A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark, on July 1, 2012.
Psalm 30:1-12; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15
The Apostle Paul was a powerful psychologist, or a masterful manipulator, whichever you might prefer. That is proven in this portion of his letter he wrote to the church in Corinth. Oh, and he’s talking about money, so you might want to hold on to your seat... and your pocketbook.
I have been told on good authority that the pastor should never be hesitant to talk about money, and the good it does for a church involved in ministry. If that is indeed true, the lesson was learned at the feet of Paul. When it came to the subject of money, and an offering for the church in Jerusalem, Paul was as bold – and as manipulative, if that is your opinion – as he could be.
Here’s the context... The church in Jerusalem has become poverty-stricken. They have been experiencing a great deal of persecution at the hands of those who opposed this burgeoning movement. The opponents of the church felt it was a threat to the religious life of the people who lived in the Holy City and its environs. The followers of Jesus had found little, if any, sympathy for their commitment to the Nazarene who had been crucified by the Romans.
I think we get the idea sometimes that the early church was a large and massively-growing movement, when in reality it was more like a blister on the heel of the culture in which it was born. The Jewish leadership knew of it, but the Romans, despite having put its founder on one of its crosses, hardly took note of it. But this is why the Jewish leadership resented the Jesus followers... Calling anyone Lord, other than Caesar – though the Jews obviously did not believe that Caesar was God – made them extremely nervous because it put them at odds with their occupiers and set the Romans’ teeth on edge. The Romans made no differentiation between the Jews who did not believe in Jesus and those who did. As far as the Romans were concerned a Jew was a Jew, and was to be held in submission to the power of their occupying government.
So, if the Jesus followers stirred up the political waters, and there were ramifications, the Romans didn’t just punish the Christian Jews; they took it out on everybody. The only way, from the viewpoint of the Jewish establishment, to keep the status quo and maintain some level of civility in Jerusalem, was to come down hard on those who had committed themselves to the Nazarene. They were the ones who had made trouble with Rome, they and those pesky zealots. Punish them and perhaps the Romans could be held at bay.
It may have been a fairly low-key form of persecution, but it was persecution nonetheless. For example, the followers of Jesus found it increasingly difficult to maintain their businesses. Once word got around as to where their religious allegiances were, their customer base dried up. Shopkeepers refused to provide them their services, and there was no fellowship outside the circle of their fellow believers. In short, it was becoming hard to do pretty much of anything for those who lived in Jerusalem, because they were branded as heretics and troublemakers. As their sources of income began to dry up, they found themselves increasingly in desperate poverty.
Word has reached Paul of what is happening, and as was always true of the apostle, he jumped into action. Paul began taking up an offering from the various churches scattered across the Mediterranean part of the world to help support the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem. As far as Paul was concerned, they were all in this together and needed to support one another. It was his intention to take the offering to Jerusalem himself as a show of solidarity and love.
Evidently, the people who made up the church in Corinth did not respond to Paul’s appeal, at least in the manner he thought appropriate and timely. Oh, they did at first. But after awhile, their interest in the offering began to wane. In other words, they had not finished what they had started. It was like making a pledge to a capital campaign and not fulfilling that pledge. So Paul includes a further appeal in this portion of his letter to his friends in the church. How he does it is very interesting.
One minister has said Paul did it by resorting to “both shame and pride.”1 I think I can see where he’s coming from. Paul lets the church in Corinth know that other congregations have stepped up to the plate and responded generously to his appeal. Obviously, the Corinthian church has not. “I am testing the genuineness of your love,” he says, “against the earnestness of others.”
You see what he’s doing? Why can’t they keep up with the other churches that are responding to his appeal?
You may be aware that, from our perspective, the offerings we have received the last few years during our annual Vacation Bible Schools have been quite successful. In fact, the last three or fours years have seen us receive more than a thousand dollars per year from children and parents for our various mission efforts. This year, for example, we raised more than $1100 for the local food pantry that operates out of First Christian Church. Last year it was the ServeTrust ministry in India, the year before that Arkansas Baptist College. How have we done it? It’s really quite simple: competition, girls versus boys. It becomes a matter of pride to them as to which side “wins.”
If you think that is beneath us and is not appropriate, then blame the Apostle Paul. He’s the one who started it with this letter to the church in Corinth when he pitted their lack of effort against what the other churches were doing.
But competition is not the only psychological means he employs. He also accuses them, by their refusal to respond to his efforts, of denying the very spirit of Christ who, “though he was rich,” yet for their sakes “he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” In other words, they owe everything they have and are to the One who gave his life for them, and now they’re being tightfisted with their money when it comes to assisting those who have committed their lives to Christ to the extent that they are suffering for it. That’s where the shame part comes in.
Don’t forget the pride-side of the equation. The Corinthian church doesn’t want to be the only one that doesn’t contribute to the offering. After all, when the offering is delivered, they’re going to put out those little bricks with the names of the churches etched in the stone. There you’ll see the names of the churches in Macedonia, Laodicea, in Rome, in Galatia, Thessalonica... all the major cities and urban areas of the Mediterranean world. Visitors who come and walk on these stones will ask, “Where is Corinth? Didn’t the church at Corinth participate in the offering?”
Last week, Janet and I attended the general assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Fort Worth. When I greeted my friend Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee (and who has preached in this pulpit), he reminded me – kindly, but he still reminded me – that I had not fulfilled my pledge to their capital campaign for their new facilities. Five years ago, when their campaign began, Janet and I pledged a certain amount of money to the effort. Now that the campaign is ending, did I want to fulfill my pledge so our names could be included on the wall where they will display all the donors? Well, of course we did. So Janet and I completed our pledge.
I think Brent has been reading 2 Corinthians!
Oh, but Paul’s not finished. He commends the Corinthians for excelling “in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness...” Paul is a powerful psychologist, not to mention a masterful manipulator... if you want to think of him that way. In our vernacular, Paul was a real piece of work. He knew how to work the crowd.
What was Paul’s motivation in taking up the offering in the first place? After all, he wasn’t the most-loved person when it came to the Jerusalem congregation. The church is being led by Peter and James, the brother of Jesus. They were not presidents of Paul’s fan club, let me tell you. They’ve had their fair share of scuffles with him. There was that time over in Antioch when Paul got in Peter’s face, accusing him of being a hypocrite because he had been fellowshiping with the Gentiles. But when representatives came down from Jerusalem to see what was going on in the church, Peter quit sitting with the Gentiles and avoided them like the plague. He didn’t want the church leaders from the big city thinking he was “soft” on the non-Jews... or the “uncircumcised,” as they referred to them. Paul didn’t let him get away with it, however, and called his hand on it.
There were a number of the folk in Jerusalem who thought Paul was trying to take over the leadership of the movement, and there was some jealousy, not to mention suspicion involved. Paul laid claim to being an apostle, just like the original disciples of Jesus, despite the fact that he “had never known Jesus in the flesh, had been a persecutor of Christians, and was [also] in the vanguard of those who wanted to allow Gentiles into the community without having them first become Jews.”2 These are not popular positions in the Jerusalem church. So Paul is going to all this trouble for people who don’t even like him!
Maybe he’s doing it to curry favor with them and try to get in their good graces. Or perhaps he is simply so taken with the level of sacrifice Christ has made for him, not even his difficulties with the church in Jerusalem – which are certainly petty by comparison – will keep him from fulfilling what he considers to be a compelling responsibility on his part.
You may find all this not to be that interesting, but I think it is a fascinating window into the life of the early church, and, if you look at it carefully, reveals that the same stuff going on way back then is not entirely different from the kind of experiences you and I have as we seek to be the presence of Christ where we live. And it also gives us a glimpse into the heart of Paul. You may not think that important either, but I would encourage you, if that is true, to think again.
You’ve seen the spots on TV where the hungry and dirty children are shown? The flies are flitting around their faces and the poor little ones look hungry and ill-clothed? For so many dollars per month you can sponsor one of them, give them the opportunity you have had, and that they would otherwise not have if you do not respond to their plea.
I’m certainly not criticizing that. I’m sure the need is very much real. But I am saying that this is not the approach Paul uses, whether you think he’s being manipulative or not. He doesn’t provide heart-wrenching stories of what is going on in the lives of the Jerusalem Christians. He doesn’t paint poignant pictures of their struggles. He simply reminds his friends in Corinth of how fortunate they are, and that they are bound together in an endeavor where some of their brothers and sisters in Christ do not enjoy what they have the good fortune of experiencing.
“It is a question of a fair balance,” he says in speaking of the Jesus followers in Jerusalem, “a fair balance between your present abundance and their need” (vs. 13). “For you know,” he says, “the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (vs. 9). It was a theme – a thread, if you will – that Paul used on more than one occasion... that Christ gave up everything, including his exalted position with his heavenly Father, so that those who believe in him might gain all he has lost. He “emptied himself of the treasure that was his at the right hand of God in order to make the treasure of his spirit available for all people...”3
And that, according to Paul, ought to be motivation enough for the people in the church at Corinth to open their hearts and their pocketbooks in support of their brothers and sisters in Christ in Jerusalem, and finish what they have started. As one minister has said, “Faithful generosity is a sign of a people who know the gospel, who remember who they are and are determined to follow the self-emptying one and share in the life that Christ offers them.”4
So this is not about stewardship as we often define it or think about it. It isn’t about the challenge of meeting our expenses with our gifts, and what strategies we can employ when those two figures don’t match up very well (which, around here, is most of the time, let me tell you). It isn’t about capital campaigns or how we can afford to fix up our facilities. It’s about “who we are”5 at our very core, where it counts the most. It’s about our sense of gratitude for what Christ gave up for us. It is about whether we are willing to empty ourselves as he did. It is indeed about whether we have it in our hearts to finish what we have started.
So consider, if you will, that anything we give – money, effort, time – to the ministry of Christ in this church is not simply giving. It is giving back to the One who gave everything to us. It is the only reason to finish what we’ve started.
Lord, give us the desire to fulfill the commitment we have made to you, however we are called upon to do it. Encourage us to finish the journey we have started, for it began and will end with you. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1Daniel Harrell, The Christian Century, June 27, 2006, p. 16.
2Peter S. Hawkins, Feasting On the Word, Year B, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 183.
3Douglass Key, The Christian Century, June 27, 2012, p. 20.