy of works, our first responsibility is to earn—to do what we are supposed to do—in order to be loved. But how are the ‘supposed to’s” of our spiritual life different from those of our secular life? As is so often the case, the very same behavior can emerge from our desire to follow Jesus in the belief that we will be transformed or can emerge from a desire to prove ourselves worthy of acceptance. Paul certainly communicated that we are ‘supposed’ to love one another.
In encouraging the Corinthians to give, it makes all the difference if we view Paul’s entreaty as the Christian belief that every child of God should feel safe and ultimately treasured. And just as important, that when we live our lives in that manner, we come closer to God. Paul is not handing out piety points. Our secular brains read with that bias but if allow for God’s love, the same words can take us to a different place.
The ‘should’s’ of our faith are disciplines and signpost to bring us ever closer to the experience of his love. These disciplines are often difficult. Initially they are counter intuitive and many evoke fear. It is not easy to feel safe with your enemy, much less love them. It is hard to give when you have a family to support or are on a fixed income. Self emptying is not a natural human response. Yet these are the practices that lead us to God—and that is why we do them. Sometimes all we can do is ‘fake it until we make it.’ It doesn’t feel right, but we begin the practice in the promise that following Jesus leads to life.
Our faith changes who is our neighbor and changes how and why we respond to them. But all we can do is what we can do—today. Our faith requires trust. We are not being graded, we are being pointed toward God. Sometimes it requires we trust God with out distrust. But when we live in the present and within ourselves, we will come to know God’s love for us.
We can not earn what has already been given. When we learn to receive our service comes from a different place. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.