Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Example of Jesus

2 Corinthians 8:9                                                                                                      Feb. 17th 2013
The Example of Jesus

The purpose of this Lenten sermon series is, quite frankly, to change your life. Well, let me rephrase that, and say that as Susan and I prepare these sermons for Lent, my first objective is to change my life! What do I mean by that?

We’re not accustomed to thinking of ourselves as idol worshippers. We think of idols as false gods made of wood and stone, and since we don’t worship those gods, we think we’re in the clear. But a false god can be anything that we ask to fulfil the role of the one true God in our lives – anything that we look to for security, for ultimate happiness, anything that we make sacrifices to. For instance, I’ve known people who’ve sacrificed the happiness of their families to move across the country so that they can get a better-paying job. Truly, money and possessions can be a powerful false god. Jesus agrees: he tells us ‘You cannot serve God and wealth’.

But our culture is out to prove him wrong. The idol of materialism is all around us. We’ve been formed by the expectation that, year by year, our income will increase and our standard of living will increase along with it. Every year, a few things we used to call ‘luxuries’ get added to the list of ‘necessities’ that we just can’t live without – desktop computers, laptop computers, iPads, iPhones, surround sound TV, SUVs, holidays in the sun – the list goes on and on. Please understand, I’m not pointing fingers here. I live in this culture, and it forms me just as much as it forms you. This is my struggle. Money and possessions are my drug as much as anyone else’s, and the battle to get free of my addiction is very real for me, as much as for anyone else. That’s why I say that my first objective in these Lent sermons is to change my life.

And because this is my struggle as well as yours, I am aware that there will be some resistance to this idea. As I look back over the years of Lent sermons I’ve preached, I see that I’ve done series’ on the meaning of the Cross, on basic Christian disciplines, on prayer, on the Lord’s Prayer, and even on the spirituality of Narnia. But I’ve never preached a sermon series about the Christian discipline of generosity, despite the fact that Jesus had more to say about money and possessions than almost any other subject. This would seem to indicate to me that I might be afraid to address this issue. I know how deeply rooted the love of money and possessions is in my life; I would prefer it if Jesus did not challenge me on this subject. I suspect I’m not alone in that.

So this Lent we’re going to take a look at one of the major passages in the Bible about Christian generosity. It’s found in Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, chapters eight and nine. We’re not dividing it up into five equal sections; rather, we’re picking out five shorter ‘theme passages’ from this one larger passage, and focusing on one each week. You might notice some repetition in our Sunday readings as we do this, because some of the theme verses come from the same paragraph of this passage.

Today our theme verse is 2 Corinthians 8:9, but before we read it, let me give you a little background. At the time this letter was written, the Church in Jerusalem was going through a time of extreme poverty. By that, I don’t mean that their buildings were in disrepair and they couldn’t afford to pay their ministers; in those days Christians had no buildings and very few paid ministers! What I mean is that people were living in destitution, with no food to eat. We don’t know why this happened, but what is clear is that Paul and his friends in the Gentile churches felt a great sense of responsibility for the well-being of their fellow-Christians in Jerusalem. So Paul started a huge collection project for their benefit among the Gentile churches, and it’s that project that he’s referring to in this passage. It’s actually referred to in several other places in the New Testament as well, but we don’t often hear about it today; in fact, it might be one of the great ignored themes of the Bible!

It’s important to remember this background. Nowadays in the Christian church we have paid ministers, dioceses, buildings that need upkeep, and when we appeal for money, it’s often to meet the running expenses of our churches. I’m not apologizing for that; these things do need to be paid for. Neither am I saying that what Paul has to say in this chapter has nothing to do with our regular expenses as a modern Christian congregation. But it’s important to remember that when these words were first written, the context was an appeal to raise funds to help the poor.

So with that said, here’s the verse we’re going to focus on today, 2 Corinthians 8:9: ‘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’. In the context of the passage, Paul is appealing in this verse to the example of Jesus. Jesus himself was not stingy: he voluntarily gave up all he had a right to, out of love for the people he came to save, so that they might become ‘rich’ in a spiritual sense. This, Paul is saying, is the example we Christians ought to be following. Our giving to the poor is not a random thing, or something we do because it’s a nice gesture. No, our giving to the poor is part of our Christian discipleship; it’s a concrete way of following the example of Jesus.

When Paul talks about the ‘generous act’ of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Greek word he uses is ‘charis’. This word is often translated as ‘grace’, and in fact several Bible translations do translate it that way in this passage: ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich’ (NIV). The word ‘grace’ means love that you don’t have to deserve or earn; it comes to you as a free gift, with no strings attached. God pours out his grace upon us, not because we’re particularly loveable, but because God is love.

There is no record in the Bible of Jesus giving money to anyone, but there are lots of records of him pouring out unconditional love – love with no strings attached, love that did not require payment. For instance, we can think of the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector, a corporate criminal if there ever was one, who had been ripping off the godly citizens of Jericho for decades. He was a thoroughly disreputable character, and no doubt he was seen in the same light as the bank executives who continued to get huge bonuses while the crash of 2008 was destroying the life savings of thousands of people around the world. But Jesus went to his house, accepted his hospitality, and showed him by his actions that the love of God reaches out to everyone, even people despised as bloodsucking profiteers by everyone else in town.

Jesus was known for this sort of thing. The religious establishment accused him of being ‘a friend of sinners’, a category that they apparently did not put themselves in. He was happy to hang out with tax collectors and prostitutes, but he was equally happy to associate with Pharisees like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. His attitude is well summed up in some words put into his mouth in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 movie ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. In the movie, Jesus is on his way to eat at the house of another tax collector, Matthew. Peter is astounded, and he says, “You would go into the house of a sinner?” Jesus replies, “I would go into any house where I am welcome”.

Paul sees this as the defining characteristic of Jesus’ life, to the point that ‘the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’ becomes a catch-phrase in his writings. Jesus lived his life on the principle of unconditional generosity. His love had no strings attached, no conditions. Yes, he called people to follow him and to put his teaching into practice, but he did not make that a condition before he would love them. ‘We love’, says John, ‘because he first loved us’.

So if we are following the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, our generosity will also be unconditional. It won’t just be financial generosity; it will include being generous with our time, spending time with people who need our support whether they are particularly likeable or not. It will include hospitality too; I’m reminded of Jesus’ teaching that when we give a banquet we shouldn’t just invite our family members or friends or rich neighbours, who can repay us, but we should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, and we will be blessed, precisely because they cannot repay us.

So this is the first thing this verse teaches us: if we follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, we will be learning not to be a stingy, Scrooge-like person who begrudges every penny we’re asked to give. Rather, we will be learning the joy of unconditional generosity. Do you doubt that Jesus was a happy person? That he lived a life of joy? I’m sure he did – and part of it was the joy of giving of himself to all who needed his help, whether they deserved it or not.

But there’s another phrase we need to take note of in this verse: ‘though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich’. This would seem to indicate that Christian generosity involves the expectation that our giving will have a negative impact on what the world refers to as our ‘standard of living’. C.S. Lewis puts it bluntly somewhere in his writings, where he says “There should be some things that we’d like to do that we can’t afford to do because of our giving; if we haven’t reached that stage yet, we haven’t yet learned what Christian giving is all about”.

But don’t we have a right to those things? How dare God ask us to forego things we enjoy and give that money away to others? Well, God is not asking of us anything that he himself did not do. Listen to these well-known words of Paul:
‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:5-8).

It would seem to me, to put it bluntly, that the Incarnation involved a major reduction in Jesus’ standard of living! This passage portrays him as being ‘in the form of God’, and yet being willing to let go of the joys and privileges that were his by right. He ‘emptied himself’, says Paul; he was willing to give up the power and glory and be born as a human being on one of the worlds he had made. And he was willing to go even further: not to be born as a monarch or a celebrity, but to live the life of a doulos, a slave, one who spent his life serving others.

As I said at the beginning, our culture has formed us with the expectation that as our lives progress we will have a steadily increasing income and will be able to accumulate more and more possessions. But Paul is challenging that idea. He wants us to know that following Christ will mean we have less disposable income, because we’re learning the joy of generosity. I would lay this down as a basic principle of Christian discipleship: we Christians ought to be poorer than our neighbours, even if we earn the same salaries they do.

And this is not a dreary thing. I remember many years ago I knew a man called Marvin, who ran a Christian bookstore in Carrot River, Saskatchewan. I drove through Carrot River at least three times a week, because it was on the road between Arborfield, where we lived, and the Red Earth and Shoal Lake Indian reserves, where I also served churches. Quite often when I was on the way home from the reserves I would stop at Marvin’s bookstore; long before Chapters or Indigo were thought of, Marvin had hit on the idea of having coffee available in the store so that people could relax and enjoy their visit. But the thing I remember most about Marvin was that he was always giving books away. This was the hilarious thing; he was in business to make money, but he kept defeating the purpose by giving books away without charging for them. I remember saying to him once, “Marvin, you’re never going to make any money if you keep giving me books”. He replied, “Yeah, but I’m having a lot of fun!” He had learned the joy of generosity, you see! And I knew him well enough to know that this was not just a financial thing; it was the way he lived his whole life.

So this is where we start our consideration of the joy of generosity: with the example of Jesus. ‘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’. Jesus’ generosity was an act of grace: it had no strings attached to it. He didn’t give to people because they deserved it, but because they needed it. And Jesus’ generosity was truly sacrificial: he emptied himself, gave up his own rights, accepted a major reduction in his divine standard of living, in order to come among us and make us rich.

Are you learning this way of life? Am I? As we give of our time, our talents, our money, is our giving truly an act of grace, of unconditional love? And is it truly sacrificial: is our generosity having a significant impact on the amount of time and money we can spend on ourselves? Let’s think about these things as we go into this first week of Lent.

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