This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 8:1-8
Purpose: to inspire Christ’s followers to take a hard look at both their giving and the attitude behind their giving.
Sermon prepared by Rev. Martin Dam, Caledonia, Ontario, Canada
Dear People of God,
Churches everywhere wrestle with this question: how can we get people to do things? Whether it’s getting somebody to stand as an elder or a deacon, or to help with youth group, or to join a small group, or to attend worship more faithfully, how do we get people doing the things that need to get done?
Take giving. It is generally recognized that giving is an important part of the Christian walk. Each church has a budget for their own ministry, which pays the salaries of the employees and the bills that come with keeping a building lighted and heated, plus the costs of buying materials and running the ministries. Each church also has commitments that they have made to the classis and the denomination. They are called “shares”, and each church gives towards this shared work. Churches have to raise a certain amount of money to meet these commitments. On top of that, there are other needs that are important, and so churches take offerings for local causes like pregnancy centers and Bible distribution, and for global causes like hunger relief or missionary support.
Which raises the question: How do churches get people to give, whether it’s to give of their time and energy, or to give financially? It can be argued that most strategies fall into one of two categories: guilt or inspiration. People can either be guilted and goaded into doing what they know they should do, or they can be inspired to want to. There are other reasons why people might give, of course. Jesus was quick to warn us against giving to improve our social standing, or to impress others, or to gain favor. But in terms of recruitment, it usually falls to inspiration or guilt.
Think about some examples where guilt is the primary motivating factor for giving. Pictures of starving children move people to give to hunger relief. A video clip of a homeless man pushing a shopping cart through the snow moves people to give to a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter. A bulletin announcement notifying the congregation that the Cadet ministry will fold if counselors don’t volunteer might move some men to step forward.
Other times, people are inspired to action, inspired to do the things they know they should be doing. People will see a commercial of a young boy having fun with a man and think, “I’d like to do that,” and join Big Brothers. People will see a group of volunteers rebuilding a home after a hurricane and give to “Habitat for Humanity”. People will see others leading in worship and be inspired to participate in that ministry.
Those are the two options, really. Inspire, or guilt. Which leads to an obvious question: Does it matter which method we use, as long as the job gets done? Does it matter whether something is done out of guilt or inspiration, so long as it’s done?
In the eyes of the world, it might not. But to the believer, motivation matters. We get a window into this truth when we look at the way Paul reaches out to the Corinthian Christians in our text. In order to fully understand this passage, we have to know a little bit about the Corinthians and a little bit about the Macedonians that Paul is talking about. So before we look at 2 Corinthians 8, please turn with me to 1 Corinthians 16:1-2. There we read, “Now about the collection for God’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.”
Most scholars agree that the collection Paul is talking about here is a collection for the church in Jerusalem. In the book of Acts, as Paul makes his way through the various cities helping start the various churches, he makes mention of gifts for the poor Christians in Jerusalem. So when Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he was expecting them to give to that collection. Let’s paraphrase what Paul is saying there. He’s saying, “There is a need in Jerusalem, but I don’t want to force you to give. I don’t want to twist your arm. So you decide how much you will give, set aside some money in keeping with your income, and save it up. That way, when I get there, I won’t have to talk about money and go door to door collecting.”
Also notice this: In 1 Corinthians 16:5, when Paul tells the Corinthians that he’s coming, he also mentions that he will come only after he makes his way through Macedonia. So it will take some time. Now a number of things happen in Corinth before Paul finally arrives there; enough things that compel him to send a second letter.
We have to make an assumption here but the logic makes sense. Paul seems to have gotten word that the collection in Corinth is not going well. Paul gets a report from somebody, probably Titus, that the Corinthians, while they were initially very excited to participate in the collection, seem to have lost their steam. Paul doesn’t want to go there and get angry, so he writes 2 Corinthians in the hope that they come around.
So obviously, Paul wants the Corinthians to give to this collection. He needs the money. But he wants them to give out of grace and joy, and not because he is forcing them.
Some amazing things happened as well in the church in Macedonia while Paul was there. Paul uses what happened in Macedonia to help fix what is going wrong in Corinth.
So, what happened in Macedonia? First of all, you have to know that Macedonia was poor. The town wasn’t necessarily poor, but the Christians were. We know this because Paul didn’t bother to include them in the collection. Paul thought they didn’t have anything to give. But somehow word got out among the Macedonians that there was this collection for the church in Jerusalem, and they wanted to be a part of it. In fact, they almost begged--almost insisted--that they be allowed to participate. Look at verse four, “Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in the service to the saints.”
Now remember, he’s writing this to the church at Corinth, and Corinth is fairly well-to-do. It was the capital of that part of the Roman Empire and a lot of money went through it. On top of that the believers there were not persecuted to the same extent as they were in other places.
So look at these 2 groups of people now. We have a group of believers who were fairly well off, relatively comfortable, and yet fairly unexcited about the prospect of participating in this collection. And we have this other group who were not well off, who did not have it easy, who were persecuted, but who were begging to be allowed to chip in.
So imagine for a minute how the Corinthians feel after hearing about this. The first inclination would be to feel guilty. And that guilt was probably well deserved. Imagine hearing about a little church full of poor struggling people who insist on passing around the hat for a collection even though they have nothing to spare--when you have much to spare and yet have been grumbling about giving. You are going to feel a little guilty. Well, that is not Paul’s primary motivation. He’s not trying to guilt them. He’s trying to inspire them.
Think about what he could have said in our Scripture reading after verse five. He could have gone from his story about what happened with the Macedonians and then turned around and said, “Now look at you greedy, lazy good for nothing ingrates. They’re poor, and they’re giving. You’re rich, and you’re not giving nearly what you can! Get it together!”
But that’s not what he says. Look at 2 Corinthians 8: 6 and 7. Paul writes, “So we urged Titus, since he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.”
Notice that in each of these verses, when Paul mentions their giving, he uses the word “grace”. In verse six he says “the grace on your part” in reference to the collection, and in verse seven he mentions the “grace of giving”.
Corinth was a good church, a good group of believers where a lot of neat things happened. They were not like Sardis or Laodicea from Revelation 2 and 3, churches about which that God had nothing good to say. When you read Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians, you get a clear picture of a church that had a lot of good things happening among them. For example, they had a lot of people with charismatic gifts--which is why in 1 Corinthians 12 Paul had to explain the charismatic gifts so carefully. They also had a lot of bright people who were relatively mature in the faith. In his letters Paul goes beyond basic teachings and talks about some really deep stuff--like Christian freedom--and the importance of balancing freedom and order in worship. That is what he is referring to when he says in verse 7, “Just as you excel in faith, speech, knowledge, earnestness and love…” Paul’s challenge is to take that same need for excellence that they had for worship, for giftedness, for their theology, and their love for each other--and apply it to the grace of giving.
What is grace-filled giving? Grace-filled giving is knowing that we have been given much—and so we respond with thanksgiving in our hearts. When we give out of guilt, we give grudgingly--which makes us want to give as little as possible. We tend to look for a minimum to give so that we don’t have to feel guilty.
The Christian experience is supposed to be about abundance--about celebrating how much we’ve been given, and giving back joyfully. That’s the grace of giving. Giving with grace, giving with generosity, giving with passion, comes from our understanding of how much God has already given us. It’s something that’s supposed to flow naturally from what God has already done for us.
If we take this passage seriously, we have to look at the way we teach people to give. Do we teach giving out of the motivation of guilt or out of the motivation of joy? Is it obligation or inspiration? A lot of churches teach giving by supplying a per-family or per-member target number each year. They take the money they need to raise and divide it by the number of participating people and come up with a number. If everybody gives their share, then the obligations are met. But do you see the problems with this method of teaching? First, there’s the problem of basing your giving on your obligations. If you reach that number, you don’t have to feel guilty. If you don’t reach that number, and there’s no good reason for it, then you do feel guilty. It’s a system that’s based on guilt.
But even more than that, it doesn’t recognize that God has gifted us all differently. Paul may have used the Macedonian’s willingness to give amidst poverty as a way to inspire the Corinthians to do likewise, but he also recognizes in chapter 9 that the Corinthian ability to give is much greater. And as Jesus says in Luke 12:48, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked”. God did not bless us all the same, not in terms of time or ability or money. But we’re called to be generous with whatever he’s given us.
When we take a hard look at 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, we cannot help but be challenged. First, we are called by this passage to take a hard look at our giving. In 1 Corinthians 16, which we looked at earlier, Paul told the church to set aside a portion each week, in keeping with their income. In 2 Corinthians 9:6 he puts it this way: “Everybody should decide in their heart what to give…”
Which leads to the question: how do we figure out how much to give? Based on the other passages, we do well to follow the “3 R’s”
First, reflect on what God has done for you. Reflect on your blessings. Reflect on how God has blessed you in every area. Reflect on your financial blessings, your health, your energy level, the support of your family. Where you have been blessed, see that blessing as a gift from God.
Second, review your giving. Take a look back at whether you’ve given back to God. Have you been faithful financially? Have you been faithful with your time and your energy and all the other gifts God has given you? Or have you been much better at taking from God than giving back to God?
Third, based on your reflection and your review, recommit. “Decide in your heart” what you will give back, of time, of money, of energy. There are many different guidelines one could use. Some use the Old Testament rule of tithing, giving ten percent to the Lord. But that raises other questions. Is it ten percent before taxes or after? Does all giving have to go to the church?
These are good questions, but they are not questions with clear cut answers. When we try to draw hard lines for everybody, we end up sounding more like the Pharisees, than we do like Christ, or like Paul, who said “decide in your heart what to give, and give generously”.
Which leads us to our last point. As important as how much we give, perhaps even more important, is the attitude with which we give. 2 Corinthians 8 talks about the grace of giving, of realizing that our gifts are a response to God’s grace in us. It is a way of saying “thank you” for the gift of salvation that we have through Jesus Christ. Chapter 9 says that “God loves a cheerful giver”.
Attitude matters to God. And guilt is a bad long term motivator. When somebody volunteers because they feel guilty, they can’t wait till the event is over. When somebody gives money because they feel guilty about somebody’s plight, they can’t wait to get away from that person. Those experiences do not bring joy.
So who are we? Are we like the Macedonians, who are barely scraping by but somehow still insist on participating in God’s work--meeting other needs in other places? Or are we like the Corinthians, fairly comfortable, fairly well gifted, giving some out of a sense of obligation, but not really embracing it, not really giving out of the joy that comes with realizing that this is a gift?
God has been good to us. That is a fact that every believer has to come to terms with. But the point of that truth is not to guilt us or oblige us to give because we owe God. We can never repay God. Rather it inspires us. It makes us excited to be a part of what God is doing in the world. It makes us thankful for the opportunity to give back, and to do so
Order of Worship
GOD GATHERS HIS PEOPLE
Song of Praise: “Holy, Holy, Holy” PsH #249: 1-3
Call to Worship: Matt 11:28-30
God’s Greeting “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be and abide with us all. Amen.”
Song of Celebration: “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” PsH # 253
OUR NEW LIFE IN CHRIST
Call to Confession: Romans 6:1-4
Hymn: “My Faith Looks Up To Thee” PsH # 262:1
Prayer of Confession: “Lord, in your holiness you cannot abide sin, but in your mercy you sent Jesus Christ to pay that debt. Show us our sin, Lord. Show us the sins we’ve been living with for so long that we no longer realize are there. Turn our hearts toward you, that we may be forgiven and find peace. Amen”
Hymn: “My Faith Looks Up To Thee” PsH # 262:2
Assurance of Pardon: Romans 8:1-2
Hymn: “My Faith Looks Up To Thee” PsH #262:3
God’s Will for Our Lives: 1 Peter 1:22-25
Hymn: “My Faith Looks Up to Thee” PsH # 262:4
WE LIFT UP OUR PRAYERS AND OFFERINGS
Song: “Open our Eyes Lord” (or “Have Thine Own Way, Lord” PsH # 287)
GOD SPEAKS HIS WORD
Prayer for Illumination
Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 8:1-8
Message: “The Grace of Giving”
Prayer of Application “Dear Lord, inspire us to grow in the grace of giving. May we give generously, and may we give cheerfully, and may our gifts be used to bring your Kingdom closer. Amen”
Song of Response: “With Thankful Hearts My Thanks I Bring” PsH # 183: 1,2,4
GOD SENDS OUT HIS PEOPLE
Benediction: “May grace, mercy and peace be ours from God the Father, God the Son, and God The Holy Spirit. Amen”
Doxology: “The Battle Belongs to the Lord”
(or “Onward, Christian Soldiers” PsH # 522)