“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” (2 Cor. 8:9).
Not all clergy are willing to talk about the Christian stewardship of treasure. An old-time school of thought was that the priest’s job was to pastor, while the laity were in charge of making sure the resources were available for the work. I remember a colleague many years ago telling me quite proudly that he never talked about money from the pulpit. Many clergy, across denominations, had similar ideas.
Now, the problem with this in terms of the New Testament is that Jesus talks quite a bit about money, in terms of discipleship. It’s a spiritual issue, and not simply in relation to the support of the church. You only need to go as far as Matthew’s Gospel and the Lord’s sermon on the mount, where Jesus tells them: “Where you treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). Jesus says to the rich young man, “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matt. 19:21). When Jesus tells the parable of the widow’s mite, in the Gospel of Mark, there’s no doubt that the woman who risked putting all her possessions into the collection plate was the one who was pleasing to God (Mk. 12:44).
Our reading from the Second Letter to the Corinthians continues the theme of stewardship, a recurring concern in St. Paul’s ministry: that is, the collection for the church in Jerusalem. As the mission to the gentiles took off, led by Paul and others, the church paid attention to the continuing connection between the foundational community in Jerusalem, and the newly founded church communities elsewhere. For Paul, the collection for the Jerusalem church helped connect his communities to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ himself.
We see this in several places in the New Testament. In the Book of Acts, it’s recorded that the largely gentile church in Antioch sent help to the Jewish church in Judea (Acts 11:29). In the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes about the support of the churches in Macedonia and Achaia for “the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” (Rom. 15:26). The church in Jerusalem has shared its spiritual blessings with the gentiles, the good news of Jesus’ resurrection; now it’s the turn of the gentile churches to share their material blessings with Jerusalem (Rom. 15:27).
St. Paul’s concern with the spiritual opportunity represented by this collection is on display in our reading today. He frames it using two words that occur earlier in the chapter: “sharing” or “fellowship,” and “service” or “ministry” (2 Cor. 8:4). St. Paul tells the Christians in Corinth that many members of the church in Macedonia had begged for the privilege of contributing to the collection. “Their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity” (2 Cor. 8:2), as Paul says. The “sharing” between these churches is a sign of “fellowship” between them; the “service” or “ministry” that they are rendering to the other is an opportunity for generosity and growth. Their generosity connects them to God’s generosity in sending Jesus Christ into the world.
Underlying “sharing” and “service” is the grace of God, one of Paul’s great themes. We depend upon grace in the church; as St. Paul points out in the First Letter to the Corinthians, “By the grace of God, I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10). When he talks in our reading today about the “generous undertaking” (2 Cor. 8:7) represented by the collection, it is the same word that is rendered as “grace” elsewhere.
For St. Paul, God’s grace is chiefly illustrated in the Jesus Christ, the free gift of God who gives himself freely for us. The “generous act” of God in Jesus Christ is an act of grace, “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). For St. Paul, you might say that the collection, the shared life of Christians together, is an outward and visible sign of the Christian vocation of fellowship with one another, and the service of the world. The collection is modeled on Jesus Christ himself, who through his own poverty made us rich.
What is true between churches is true also in the shared life of a diocese, and in the shared life of a congregation. We give ourselves and our resources for others, following in the steps of the Savior. Through our generosity, we build up the community of the church, which itself is founded upon God’s generous act in Jesus Christ. Our stewardship, our service and sharing, connects us to Jesus Christ himself, by allowing us to follow in his steps. “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” (2 Cor. 8:9).