Abounding grace (part 1)

Photo by jannoon028. Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
Photo by jannoon028. Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Everybody hates the “tithing sermon” (and you may be thinking twice about reading a blog post that begins that way!). Many pastors dread giving it, as necessary as it might be. Many of the flock dread hearing it, and some will actually leave the congregation if money is spoken of too much or too often. It’s true that there are churches with bloated budgets and pastors who embezzle church funds. But that sad reality cannot be a blanket reason for resisting the appeal to give, and give generously.

Pity the apostle Paul. He worked hard with his hands as a tentmaker, so that he could give the gospel away for free. But that made him suspect in the eyes of those in Corinth who were used to paying to hear good oratory; he may even have offended some people by turning down their patronage. Imagine then, how they might have reacted when Paul made the circuit of Gentile churches asking for contributions to support the poor in Jerusalem: What is he really after? Where is the money really going?

Paul had given the Corinthians straightforward instructions for the collection at the end of one of his earlier letters (1 Cor 16:1-4). But as we’ve seen, a conflict erupted, creating a schism between them and Paul. With the fences apparently mended, would the Corinthians resume the collection?

This was no small matter to Paul. Tangible support would go a long way toward helping Jewish believers accept the place of Gentiles in the new covenant. And whether the Corinthians realized it or not, it was for their own good to give freely to the cause, as a concrete outward expression of the grace they had inwardly received.

So as Paul carefully reintroduces the subject of the Jerusalem collection, he avoids mentioning money, and focuses on grace:

Brothers and sisters, we want to let you know about the grace of God that was given to the churches of Macedonia. While they were being tested by many problems, their extra amount of happiness and their extreme poverty resulted in a surplus of rich generosity. I assure you that they gave what they could afford and even more than they could afford, and they did it voluntarily. They urgently begged us for the privilege of sharing in this service for the saints. They even exceeded our expectations, because they gave themselves to the Lord first and to us, consistent with God’s will. As a result, we challenged Titus to finish this work of grace with you the way he had started it. 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. (2 Cor 8:1-7, CEB)

Grace, grace, grace: even the word translated as “privilege” above is “grace.” The grace given by God to the Macedonian churches (Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea) created joy in the midst of affliction, generosity in the midst of abject poverty. And they wanted to give back. Paul didn’t have to twist their arm; they twisted his, begging to take part in the collection, which they rightly understood as an expression of grace itself. They gave willingly, beyond their means and beyond Paul’s expectations.

It’s important to note the sequence. God gives grace and the people respond by giving graciously to others — but in between, Paul says, the Macedonians “gave themselves to the Lord.”

The link is crucial. More on that in the next post.