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The Original Fair and Balanced

Sermon - 6/28/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

2 Corinthians 8:7-15

This morning our text comes from 2nd Corinthians, once again, in the series I have been doing this month.  Those who were here last Sunday may recall that I said many scholars believe that chapters 8 & 9 were actually part of a separate letter written to the Corinthians. 

The subject matter is the collection for the poor in Jerusalem, the church in Jerusalem.  So I thought I'd give a little background on that.

In chapter 15 of Acts, there's a story of the first 'general assembly' if you will of the disciples of Christ.  Some of you are aware that our General Assembly (for the Disciples of Christ denomination) is happening in Indianapolis this summer.  I'm not going this year because my daughter comes home on the day that the assembly starts.  She's been gone in Argentina for 5 months and she's only going to be here for two weeks, and one of those weeks she's going to be at camp.  Am I going to give up a week with my daughter for some church meeting?  No, no, no J.  But that's an aside. . . .

So here we have this assembly, held in Jerusalem, and there was a group known as the 'Society for Circumcision Among the Brethren', better known by its acronym SCAB J.  They were pushing for a resolution requiring that all new male converts into the faith be circumcised in good Jewish tradition.

Now, Paul of course was dead-set against it.  Thought a devout Jew himself, he believed that requiring circumcision would defeat the whole idea of freedom in Christ, and would effectively kill his mission to the Gentiles (at least among the male Gentiles J).  And make no mistake, this is the biggest challenge that faced the early church.  The decision made at that conference in Jerusalem in the mid 50s would determine whether or not the church remained a small sectarian (rather exclusive) group for certain people, or would become a broad, inclusive, global movement.  And of course we know the outcome. 

Luke, who writes Acts, tells us that there was "much debate" on the matter (like any good assembly J).  But that's probably a bit of an understatement.  When I was in Israel last year, I learned that debate is considered to be a national sport!  Indeed, I had one Jewish person tell me that he was certain that Jesus was misquoted where it says "Where there are two or three gathered together there I will be in your midst".  He said, 'No, undoubtedly what Jesus said was "Where two or three Jews are gathered together there will be 4 or 5 opinions" J.  That's an authentic Jewish statement J.

So, we can imagine that this was probably a very lively debate happening, and Luke says that they agreed on a compromise.  The compromise was this:  yes, Paul, you can go out on your mission to the Gentiles and they don't have to be circumcised, BUT, they do need to abstain from meat offered to idols and from other non-kosher food. 

Paul, on the other hand, was adamant that he compromised nothing.  And he records the same event in his letter to the Galatians, in Chapter 2:

I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. 2I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain. 3But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. 4But because of false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us— 5we did not submit to them even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you. [Keep in mind he's writing to a Gentile community in the churches of Galatia]

6And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality) [A little "dig" there at the leaders of the church] —those leaders contributed nothing to me. 7On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised 8(for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), 9and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.

10They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor [Meaning the poor of the church in Jerusalem], which was actually what I was eager to do.

In other words, for Paul, remembering the poor was not an obligation -- something he had to do -- it was something he was willing, that he desired to do.  And so the collection for the poor in Jerusalem is mentioned by Paul in several of his letters.  In Romans 15 he says that he is on his way to Jerusalem to deliver what had been collected in his churches for the 'poor among the saints' in Jerusalem. 

You may recall that it was on that trip back to Jerusalem after he delivered that offering to the church that Paul was arrested, accused of causing a disturbance in the Temple for bringing in an uncircumcised Gentile.  Two years later, as a result of that arrest, he was eventually transferred to Rome, and according to tradition he was executed by Emperor Nero.  So in a very real sense, this collection for the poor in Jerusalem cost Paul his life.

Now, Paul of course could not have known that when he wrote this letter to the Corinthians.  But we know that.  And knowing that adds to the meaning and the power of this text from the 8th chapter of 2 Corinthians:

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.

8 I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. 9For 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. 10And 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— 11now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. 12For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. 13I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 14your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. 15As it is written,

‘The one who had much did not have too much,
   and the one who had little did not have too little.’

 

Paul here is pulling out all the stops for these poverty-stricken members in Jerusalem.  And the immediate question that comes to mind is "why?".  Paul is from Tarsus, in Turkey (Asia Minor), he spends most of his time up there.  Why is he concerned about people in Jerusalem?  Why should we care about people in Africa, or China, or the Middle East, or wherever?  You know, there problems are not are problems. . . . maybe.

In Paul's case, keep in mind these are Jewish Christians, likely some of the very people who opposed his efforts to bring in the Gentiles.  Paul clearly sees an opportunity here to create some goodwill, to bring a substantial gift to these Jewish Christians from the very people they tried to keep out.  Or at least tried to make Jewish as they were.

But for Paul, that is not just a shrewd political gesture, it is a means to demonstrate the unity in Christ -- 'neither Jew nor Gentile'.  And to show the benefit of reaching out to the Gentile community.

But that's not the reason that Paul gives for his supporting this collection.  His primary reason goes much deeper to the very heart of the gospel.  "For you know", he says, "the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, yet that though he was rich, for your sake, he became poor so that by his poverty you might become rich".

Now, what Paul means by 'rich' here, of course, has nothing to do with the financial wealth of Jesus or anyone else.  Rather, it's the idea of the riches of Christ as evident in the great hymn of Philippians 2 where Paul writes:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
7but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.
 

In other words, Christ has gone from the throne of God (from the highest glory) to the absolute lowest position of humanity (on the cross).

And so referring to this notion of Christ emptying himself for our sake, in the context of something so simple as taking up an offering to benefit someone else, is a bit of overkill.  It's kind of like a teenager citing the Declaration of Independence for the justification of why they should be able to stay out past curfew J.  It's melodramatic.  We're just talking about putting some food on the table here, Paul, and you're bringing out doctrines of incarnation, salvation.  Can it really be that important?

And here Paul says:  'yes, it is'.  It really is that important.  It cuts to the heart of what it means to be faithful followers of Jesus and to be the church.

And to drive the point home, Paul uses the example of the manna in the wilderness when God provided for the people on their journey to the promised land, only as much as each needed.  And so, quoting from Exodus, he says:

‘The one who had much did not have too much,
   and the one who had little did not have too little.’

 

In other words, God provides for everyone's need but not for everyone's greed.  And that is evident in that story of the manna in the wilderness.

And so Paul concludes:  sharing out of one's abundance for those in need is a matter of fair balance.

Now, of course, that sounds good in principle.  Until it comes to the application and we realize that most of us are probably in that group of those of having an abundance.  And are the ones then called upon to share with those in need.

Paul softens the impact a little by noting that our gift is to be measured by what we have not by what we don't have.  You know, we'd all like to give like Phil Knight or Bill Gates (wouldn't that be wonderful) but the more we fantasize about what we might do with such wealth the more we become enslaved by what we don't have instead of empowered by what we do have in the great wealth that we already have.

So the application of Paul's counsel to the Corinthians for us today, I think, is pretty clear and it clearly is challenging.  Even though Paul says he's not giving a command, there is hardly any choice here once one chooses to follow the Jesus who emptied himself to become as we are.  To become poor so that we might become rich in God.

So the only question for us today is 'how do we do that?'  How do we achieve that fair balance intended for all God's people, especially given all the needs that you see, it seems so overwhelming with the limited resources of our own abundance, whatever that may be.

Albert Schweitzer, after he published the great "The Quest for the Historical Jesus" in 1906 (his epic work), left a very promising career as a biblical scholar to become a medical missionary deep in Africa.  Thereby fulfilling his own quest for the servant Jesus.

Millard Fuller, who, after becoming a successful businessman, literally gave away everything he had (over a million dollars), sold all of his possessions, and founded Habitat for Humanity -- where our youth worked in that project down in Los Angeles over spring break--according to the principles of the economics of Jesus.

Johnny Ray tells a story of when he was Director of Week of Compassion of receiving a gift from one of our sister churches in an impoverished country.  One of these places where women have to walk for miles to get clean water, men go and work in distant lands, mines, for years at a time, sending home their meager incomes.  And this church heard about our sister & brother churches in New Orleans who lost so much in hurricane Katrina.  And they collected offerings for months & months, saved it all up, to help those people in New Orleans.  And sent it to Week of Compassion -- $26.11.  It's not according to how much you have by which you're measured, but what you don't have by which you're measured to supply what you have.  And their gift was as great as anyone else's.

These are good stories, inspiring stories, they are important to tell.  But Art Simon, the founder of Bread for the World, brother of Senator Paul Simon who died recently, said that all the churches in this country combined, in a good year, might give $100 million dollars to anti-poverty and anti-hunger efforts around the world.  And that was back in the 1970s he said this, when $100 million dollars meant something J.  But he said all that good done with that money could be wiped out by a single vote of Congress.  And hence the reason for creating Bread for the World, to organize the Christian community to have an impact on those votes in Congress.

I would suggest to you today that one of the ways we are rich, we have an abundance (especially in light of what we see going on in Iran with all the questions of election fraud there) is not in our freedom of democracy but in our responsibility of democracy.  To exercise our powers as voters to influence the policies of our government for the common welfare of the people of this country and world.

And as it regards abundance and poverty, and a fair balance between them, probably the most important issue not of this year but of the decade and beyond, is the whole question of healthcare.

Nearly 60 million people in this country without any healthcare coverage.  85% of the population, in the most recent poll, says that they want some kind of healthcare reform.  76% say that reform should include a choice between public and private healthcare plans. 

Now I'm not an expert on these things, and we may have varied opinions and that's all fair and good and I encourage that, I don't mean to suggest or tell people how to view these issues.  But, I'd like to suggest 3 basic foundational principles that hopefully we can agree on for any decision.

First, following this text, a fair balance between those who have and those who do not, requires that abundance pays for need.  Should those who can afford it be taxed to pay for healthcare for those who cannot?  Absolutely.  Will that raise my taxes?  Yeah, probably will.  But I, like the majority of Americans, say -- not gladly, but willingly -- will pay that if I know in return that millions of Americans will be added to the healthcare rolls.  Because I know what it means for our own ministry and the kinds of people we see in need, and what a difference that can make in their lives.  It would be a good and fair tradeoff.

Now, can we afford such a tax hike, especially in these times?  Well, consider this:  the tax cuts brought by the previous administration are $200 billion dollars more than the plan being currently discussed in Congress of $1.6 trillion, which everyone agrees is too much and they have to pare it down.  In other words, had we implemented this plan 8 years ago, we still could have done it and paid for it and had a $200 billion dollar tax cut on top of it.

Second principle:  the private interest of a few should not determine the common interest of the whole.  Or, to put it differently:  those who stand to lose or gain a lot of money should not be the ones steering this ship.  And I mean by that pharmaceutical and insurance companies.  And of course, their voice needs to be included, but they should not be the ones directing the outcome.  The question is not 'what will help company XYZ to improve their health?' but what will improve the health of the American people?  That is the question, and the only question that should be driving this debate.

And third, the healthier we are as a society, the better off we will be as individuals, and vice-versa.  When our healthcare system works as well for the unemployed as it does for the employed (it's absolutely insane when you think about it:  why is healthcare tied to employment?), when it works as well for small business of 2 people as well as the large business of 20,000 or 200,000, when it works as well for the rich as well as for the poor, when it works as well for the native citizen as well as the immigrant, then and only then will we have a healthcare system worthy of our status as leaders of the free world.

Now, we hear all kinds of complaints about socialized medicine.  We may have some of those ourselves.  And how we don't want to system like they have in this country or that country.  And yet, in almost all of those countries, be it Great Britain or Canada or Sweden or Finland or Japan or whatever country is talked about, almost all of them have longer life expectancy, higher live birth rates, and overall better fitness than we do.  But we don't want to be like them (?).

We want to be better.  And we should be.  And we can be -- if we all make our views known.  So I urge you to show your eagerness, as Paul says, for a better healthcare system in this country.  To be active, make your views known, join groups that keep you informed, write letters to the editor, E-mail your representatives, speak out and stand up.  Do as Paul says:  excel in all things, in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in eagerness, and in your love as shown by Christ, who emptied himself, and by his poverty makes available to us the riches of God.

May we all enjoy such riches.

 


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