June 27, 2021 Homily on 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 by Pastor Galen Zook
Every year, for at least the first few weeks of the school year, the school secretary of the local elementary school would routinely collect the lunch money from the new kindergartens at the start of each school day, just to make sure the money didn’t get lost during the course of their busy morning activities.
One year, most of the kindergarteners either brought a packed lunch (or qualified for free school lunch), so none of the kindergartners had any lunch money, but nonetheless the school secretary dutifully came into the classroom for the first few days, asking in a loud voice, “Does anyone have any lunch money for me?”
Paul’s Jerusalem Fundraising Campaign
It was understandable that the little boy thought that the secretary was in need since she was the one asking for money. And if we were to read 2 Corinthians 8 without any context, we might think that Paul is asking for funds for himself or his direct ministry as well. But Paul had made it clear elsewhere that the funds he is requesting from the Corinthians are not for himself, but rather for the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.
In fact, Paul had refused to accept any money from the Corinthian Christians for himself, choosing instead to practice his craft of tentmaking in order to support himself while in Corinth, as he explained in 1 Corinthians chapter 9.
Interestingly enough, the wealthier Corinthian Christians had probably wanted to support him financially – it would have been a source of some pride to them to be able to say that they had supported a traveling “philosopher” (which is how Paul would have been viewed by many of the secular people in Greek Corinthian society). But instead, Paul had chosen to identify with the artisans in Corinth by practicing his craft in the marketplace, giving him opportunity and credibility to share the Good News of Jesus with the everyday working class people who were often overlooked and undervalued by Corinth’s wealthier classes.
And so, although Paul had made it clear to the Corinthians 1 Cor. chapter 9 that he had every right to seek financial support from them for himself as a minister of the Gospel, but that he had chosen not to exercise this right, so as not to put any “obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:12b).
And yet here in 2 Corinthians chapter 8, Paul is in the midst of a massive fundraising campaign in which he has been collecting money from various churches around the Mediteranean area – on behalf of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. It’s possible that the Christians in Jerusalem were undergoing some specific economic hardship – perhaps they were even experiencing the famine that had been predicted in Acts 11. Or perhaps he is raising funds specifically for the care of orphans and widows or some other group of people in Jerusalem who were in financial need.
But for Paul, this offering is more than just about meeting the physical needs of the Christians in Jerusalem. For Paul, it was about demonstrating unity in Christ. It was a practical way for the Corinthians and other Gentile Christians to express their gratitude to the Jewish Christians for the spiritual legacy they had inherited. It was a practical, tangible way to break down the wall of separation between the Jewish and Gentile Christians. It was about expressing their mutual acceptance into the body of Christ, and their oneness as believers in Jesus.
Finishing What they Started
As we see here in 2 Corinthians 8:7-15, Paul’s fundraising campaign has been underway for quite some time. The Corinthians have already started to give towards this cause – or at least they had wanted to give a year before this. But it seems that over the course of that year their enthusiasm for giving has perhaps waned a bit. Paul says in verse 10, “And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something – now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.”
Anyone who has ever participated in a fundraising campaign – whether you were the person raising the funds, or the donor – knows that there’s a big difference between wanting to give, and actually giving. As someone whose day job involves quite a bit of fundraising, I generally have learned not to count on someone’s gift until they’ve actually either given something, or at the very have least quoted a dollar amount. There’s a huge difference between expressing a vague desire to give, and stating the intended amount of your gift. Committing a specific amount is a huge step towards giving, because it means the person has actually taken the time to figure out how much funds they have available and how much they’re willing to part with. They’ve counted the cost. They’ve made it specific and tangible.
Paul doesn’t want the Corinthian Christians to give out of guilt or obligation or compulsion. As he’ll tell them in the next chapter, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). But Paul does encourage them to actually follow through on their commitment to giving, saying, “finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means” (2 Corinthians 8:11).
And, in case they’re worried about the amount of their giving – whether they might be giving too much or too little, Paul assures them, “if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. 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, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little'” (2 Cor. 8:12-15).
In other words, Paul is saying, give whatever you can – it’s the attitude behind the gift that counts, not the amount. The word translated “eagerness” here in verse 12 can also be translated “zeal, spirit, inclination, readiness of mind.” Paul wants them to give eagerly, zelously – to follow through not only on their giving, but also their desire to give. A bit of a different order of events than what we might expect, but especially important given the nature of the offering that he was collecting – as one expressing unity in Christ, given across cultural and ethnic boundaries, as a way to express mutual love and affection in Christ.
As a theological foundation for this, Paul points to two precedents. The first is God’s provision of manna to the ancestral Israelites when they were wandering in the desert. In Exodus 16:18 we see that no matter how much each Israelite household gathered, everyone had just enough – no more, and no less than they needed. And Paul suggests that this would be ideal. He is not asking the Corinthians to give beyond their ability, but to give whatever they can, eagerly, and joyfully, recognizing that there may come a time when they are in need, and they would want others to do the same for them.
Riches of Christ Jesus
As another precedent, Paul points to the self-giving sacrificial love of Jesus, who, Paul says in verse 9, “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
Of course the riches that we have in Christ are not monetary riches. Following Jesus is not a path to guaranteed health and wealth, as some have suggested. For Jesus, coming down to this earth entailed giving up wealth in the sense of power and status and privilege and resources. He identified not just with us as humans, but with the lowest of the low, the poorest of the poor. He interacted with the marginalized and expressed God’s love to those who were on the fringes of society. He helped those in need, and he was also willing to receive support from those who had means.
And in doing this, he opened up the path to God to anyone and everyone, no matter our wealth or power or economic class or cultural or ethnic background. By impoverishing himself, but giving up his wealth and status and privilege, Jesus made it possible for any and all of us to have spiritual riches, an eternal inheritance as children who have been adopted into the family of God, as we see for example in the book of Ephesians (see for example Eph. 1:5 and 11).
Similarly, the collection that Paul is taking up for the church in Jerusalem does not just have financial implications, but it also expresses a spiritual reality. Now yes, the collection is in the tangible form of money. But the word that Paul uses to describe the offering in verse 7 – the word that’s translated “generous undertaking” in the New Revised Standard Version – is actually the Greek word charis, most often translated “grace” in the New Testament. This is the same word that is used throughout the Scriptures to describe the mercy and forgiveness and salvation that God has extended towards us through Christ, even though we are undeserving.
And so we’re right back where we started — seeing that the offering that Paul was taking up for the saints in Jerusalem was not only a way for them to meet the practical needs of the Christians in Jerusalem, but it was also a tangible way for them to share in God’s grace, love and affection with the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. It was a practical way to unite the body of Christ, to remind each party of the common spiritual inheritance that they had received, and of the unity that they now had through Christ Jesus.
Giving financially is one way that we extend God’s grace to others – which is why every week we take up an offering as part of our worship service. It’s not just about meeting the financial needs of the church. It’s not just about keeping the lights on, or paying the water bill. It’s about participating in and furthering the mission and ministry of our congregation and of the Church as a whole.
And there are other ways we participate in and share God’s love beyond the giving of our finances. We extend God’s love and grace towards others through the giving of our time and talents. We extend God’s love and grace through extending welcome and invitation towards others, inviting them to become a part of a loving community that is looking out for not just their physical needs, but also their spiritual and emotional needs as well.
Over the past year as many people have been attending church online rather than in person due to COVID, we’ve been reminded that church is not just about singing songs or listening to a sermon. But it’s about having a community of people who can surround us when we’re going through difficult and challenging times, encouraging and supporting us through hardships, and also celebrating with one another when we’re experiencing joys. This is one reason why we often take prayer requests and praises during our worship gatherings. Obviously we could each go home and pray individually on our own, but there’s something powerful about sharing our burdens and concerns with one another, and celebrating the joys and victories that we’re experiencing – it’s a way we share God’s grace – charis – with one another.
This is what Paul was wanting for the churches in Corinth and Jerusalem and all the other surrounding churches – tangible ways for them to experience the unity that they have in Christ, the grace that they have received in Jesus, and to be able to express that grace to one another.
And so this morning, I invite us, I urge, and compel us, to extend God’s grace to others – both within our congregation, and to the surrounding community and world. Let us give of ourselves generously and joyfully, in whatever way you can. Some of you might be in a season of life where you have more time than money – and so give generously of your time and talents to God and others, without any shame that you don’t have more monetary resources to give! Others of you might be in the opposite situation – where your time is scarce, but you find that you have plenty of money or other resources to give.
No matter what situation you may find yourself in this season, extend God’s grace in whatever way you can, eagerly and joyfully, not begrudgingly. Remembering Jesus’s model of self-sacrificial love, and remembering too that God can and does often miraculously provide in ways that we least expect. Remember that God desires for each and every one of us to participate in the sharing of God’s grace – remembering that by extending God’s grace to others, God’s grace abounds that much more to us as well.