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
Luke, who writes
Acts, tells us that there was "much debate" on the matter (like any good
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"
That's an authentic Jewish statement
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.
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,
who had much did not have too much,
and the one who had little did not have
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. . . .
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
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:
who had much did not have too much,
and the one who had little did not have
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
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.
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
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
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.
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