2 Corinthians 8:7-15
7 But since you excel in everything —in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.
8 I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. 9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
10 And here is my judgment about what is best for you in this matter. Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. 11 Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. 12 For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.
13 Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14 At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, 15 as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”
Today’s lectionary passage from the epistles comes to us from 2 Corinthians 8. I did not choose today’s passage. This was already chosen for today. It just so happens that today we are hearing from a representative from the Valley Mission about how we might be involved in helping those who are less fortunate than we are in our community.
Now don’t worry, we will come back to this text in a few minutes. But before we do that, let’s look at something that was written a little earlier. Let’s go all the way back to the very beginning, back to Genesis chapter 1.
In Genesis chapter 1 we find the story of God creating the heavens and the earth and everything within them. Verse 11 tells us, “Then God said, ‘Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.’”
Vegetation, plants, trees and all of these things have seeds. What is a seed good for? Growing more vegetation, plants, and trees. God did not make creation as a static realm but one that is living, active, and moving toward something.
In Genesis 1:24 we find this, “And God said, ‘Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.’”
And verse 26, “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’”
Let’s do one more, verse 28, “God blessed them (the people) and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’”
God then goes on to give to the people authority over every piece of vegetation, plant, and tree. And there was evening, and there was morning, the sixth day. And it was very good.
God created the world and called it good. And again, this world was not static; it was moving and developing. The seeds produce more plants, the animals produce new animals, and the people are even told to be fruitful and multiply. This is the way that God intended for the world to be. All was well, all was good. And there is a Hebrew word that captures the essence of this creation that God calls good. That word is “shalom.” Shalom means peace, fullness, completeness, and well-being. God created the world and shalom did abound. This is the way that my Bible begins.
If you turn to Revelation chapters 21 and 22, you will find how my Bible ends. In Revelation 21 we read about a new heaven and new earth. And in this vision John sees a New Jerusalem descending from heaven, coming down to where John was. And verses 3-4 tell us this: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’”
Revelation 22, the last book of the Christian Bible, begins with the heading, “Eden Restored” and speaks of people being in full fellowship with God. All is well and shalom is restored.
Now shalom would not have needed to have been restored if shalom had not been disturbed. We read about the disruption of shalom in Genesis chapter 3, which tells us the story of Adam and Eve falling to temptation and eating the forbidden fruit. We have a name for that in the church. We call it “sin.” They are kicked out of Eden and made to work and experience pain. This is what we might call “the fallen world.” And what we find between the book of Genesis and the book of Revelation is God’s work, through Jesus Christ and through the church, to restore shalom. We begin in Genesis 1 and we end in Revelation 22.
If you were to ask a Christian what the Gospel is, they may try to present it to you by saying something like, “Jesus came to this earth so that anyone who believes in him will be forgiven and go to heaven.” I believe that is a very important aspect of the Gospel and we would have no Gospel at all without that. But that form of the Gospel begins with Genesis chapter 3, not Genesis chapter 1. That version of the Gospel begins with sin and provides the antidote to sin. But I don’t believe it is the entire Gospel. That Gospel is about getting out of here, this fallen and sinful world, and going somewhere else to be with God. That is the Gospel of world evacuation. But I believe that the Gospel we find in the Bible isn’t about world evacuation. The Gospel we find in the Bible is about shalom restoration, and we are called to participate in this process. We don’t begin in Genesis 3, we begin in Genesis 1.
God works through a number of people in his work to restore shalom to the world. I think of the founding fathers of our faith, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I think of the Prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. God used these individuals to help in the efforts to restore the shalom of this world. And then there was this guy named Jesus that came along. In addition to his atoning death on the cross he taught us how to live as a part of God’s shalom restoration process. Love God, love your neighbor, and love your enemy. Do good to those who hate you and pray for those who persecute you. Help those who are in need.
Jesus didn’t just teach these things, he practiced them. He wasn’t just teaching how to be a part of God’s shalom restoration process, he showed us how to live it out. Jesus showed the love of God to the tax collectors and the sinners. He broke bread with the prostitutes. He washed the feet of the very man who would betray him and hand him over to the Roman authorities. And as he hung on the cross he prayed, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Jesus taught shalom restoration and Jesus lived shalom restoration. And Jesus called us to live shalom restoration as well.
In John 14:12, Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing.” And in Jesus’ Great Commission found in Matthew 28 Jesus says, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
I think you are probably getting it by now. There is a reason that I usually use the language of following Jesus rather than believing in Jesus. You can believe in Jesus and participate in this world evacuation program. But Jesus is looking for followers to participate in his shalom restoration work.
Our scripture for today from 2 Corinthians 8 talks about one aspect of shalom restoration: sharing of our goods. Paul has a lot of good things to say about the church in Corinth. In verse 7 he says, “But since you excel in everything —in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.” Paul says that these Christians have faith, they are articulate, they are knowledgeable, they are earnest, and they know what it means to love. They are very well-rounded followers of Christ. Now if they really want to be complete, they should excel in this grace of giving.
If you were to read this verse in a different version, you might notice that some versions just say that Paul wants them to excel in this grace. That is actually more accurate as the Greek just says that the Corinthians should excel in this charis, this grace. The editors of the NIV thought that was a little confusing so they added the “of giving” part to help clarify things a bit. Giving is an act of grace. It is something that someone does not deserve, but it is given anyway.
Last Thursday I ordered a pizza online to be delivered to my home. I don’t often have pizzas delivered, but I was without a car and I wanted a pizza, so what am I to do. It is normal to tip a pizza delivery person a bit for a job well done. We often call this “gratuity.” And as you may expect, gratuity has the same root as the word grace.
When someone gives gratuity following a service, I don’t consider it “grace.” You tip a waiter or a delivery person according to the service that you receive. But when I ordered my pizza online to be delivered, I paid online with a credit card. And the website asked if I wanted to include a tip in the amount of my payment. Since I didn’t have any cash on me, I decided to do that.
The reason that this is interesting to me is because I had absolutely no idea how the delivery person was going to do. I wasn’t awarding him/her for good service. I was offering grace with the assumption that he or she would do what he or she needed to do. That is grace and perhaps true gratuity.
When Paul asks the Corinthians to excel in the grace of giving, or just grace, he is encouraging the Corinthians to give freely to those in need, not based on their works or merit. That isn’t grace at all; that is compensation. Paul asks that the Corinthians give to those in need because they need a little bit more to make ends meet.
This is by no means the only passage in the Bible that talks about giving to those in need. I could go right down the list of verse after verse, chapter after chapter that speak about this issue. But the point is clear that we are called to help those that can’t help themselves. We are called to help those who are down and out, those that have lost their jobs, been cut off by family members, or needed expensive medical care. This is a part of God’s shalom restoration program. This is a part of the Gospel.
If you begin your Gospel in Genesis 3, it is really easy to not worry about those in need. I have heard very dedicated Christians say things like, “Why should we help to poor financially? What does it matter if they are already saved? Shouldn’t we just teach them to endure this life until they move on to the next?”
This makes perfect sense to me. If the Gospel is just about getting out of here then why worry about the sick, the hungry, the oppressed, the needy? I’m saved, hallelujah, forget you guys. That’s the Gospel you get when you begin in Genesis 3.
But my Bible begins in Genesis 1. And my Bible doesn’t tell me that we are to try to escape this world. My Bible tells me that God created a world that he called good and through Jesus he has called us to participate in his shalom restoration program.
I spent some time recently with a friend who would have some very different positions than I would, theologically and politically. He does really well for himself financially and he is a generous person. But he is very critical of any kind of financial support system for those in need. This means government systems like welfare and food stamps as well as nonprofit organizations. He is of the mind that any and all programs only encourage people to be lazy beggars and they should really go out and get a job.
You know, there is probably some truth to that. I know that there are people that cheat the system. I see it all of the time. And I have no problem with people questioning the role of government in assisting the poor. I believe it is the role of the government to help people, but you are allowed to have your own opinion on the role of the government. And it was clear this week with the upholding of the ACA that many people are of differing opinions on the role of government. But what I just can’t understand is how a Christian can ever question whether or not we are to be helping the poor. Forget about government programs. The Bible doesn’t say anything about government programs. But time and time again we are called to help one another when a need comes up. As the church, we are to be helping the poor.
I take the Bible very seriously. I believe it to be inspired by God. And I know a lot of others who do as well. So if we believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and we believe that it is relevant for us today, then how do so many people explain away passages like this one in 2 Corinthians? We need a Gospel that begins in Genesis 1and ends in Revelation 22. We need a Gospel that begins with God’s good creation and ends with God restoring creation to its previous status. And we need a Gospel that invites all people to join together with Jesus to participate in this shalom project. Any other gospel is no gospel at all.
Today we want to introduce a reoccurring opportunity for the people of Staunton Mennonite Church. We are just a few blocks away from a wonderful, Christ-centered ministry to the poor and homeless in our community, the Valley Mission. In fact, the first time that I met with the director of development for the Mission she was about 15 minutes early. She said, “I didn’t realize how close you were.” I hope that as a church we can get a whole lot closer.
Today we are going to begin collecting an item to donate to the Mission and I hope to have a different item for each month for the foreseeable future. There are items that the Mission goes through quickly, like toilet paper, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and pillows. They need these items often and they do cost money. So each month I would like to see us collect a particular item and deliver it to the mission. I hope that everyone can donate something, and if you can’t I hope that everyone can help deliver the items. I think it is important for us to meet our neighbors in need, to look them in the eye, shake their hands, and know their names. These aren’t people looking for a free ride. These are people like you and me that have fallen upon difficult times.
We as a church do a wonderful job participating in God’s shalom restoration project in places around the world. I am thankful that our Penny Power offering will be shared in places like Lebanon, Syria, and Kentucky. I am thankful for all of the people who have helped gather material for relief kits for Haiti, Iraq, and others. But we must not forget the people in our own back yards. God has placed us here for a reason. And we are called to work together for God’s shalom.