May 24, 2020
by Christian Collins Winn
2 Corinthians: 8:1-7,9; 9:10-15
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. . . . 9 For you know 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.
9:10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13 Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, 14 while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
“Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, Oh Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” Living God, we give thanks to you for the indescribable gift which you have given to us—a share in your life. Be with us now, open our ears and our hearts, that your word may reach deep into our being that we might move more ardently into the flow into the flow of your grace which you constantly pour out on your creation. In Jesus name, we pray, Amen.
Good morning brothers and sisters! It is a pleasure to be able to speak to you, though I confess I wish we could be here together in the space, to see each other face to face. Nevertheless, thanks be to God that we can still be connected in and through the Spirit.
About three weeks ago someone very close to me passed away. It was my doctoral advisor, Donald Dayton. I studied with Don at Drew University, and over the years we became very close friends. He was much more than a doctoral advisor to me. As I was thinking about the theme of grace and the text that I had been drawn to for my sermon, I couldn’t help but think of Don.
Don was a unique character. Anyone who ever met him generally had some kind of story from their encounter. But one of the things that Don was, was generous. He once paid out of pocket for me to fly over to Europe on a research trip. He wanted to give me a chance to solidify the idea that I was going to focus on for my dissertation. So, he accompanied me, and together we drove around Germany and visited archives, bookstores, universities, and a few key individuals in my field. That trip opened up a whole world to me, it made possible the forging of relationships and friendships that I still have with people in Germany, and it contributed to my own burgeoning vocational identity.
The funny thing is that the whole thing was Don’s idea. I didn’t suggest it; he’s the one who actually proposed it. Since his death I’ve come to find out that he actually did this on quite a few occasions for other students and even some colleagues. But, as I’ve thought about this and other memories, it wasn’t just that Don was generous with his money—of which he didn’t have much—it was that he was generous with his life. Don spoke into my life in significant ways and over the years we became close friends, and he let me speak into his life as well.
Now, Don was no saint. He was a highly idiosyncratic guy, who sometimes looked a bit disheveled in terms of his clothes and his haircut. And I didn’t always follow his advice—like the one time he told me that if I was going to become a professor, I was going to need to “cultivate some idiosyncrasies of my own.” I still remember telling my wife about Don’s advice, to which she responded: “why don’t you just cultivate being normal, and that can be your idiosyncrasy in the academic world.” My wife is a wise woman.
But notwithstanding those aspects of Don, he nevertheless became another significant paternal presence in my life, alongside my Dad and my father-in-law. Someone for whom I am deeply thankful and to whom I will always feel connected.
I share these thoughts about Don because I think they bear, in some respects, on our passage for this morning. 2 Corinthians chapters 8 and 9, from which I have drawn a few verses, deals with an interesting event in the early Christian movement. The apostle Paul is writing in these chapters to the community at Corinth regarding a collection that he is putting together which is supposed to go to the church in Jerusalem, which, from what we can gather from other passages in the New Testament, was especially poverty stricken at that time.
It appears as though there were several churches involved in this venture, including the churches in Galatia (in modern day Turkey), and churches in places like Thessalonica and Philippi, which were located in Macedonia.
One of the most striking things about these two chapters is that although they are about a financial collection, Paul never once uses the word for money or coins. Those words never come up. But the Greek word charis, which can be translated as grace or gift, appears some 9 different times, and that doesn’t include the few additional words that bear some relation to the word for grace which can also be found in the passage—for instance, like the word thanksgiving. Given his choice of vocabulary, then, it seems clear that from Paul’s perspective this collection is nothing less than a manifestation of God’s grace.
Paul develops this point by creating an image—one in which we are led to see that God’s grace actually flows in and through these communities, connecting them together. The passage opens with a declaration of what has been happening among the Macedonians. The region of Macedonia was located in northern Greece, and was a natural rival to Corinth, in some ways like the friendly rivalry between Minnesota and Wisconsin.
What has happened in Macedonia? Paul tells us that the community has been moved, in fact deeply and profoundly moved to participate in the collection. In describing the catalyzing process which they have undergone, he describes a rather peculiar dialectic which has led them to give above and beyond their means: their extreme poverty and abundant joy have together produced an overflow “in a wealth of generosity.”
Of course, Paul is not offering here a formula for success. He’s not saying he’s figured out the precise means by which to get people to give and to give generously—to combine poverty with joy, for instance. Rather, what he is describing is a community which has been and is being shaped and conformed more and more into the image of the One on whom the community is seeking to follow: Jesus.
The real key to both chapters and 8 and 9 is found in verse 9: “For you know 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.” At the root of any form of giving which can be described as grace, and not simply as a financial transaction, is that it conforms somehow to the self-giving generosity of Jesus. A couple of observations are important here.
The first has to do with the richness of Jesus. Obviously, we know that Jesus wasn’t himself a wealthy man. As with most people in the ancient world—including the communities to whom Paul was writing—he was poor, and probably lived at a substance level. In fact, the line between poverty and wealth, or lack and abundance was quite fluid. But the issue here is not so much about material wealth; rather, it is to the wealth of his connection to God—the life-giving and self-giving love of God, of which Jesus never ran out. The whole of the life of Jesus, whom we confess is the Son of God, bears the stamp of the God who gives. Up to the very end—in fact, the end itself on the cross, was the supreme manifestation of the self-giving generosity of God. And when we see the cross from the perspective of the generosity it embodied, we also see that to become truly generous, like God, is to become vulnerable.
The living God, the God who gives life, who has called us all into being and into fellowship, is the gift-giving God—and Jesus manifested this most basic mark of God in his own life, by giving of himself, by giving himself away.
My second observation reinforces the point that God is the inexhaustible source of generosity: it has to do with a translation possibility—the NRSV renders this section so that it sounds like though he was rich, he became poor, implying that Jesus gave away his wealth. But, this passage can be rendered a different way, one which I think is more appropriate to the larger aim of Paul in these chapters—it could be paraphrased like this: “because he was rich (in generosity), he became poor (he became like us in our poverty) so that we too might come to share in the richness of God’s generous self-giving love.” The implication of this slight change is the that the generosity of God which Jesus emulated to the very end of his life, was not then, is not now, and never will be exhausted. This my friends, this is grace.
It is God’s self-giving generosity which has broken out in Macedonia! It is God’s grace that has moved this community in its poverty and its joy, to give beyond their means. Paul, turns and encourages the Corinthians that just as they are already well-known as a community that is blessed with tremendous spiritual gifts in faith, speech, and knowledge, that ought now also enter into this even more profound manifestation of God’s grace.
One other point that we ought not to miss here is that the generosity to which the Corinthians are being called is not simply about material wealth—rather, God wants them to give themselves. He notes that in the outbreak of divine generosity among the Macedonians they gave not only of their material possessions, but their very lives to God and to the larger church. The text says: “For as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints—and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, . . .” Generosity is not simply about giving something, away, it is about conveying something of ourselves. When we see if from that perspective, we see it as an invitation to vulnerability. To let the grace of God flow through us into the lives of others is to be drawn out from ourselves and into the presence of God and into the lives of our neighbors. It will not do only for us to write a check—what God wants is for something to be written on our hearts and in our lives.
In these chapters in 2 Corinthians, Paul is offering an image of grace as a life-giving flow of generosity, which first comes from the God who gives, flows into the lives of ordinary everyday people, and through them flows out to others. This picture becomes even clearer when we turn to the end of chapter 9, where Paul talks about the resulting bonds of fellowship that are forged and deepened by generosity. As Paul says, the God “who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase your harvest of righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.” As we give ourselves to God, we become vulnerable; we place ourselves in a position whereby we will be changed, whereby we may grow in generosity, and find ourselves entwined in the lives of others.
But the grace that flows through us doesn’t just end in the lives of others—no! The circle is completed in and through thanksgiving. The giving of thanks to God is also an act of grace. In fact, the Greek word for thanksgiving is pronounced eucharistia; and if you listen carefully you can hear yet another reference to “grace”—eucharistia. The image of an ever-flowing river of life becomes clear: God, the inexhaustible source of self-giving love and life, pours out grace upon us, and we find ourselves nourished and nurtured by that flow; and we in turn are called not to impede the gift, but to let it flow into the life of our neighbor and the creation as a whole; and as it does, we are united in fellowship and offer back to God thanksgiving, which is itself a blessing to God.
This last Thursday was Ascension Day on the Christian calendar. This is generally the day when the church celebrates the Ascension of Jesus. In the Gospel of Luke’s account of Jesus’ Ascension it tells us that: “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.”
My friend Don, about whose generosity I spoke earlier, once called my attention to an interpretation of this text which runs as follows: Jesus is blessing his disciples at the end, and as he ascends his aperture and his perspective widens further and further out so that the blessing of Jesus is not merely for the disciples, but for the whole earth.
Though troubles and toil, inner and outer afflictions, and the experiences of injustice that many of us face may lead us to question where God’s grace is in our lives; nevertheless, there is still a sense in which Jesus has indeed poured out his blessing of divine generosity for us all. Perhaps the question that faces many of us is: how wide is God calling us to open our aperture? Do we see the good things given to us as only being meant to share with those who are near to us (only our family for instance, or perhaps our friends)? Is the grace that God has given to us only meant for our congregation, or perhaps only for our community? Or are we being called also to give ourselves in such a way that God can transform us, so that we will resemble more and more the generous gift-giving God, and be drawn into the lives of others both near and far? Whatever we discern in this regard, my deepest hope and prayer is that you and I will allow God’s grace to flow, and the generous world that God desires to come more and more fully into view. Amen.
Lord, God who gives all things, grant us again the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the courage to move toward those whom you are calling us in your generous Spirit. Move through us that we might become conduits through which your grace—whether through material goods, physical presence or spiritual connection—may flow into the lives of others creating new bonds, and deepening old ones, so that our fellowship may be pleasing to you and a source of shalom for the whole inhabited earth. In Jesus name we pray, Amen.