II Corinthians 8:1-15
I’ll be up front with you, right off the top. The Apostle Paul is wheedling money out of the followers of Jesus in the city of Corinth, and he’s doing it with both sarcasm and shame, so buckle your seatbelts. The apostle was gifted in the arts of both sarcasm and shame, and he knew when and how to use them to his advantage when he needed to get his point across. His most classic example of this gift is the Book of Philemon. That book is just loaded with sarcasm and shame, and, if you were of a mind, you could read the whole thing during the offertory this morning.
It turns out that hard times had come upon the Jewish followers of Jesus who were living in Jerusalem. It was never easy, as we might imagine, for a Jewish person to acknowledge that Jesus was the Messiah. Jerusalem is the Jewish capitol of the world. Becoming a follower of Jesus required not only an act of faith, but also a determined act of the will. To believe in Jesus in the city of Jerusalem was just about as outrageous as believing in Jesus in Knox County, although it was probably worse. And because it is fallen human nature to mistreat people who are different from us, and in this case, people who are guilty of religious apostasy and heresy, the followers of Jesus living in Jerusalem had fallen into deep poverty. Many had lost their jobs and were unable to support their families.
And so, the Apostle Paul concocted a grand plan. He contacted all of the churches with whom he had associations, and said, let’s take up a collection. Let’s help those poor folks in Jerusalem; they’re having a bad go of it. Let’s be generous to our sisters and brothers, and gather up some money from all of the churches, and send that money to Jerusalem, where it is desperately needed.
And wonder of wonders, and miracle of miracles, just about all of the churches responded with tremendous enthusiasm. Everyone thought it was a great idea, including the good folks in Corinth. But sometimes, what can seem like a very good idea at the time, can lose steam, fade away and get forgotten. Nobody knows exactly why the folks there in Corinth never acted on Paul’s request, and nobody knows why they never participated in the area-wide offering for the impoverished followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, but everyone loves to speculate. Perhaps they got busy and forgot. Or maybe they lost interest and forgot. Or maybe, after thinking the whole thing over, they simply decided not to participate. Perhaps they believed that the folks in Jerusalem weren’t worthy of their largesse, and that they just ought to try to get along without any help at all. Could the followers of Jesus in Corinth have become convinced that their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem had become impoverished by their own mismanaged lives? That is a terrible thought.
But now, nearly a year has gone by, and the Apostle Paul is still looking for the money that isn’t there. And so he resorts to shaming. He tells the folks in Corinth all about the wonderful (and quick!) response that he got from the churches in the Macedonian Region, and he is absolutely smothering them with shame! He starts out by telling the folks in Corinth that God had given grace to the churches in Macedonia, so that even during a time of severe ordeal and affliction, that they responded to Paul’s request with abundant joy. And the shameful implication from Paul is this: Where is your grace? Have you Corinthians not received the same grace from God? Where is the evidence of that grace? And it isn’t just extreme poverty combined to produce an overflow of wealth and generosity on their part. That is shame in the extreme! Good people are thinking, gosh! The Macedonians could have used the money! The Macedonians were poor! But because of their understanding of God’s grace at work in their lives, and because of their abundant joy, they gave with generous hearts. Don’t miss what Paul is saying: the Macedonian people were overflowing with joy, and so they gave generously. Apparently there is a connection between joy and generosity. But joy must always come first. Grace that comes from God, and abundant joy leads to generous giving. Surely, if the folks in Macedonia can appreciate God’s grace, and can rustle up some joy, and can give with generosity, even in a time of severe ordeal and affliction and extreme poverty, the Corinthians should be able to do as well. They only need to open themselves up to God’s grace, find some joy in their hearts, and tip open their wallets. Can they do it?
But wait. There’s more! More shame! The folks in Macedonia, unlike the folks in Corinth, were so excited about the mission opportunity, that they practically begged Paul to allow them to participate. Hmm, is it possible, due to their extreme poverty and severe ordeal and affliction, that Paul wasn’t going to ask them to help, knowing that they had troubles enough of their own? But they did help and they gave enthusiastically, and they gave not just according to their means, but beyond their means. Those crazy people in Macedonia sure had some good hearts even if their minds weren’t being very practical.
Paul says that they were able to give like this because they had first given themselves to the Lord. The shameful implication is that the folks in Corinth have yet to do this. Maybe later they can come up with some money.
Finished with his shaming, Paul now moves on to sarcasm. The folks in Corinth are rich in many things, and they are quite proud of their wealth. They are, of course, rich in money. Corinth was a wealthy, mostly gentile city, situated on several major trade routes. Opportunities for financial advancement were not lacking in Corinth. It was the best of times. But beyond the wealth that money provides, the followers of Jesus in Corinth fancied themselves as being rich in faith. They were the elite, the creme de creme among the followers of Jesus. They had been host in their church to several of the finest preachers known to humankind, the Apostle Paul certainly the least among all of them. He was at the bottom of their barrel.
And so what they had most of, in great abundance, was their egos. And there is nothing like a strong ego to shut up even a pretty good heart. Paul spent considerable time in his ministry trying to get them to tone down their egos, but mostly it was to no avail at all. Egos are almost always over-ruling hearts. Listen to this dripping sarcasm. “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.” That’s bad, bad sarcasm.
And like rubbing salt into a wound, Paul goes on to say, “I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestouess of others.” I can’t tell if that is sarcasm or shame. Maybe it is both.
And then Paul drags Jesus into it. He reminds the folks at Corinth that Jesus, by his wonderful grace, chose to leave the unimaginable richness of a heavenly existance, and come to this earth as a mere human being. Compared to heaven, all of life on earth is extreme poverty. And yet Jesus came to this earth, taking on the form of human deprivation, so that he might give us the gift of eternal life in heaven. There is no greater gift, and it came from one who willingly made himself self-deprived.
But Paul says, continuing his sarcasm, I don’t want any of you to be self-deprived, I don’t want any of you to be like those crazy Macedonians who gave well beyond their means; just give according to your means, “for if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.”
Paul concludes his appeal by saying, “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…” This is the richest sarcasm of all. What does Paul mean when he says that he doesn’t want to put his readers under any pressure? It is obvious that he intends to crush them under the extreme weight of his shame and sarcasm! That’s pressure!
And just so that they get it, he threatens them that in this changing and chance filled world, that someday the fortunes might just be reversed. There may come a day when the rich folks in Corinth find themselves in need of a bit of help. Better to give now, while the giving is good. And he bolsters this point by quoting from Exodus chapter 16, verse eighteen he gives a rather rough translation, but it is from the story of how God’s people gathered manna while they were in the wilderness. Here’s how it reads in our pew Bibles:
“Those who gathered much had nothing left over, and those who gathered little had no shortage: they gathered as much as each of them needed.”
In the wilderness, there was a greed problem, and some exercised their greed by gathering much more manna than they needed. But in this case, their greed didn’t help them much. The extra manna bred worms, and became useless. Greed doesn’t help a soul. Greed damages a soul.
So how are the Thomastonians doing? We’ve heard about the Corinthians and the Macedonians, where do we fit? At the beginning of covid, lo these many years ago, we were strong. Even when we couldn’t be here for worship, we were still doing our part. I suppose we could say that even during a time of severe ordeal and affliction, our offerings remained solidly consistent. Like the Macedonians, we resonded with abundant joy, and we gave ourselves to the Lord.
But now that covid has lingered, things have changed a bit. We’ve grown weary of doing good. The entire world has grown weary, and what we once received as good news, we now receive with jaded hearts. We have become discouraged. Covid has stolen some of our joy. We mourn for what once was, and we wonder what tomorrow will bring.
And when we lose joy, we lose hope. And hope is what has propelled and empowered the followers of Jesus throughout all of our generations. What is God saying? God is saying, be like the Macedonians. Work hard at building joy. Do not let fear overcome joy. Our joy, and we know this well, is this world’s only hope. Our joy in Jesus is what leads others to faith. The other thing that we can do is name covid as the source of our severe ordeal and affliction. It is not our brothers and sisters who have stolen our joy, it is covid. And so like the Macedonians, let us move forward and beyond our current affliction, and let us remember that though our world and our lives have changed, that God has not. God’s kingdom is still emerging. We pray this every week: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.