Wednesday, July 1st is the Financial New Year. It is time to fill in our income tax forms and all the other forms which the Taxation Department requires of us. Today is the day when we reach our last planned giving envelope and it is time to take some more.
The most appropriate reading for today is from the New Testament, St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. All Paul’s letters were written to church communities to help them deal with problems they were facing. Today he says, “We want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.”
The generous undertaking was the money collection being made for the church in Jerusalem which was very poor, while the churches in Macedonia, Achaia and Corinth were rich.
Paul wants the churches with plenty of money to support the churches who do not have enough.
He points out that our Lord Jesus Christ was rich, richer than any human being could possibly be. Jesus was in perfect love and had perfect faith in God. Jesus was at one with the creator of the universe, being part of the glory of God. do you remember that Satan tested Jesus by reminding him that he could turn stones into bread, he could rule the nations with a word and he could call the angels to carry him even if he was falling from the top of the temple.
Jesus refused to use these Godlike gifts. Instead, he gave them all away and became like on of us, a human being. The miracles that Jesus performed, like the ones we read about today – the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead, and the healing of the woman with a haemorrhage, - these miracles are told to convince us that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. They show us that Christ could have come down from the cross, he could have called up an army of angels, he could have blasted his enemies with fire and brimstone.
Instead, he gave it all away, power, glory, even life itself. No one could possibly be so generous. And no one could be so poor as Jesus, abandoned by humans and God, powerless, dead on the cross.
St Paul compares the incredible gift of Jesus with the giving of money to the church. It is like comparing the brightness of the sun to one of our altar candles. It cannot be done. Money cannot compare with Christ’s sacrifice.
But if we want to make a serious comparison, if we want to take what St Paul says seriously, we need to look a few verses further. Paul makes no command to give, just as God made no command for Jesus to die. The measure that Paul uses is the measure the God uses – it is the measure of love. Paul says, “I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others.” St Paul is not telling the Corinthians to give more because the Macedonians have been generous, not at all. Paul is saying, “Love inspires generosity, so if you are loving, show me how.”
St Paul’s practical advice to the Corinthians is that they keep on doing what they wanted to do last year. This would be my advice to you. From our little graph we can see that over the year our income goes up and down. We look at our graph and we see it is pointed upwards. This is great! So let us take St Paul’s advice and build on last year’s experience. It would be great if our graph could reach the top of the scale and stay there. That’s where we’re aiming, let’s do it! This, St Paul might say, is the generous act which we put our minds to this year.
But if we look closely at what St Paul actually wrote, we find that although he is talking about money, money is not the real focus. There are words like “genuine love” and “eagerness” which occurs three times in nine verses and a Greek word which Paul uses to describe the collection. The word is karis which means “grace”. In other places Paul uses it to describe the free gift of love which God has given us in Jesus Christ, but here it is translated as “privilege”, “generous undertaking” (three times), “generous act”, “thanks” and “blessing”.
This is why Paul says he will not command the Corinthians to give to the collection; their gift must be a free gift, a gift as free as God’s grace. Eagerness he asks for, but any gift is acceptable if it is given with eagerness, any gift is acceptable if it is given with grace, graciously.
Paul knows perfectly well that some people are wealthy and others are not – we are to give what we can afford. In verse thirteen he says, “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you.” We are being asked to have the grace to give what we can and to give it with joy.
I know that we are in a time of economic difficulty. Some people have lost their jobs – for example, look at all the restaurants which used to employ students, our own Christian brothers and sisters among them. Now there are people in our congregation who can afford only a little money. In Africa they would say, “I have only a little, but I give it with both hands.”
There are many hopes we have for St Luke’s. We want to make sure that we pay the rector and the diocesan cost recoveries; we must pay the rent on the op shop; we would like to offer to God worship which is worthy of our best with our beautiful old pipe organ in full voice. I would like to increase the number of hours for which we can pay Mac, our Thai pastor, and I am sure there are other things on our wish list.
I will finish with what St Paul said to the Corinthians in chapter 9, after the bit which we heard read today. He said something like this, “If you give only a little, then only a little can be achieved; if you give a lot, then much can be done. The most important thing is to give with grace and joy, giving as you have made up your mind. No one will force you or expect you to give more than you can. Giving with a joyful heart multiplies the gift many times over, not only for you, but for the church; and not only for the church, for your joy will overflow in giving glory to God.”