I suspect today’s reading from 2nd Corinthians is not the topic of many sermons when there is also David’s love of Saul and Jonathan and Jesus’s healing of two diverse people in a span of 5 minutes, but I think it offers us the opportunity to discuss both church unity and the spiritual aspect of stewardship, two areas where both individually and corporally I suspect we all struggle.
To give some background, this is in a sense a “Tale of Two Cities” and it could probably be said, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” The two cities are Jerusalem and Corinth. First Jerusalem. Founded on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit overcame about 120 disciples of Jesus and when Peter preached to the crowd in the street, later baptizing 3000 people, the Christian church in the city of Jerusalem was in a sense the original church. Many of the disciples including Peter, James and John, Jesus’s inner circle remained there for a time, and later Jesus’ brother James became the head of that congregation. This congregation, at least at this time, saw themselves as Jews. Jews who recognized Jesus as the fulfillment of the promised Messiah.
The first conflict this church dealt with was the unequal distribution of food to the Greek speaking widows in the daily distribution of food. The solution was the formation of the ministry of deacon to oversee pastoral care, freeing up the apostles to focus on “the Word of God”. Stephen was one of the first chosen to be a deacon.
We are told that “Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” But not everyone was please with what Stephen preached and he was brought before the Jewish authorities to explain himself. His recitation of the history of God’s work among them and their response, including the crucifixion of Jesus, so enraged the council that he was dragged out of the city and the crowd stoned him. An approving witness to this event had been a young Pharisee named Saul who was actively persecuting Christians as heretics.
Fast forward a bit and Saul has an encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus which caused him to repent in the most literal sense. He stops persecuting Christians and asks to join the Christian congregation in Jerusalem. They are hesitant, but upon the recommendation of Barnabas they allow him to mingle with them. Saul is as passionate now about talking about Jesus as he had been about persecuting Christians before his conversion and in a turn of the tables he finds himself being persecuted by the local pagan population to whom he is trying to witness. The Jerusalem congregation sends Saul back to his home town of Tarsus, in the area we now call Turkey. Once Saul is removed, we are told that “the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up.” (Acts 9: 31). Saul was apparently one of those “get things done” people that ruffle more than a few feathers.
A church of Gentiles springs up in the town of Antioch, in Syria. The Jerusalem congregation sends Barnabas to check on them and Barnabas in turn sends to Tarsus for Saul. There is a lot we don’t know about Saul, but we do know he was smart, energetic, and well educated, speaking several languages. I suspect Barnabas saw him as good man to have around when one is “planting” a church in a different cultural area. Meanwhile, things are getting tough in Jerusalem. James the apostle is executed by Herod and Peter is thrown in prison.
A conflict arose between Saul/who is now being called Paul, his Roman name and some Christians who clung to the practice of converting Gentiles to Jews, adding circumcision in addition to baptism into Christianity. Paul and Barnabas travel to Jerusalem to seek the council of the leaders there concerning this issue. Peter and James, the brother of Jesus among others meet with them. This becomes the pattern of the church for the next 1000 years. When conflict arises, the church meets in council to sort it out. The council agreed to accept Gentiles without requiring circumcision, but did put in place the requirements that they “abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.” (Acts 15:20).
Paul then leaves and goes back to Macedonia (Turkey) and Greece where he continues to preach the gospel and to build up churches. All the time he is doing this, he is also telling the locals about the conditions in Jerusalem and is taking up a financial offering that he plans to turn over to the church in Jerusalem.
Apparently the churches in Macedonia have been very generous, despite their own difficult circumstances. Our second city is Corinth. The church in Corinth (which you might remember he reprimanded pretty sternly in a previous letter for immorality on the part of some and self-righteousness on the part of others and general contentiousness among them) was probably a pretty large and affluent church for the time. It was in a thriving metropolis. They had apparently pledged their support of the Jerusalem church to Paul, but were not forthcoming with fulfilling that promise.
Now we are at today’s lesson. Paul begins by flattering them. He then does a little pleading, but then he gets down to the crux of what stewardship is about. “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.” And he talks about God’s economy by reminding them of the story of the manna in the wilderness. Every day people were allowed to pick up just enough manna for their family’s needs for that one day, except on Friday when they could pick up a double portion to hold them over through the Sabbath. Somehow, no matter how small or weak, everyone was capable of picking up what they needed and if anyone got greedy and tried to pick up more, they found that the next day it was full of worms. They had wasted their time and energy by being greedy. Paul quotes the scriptures saying, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” Jesus reminds us that we should pray for our daily bread. Paul also assures the Corinthians that he does not expect them to give for the purpose of making them poor and the other church rich. He only asks that they give out of their abundance.
There are two things going on here that I want to point out. Church unity, which is in a frightful state at the moment with a different denomination splitting every year, occurs when churches know what is going on with each other. One of Paul’s great gifts was keeping various groups informed about the joys and sorrows of the other groups so that they might lift one another up in prayer and provide material support as needed and appropriate. I would love to see us find ways to open lines of communication with other congregations, both in and outside of the Episcopal Church. I am open to ideas if you have them.
Secondly, stewardship is not about making sure we have enough money to balance the budget. Stewardship is about each individual living a life of gratitude for the blessings they have received, recognizing the difference between needs and wants, and then helping as they are able to improve the lives of those who are struggling. The church budget should be designed to finance the tools necessary to carry out the ministry we to which we feel called. Some things like taking care of our property so we have a pleasant place to offer worship services and Christian ed and community projects is appropriate if we then put it to good use. Once we know what we want to do and what it will take to do it successfully, then we figure out how to balance the budget, but this is totally separate from asking people to commit of their time, talents and treasure in proportion to and in thanksgiving for how God has blessed them.
Most of our COVID restrictions have been removed. It is time for us to start planning for our future, this will involve both creating a budget and asking people to commit to making our mission successful, but don’t let the cart drag the horse down the street. Let’s decide where God is calling us and then figure out how we will get there together.