Scriptures: II Corinthians 9:1-5, I Corinthians 16:1-4
Introduction to Scripture Readings
Our scripture readings this morning need a short introduction. When a drought struck the territory of Jerusalem and Judea, Paul decided to collect a special offering for the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem from the Gentile Christians around the Mediterranean. This offering was a huge deal to the apostle Paul. He discusses it in the letter to the Romans, the letter to the Galatians, the first letter to the Corinthians, and the second letter to the Corinthians, where it gets two whole chapters. For Paul this offering was a chance to bridge the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. Some Jewish Christians were suspicious of accepting Gentiles into the church. But now the Gentile Christians in Greek cities like Corinth had the chance to show solidarity with the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem by helping them during a natural disaster. Sort of like people from blue states helping people from red states after a hurricane. Both of our scripture readings this morning are about this offering. Let’s listen.
In 2005 there was a nationally telecast benefit concert called “Shelter from the Storm,” raising money for victims of hurricane Katrina. It featured performers like Mariah Carey, U2, Alicia Keys, Garth Brooks, and Randy Newman. Phones were answered on camera by celebrities like Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Reba McEntire, Ellen DeGeneres, and Allison Janney. There was even a competition between celebrities. During the telecast Queen Latifah donated $100,000, and rapper Lil’ Jon decided to top that with a check for $250,000. The concert was televised on all the major networks, and later released on DVD. It raised $30 million dollars in one night.
Too bad the Apostle Paul did not have the resources of modern fundraising. But he was not averse to using some of their techniques. In II Corinthians 8, he tells the Corinthians:
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 (II Cor. 8:9).
There is a definite pull at the heartstrings. Then in verses 12-13 Paul says,
I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need … (II Corinthians 8:12-13).
It’s like flashing pictures of hurricane survivors, adding a little guilt to your motivation. Then he brings in the celebrities, verses 16 and 18:
But thanks be to God who put in the heart of Titus the same eagerness for you that I myself have. … With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his proclaiming the good news (II Corinthians 8:16, 18).
We don’t know who this famous preacher is, but apparently the Corinthians did. Paul brings in the big guns for this fundraiser.
Finally he uses competition. Chapter 9, verses 2:
For I know your eagerness, which is the subject of my boasting about you to the people of Macedonia, saying that Achaia [Greece] has been ready since last year; and your zeal has stirred up most of them (II Corinthians 9:2).
Paul may not have the technology, but he knows how to do fundraising.
And yet here is where an interesting change takes place. Paul says,
So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you, and arrange in advance for this bountiful gift that you have promised, so that it may be ready as a voluntary gift and not as an extortion (II Corinthians 9:3, 5).
Or as one translation puts it: “not as something wrung out of you.”
Paul worries not so much about the motivation of the Corinthians to support this offering as their discipline in following through on it. Paul wants giving to be not just an emotional one-time response to a heartbreaking need, which is how most fundraising appeals work; Paul wants their giving to be a disciplined part of their Christian lives.
Recall what Paul said to the Corinthians in his first letter:
Now concerning the collection for the saints: you should follow the directions I gave to the churches of Galatia. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn, so that collections need not be taken when I come (I Corinthians 16:1-2).
Here again Paul wants giving to be a spiritual discipline. That is probably why he suggests setting the money aside on the first day of the week. In the early church the first day of the week was the day of worship in honor of Jesus’ resurrection. That’s how Christians came to worship on Sundays, to celebrate the day of Jesus’ resurrection. Paul wants giving to be a part of worship, not a one-time response to a need, but a disciplined part of our Christian lives. If you notice, the word “discipline” has as its root the word “disciple.”
It is often thought that character shapes habits. An honest person has the habit of telling the truth; a generous person displays the habit of sharing with others. But I wonder if doesn’t often work the other way around. People acquire the character of honesty, because they practice the habit of telling the truth. And people acquire the character of generosity by practicing the habit of giving.
There is a classic musical called “My Fair Lady” in which Henry Higgins, a speech teacher, takes on the challenge of transforming a poor uneducated girl from the streets of London into a high society debutante—a woman of such refinement and sophistication that none of the elite of London would ever guess her true origin. In the case of Eliza Doolittle he begins not with her hair style, clothes, or manners, but with her habits of speech.
This turns out to be one of the hardest thing for her to change. She practices and practices, but it doesn’t help, until suddenly one day she says with clear, beautiful pronunciation, “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” Professor Higgins jerks his head around and says, “What did you say?” Without a trace of Cockney accent she says, “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” Higgins leaps us and says, “By jove, I think she’s got it,” and they practice saying and singing the words over and over.
In a sense the Christian faith is like that. It involves putting on the qualities of new life in Christ, even before we are comfortable with them. It means practicing the disciplines of discipleship until we finally get the hang of it. And in the process a change begins to happen.
In the movie of the musical there is an interesting change that happens in Eliza Doolittle. At the beginning Professor Higgins treats her with contempt. He is, after all, a professor, while she is a tramp. But by the end of the movie she will not tolerate this anymore. She has spent so much time practicing dignity, she begins to have dignity. She will no longer allow Professor Higgins to treat her in an undignified way. She has rehearsed for so long at being a lady of sophistication and grace; she actually becomes one.
That’s how Paul sees discipleship. We practice being a disciple of Jesus until we finally become one. And that, according to Paul, is how giving works.