Saturday, January 20, 2018

“Giving Is Transformational”

            This Sunday, January 21st, we continue our focus on “Finding God in Everyday Life.”  I believe that we sometimes have difficulty experiencing the Divine in everyday life because we are not actively seeking God’s presence in the ordinary.  Over the past few weeks, we have been exploring the ways in which we can become more open and sensitive to God’s presence in our everyday lives.  This week, we will focus on “Finding God through Generosity.”  Our reflections will be informed by the Apostle Paul’s second letter to the Christians in Corinth.

            The first theological dilemma encountered by the early Christian Church concerned the status of Gentiles, or non-Jews, who wished to become Christians.  Initially, Christianity began as something of a spiritual renewal movement within Judaism.  However, as the Gospel began to spread beyond Jerusalem, a growing number of Gentiles wanted to become Christians.  This raised an important theological question:  Was it necessary for Gentiles to convert to Judaism, before being welcomed into the new Christian churches?  This was a critical question, especially for Gentile men, who would have to go through the rite of circumcision in order to become a Jew.

            The Apostle Paul met with the other Apostles and church leaders in Jerusalem to resolve this dilemma.  After much prayer and discussion, they agreed that Gentiles could become Christians directly—without first converting to Judaism.  That is, the Christian Church would be united, receiving both Gentile and Jewish persons.  It was agreed that the Apostle Paul and his colleagues would focus their missionary work on the Gentiles, while some of the other Apostles would stay in Jerusalem and focus on the Temple and Jews.  At the end of this first Jerusalem Council, the Apostles remaining in Jerusalem asked Paul and his colleagues to “remember the poor” in Jerusalem.

            Paul readily agreed to their request to help the poor in Jerusalem.  He interpreted this request as an opportunity to raise money from the churches which he had already established in other cities.  So, he began to write letters, asking these predominantly Gentile churches to receive a special collection, which he would pick up and take back to Jerusalem.  For Paul, in addition to helping the poor in Jerusalem, this collection also symbolizes the new reciprocal partnership between Jewish and Gentile believers in the rapidly growing Christian Church.

            In our passage of scripture this week, Paul writes to remind the Corinthian Church about this collection, which he will be coming to pick up in the near future.  As part of that reminder, Paul writes these words:
The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” 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. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us;

Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians also provide a basis for our understanding of how we should experience the Divine through generous giving. 

            Paul begins by reminding the Corinthians that “we reap what we sow.” That is, when we give generously, we shall also receive generously back from God.  In the next verse, Paul continues by laying down three guidelines for the Corinthians to follow in deciding how much to give:

1.      They should not give reluctantly, but gladly
2.      They should not feel under compulsion, but voluntarily
3.      “God loves a cheerful giver.”

Essentially, Paul calls upon us to give freely and voluntarily and cheerfully.

            In verse 8, Paul continues, “And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”  In this verse, Paul reassures the Corinthians that they should not fear making a gift for the poor in Jerusalem because God’s grace will surround and support them.  That is, God will move within their lives to insure that they have adequate resources in order to share abundantly in the “good work” of helping the poor. 

In more theological terms, the Apostle reassures that God’s grace—that is, God’s assistance—will be present to help and empower the Corinthians in making a gift.  Further, Paul urges the Corinthians to share abundantly.  To share abundantly may require the Corinthians to make sacrifices in order to give.  Yet, the Apostle is convinced that God’s grace will sustain even sacrificial giving. 

In verse 9, Paul quotes from Psalm 112:9.  In this quotation, Paul connects God’s grace with God’s justice.  Grace once received from God also requires that we work for justice.  In working for justice, Christians unite with God as God’s created co-creators—or, junior partners—in working to establish the Kingdom of God here on Earth.

Finally, in the final verses (10-11), Paul reassures the Corinthians that God will enrich them because of their generosity.  “You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity…” (verse 11a).  While it is tempting to interpret these last two verses as providing scriptural warrant for “prosperity theology,” this would actually be a gross misunderstanding of the Apostle’s intent.  “Prosperity theology” is a shallow and flawed misunderstanding that Christians can guarantee health and wealth for themselves through faith and making large donations to churches and other religious causes. 

The Prosperity doctrine misunderstands what Paul means when he promises the Corinthians that God will enrich them in every way.  Instead being enriched through money and material goods, Paul is referring to being enriched through a greater experience of God’s love and closer relationship with the Divine.  In other words, Paul claims that when we give generously and joyfully, then we will experience a closer relationship with the Divine through our generosity.  For Paul, this closer relationship with the Divine will transform our lives, as we experience a richness and closeness with God.
      If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, January 21st, as we explore how we can experience the Divine through generosity.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

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