13th Sunday in Ordinary Time - 2021b
Old Testament - Psalm 30:1-12
New Testament - 2 Corinthians 8:7-15
INTRODUCTION: In 363 AD, the pagan Roman ruler Julian the Apostate was troubled.
You see, 50 years earlier, Constantine had issued his famous Edict of Milan legalizing Christianity and opening the door for the nascent faith to be practiced freely throughout the Roman Empire.
And while Constantine’s edict had certainly paved the way for Christianity to spread and grow, Julian the Apostate actually thought the quick rise of the upstart religion could be traced to something else. It was, in short, the way Christians throughout the Roman Empire went out of their way to tend to and care for the poor and the needy.
And so in a letter to one of his pagan priests in Galatia named Arsacius, Julian ordered him to begin building hostels and shelters throughout the region for the poor and destitute.
Or as he said at one point in his letter: “For it is disgraceful that...the impious Galileans (meaning Christians) support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see our people lack aid from us.”
As far as Julian the Apostate was concerned, it just looked bad to have Christians caring for members of his own pagan religion. And so he ordered one of his priests to also get busy building shelters and hostels.
Is it any wonder, then, that there are more than a few historians who think Christinaity’s rise and spread was, in fact, connected to Julian the Apostate’s observation about Jesus' earliest followers. Even if it meant caring for people from other religions, early Christians were more than happy to do so. Apparently, they really were a gregarious, loving, and generous collection of believers.
So much so, other people couldn’t help but be drawn into the faith. People saw and experienced firsthand the gracious and giving lives of Jesus’ followers, and they naturally had a desire to become disciples themselves.
ONE: And in Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians, of course, we’re provided the theological rationale as to why Jesus’ earliest followers were so giving.
And the argument is hardly detailed or nuanced, is it? While Paul can often write in thick and convoluted ways, in our reading from 2 Corinthians for this morning he is surprisingly direct and clear. He doesn’t go on for page after page laying out his position and building up to some grand crescendo. He doesn’t marshal assorted ideas and arguments seeking to make his case unassailable. He simply states the obvious.
And the idea, in short is this: since God in Christ has been so generous with us, well, we should then be generous in return. Or as Paul puts it in one single verse: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”
Christ, according to Paul, gave up everything for our sakes. Why, Christ even gave up his co-equal status with God so that we instead might have life. And so no wonder early followers were known for their generous and giving lives. Knowing they had been given so much in Jesus Christ, they couldn’t help but be generous in return. It just seemed fit and proper to be generous and giving in response.
There is a story about Maya Angelou, who was speaking to students at one of the premiere colleges in all the land. “You have been the beneficiaries of the best that this society has to offer. We have given you the best education we know how to give. We have told you all that we know. Now, you owe us something.”
Or as another person has put it: “Christians are made to be givers because God is a giver and we have received so much...We are called to deal with our brothers and sisters in exactly the same way.”
TWO: Of course, while early Christians were known for their charity and generosity, we don’t want to overly romanticise their lives. For as the rest of our reading this morning indicates, the Church in Corinth had apparently hit a kind of wall when it came to being generous and giving.
You see, the previous year the Corinthians had apparently agreed to provide support to the Jerusalem Church. While churches in and around the region of Corinth were apparently doing quite well, the Church in Jerusalem was having a hard time making ends meet. And so money was being sent to support the Church in Jerusalem.
But for whatever reason, the Corinthians had apparently begun to lag in their giving. And so Paul encourages them to renew their efforts by finishing the endeavour strongly. They had started well, according to Paul, but their enthusiasm, apparently, was beginning to wane. And so Paul exhorts them to finish what they had so generously started.
The churches in Corinth and other parts of Asia Minor, after all, owed their existence to the church in Jerusalem where the faith began and from which it spread. Without the Jerusalem Church, well, the Church in Corinth probably would have never even existed.
And so since they had received much from the church in Jerusalem, Paul felt it was important for the church in Corinth to be generous in return.
THREE: So it happens, right? While we might understand the theological argument that it is important for us to be generous with our lives because God has been so generous with us, that doesn’t mean it’s easy for us to actually live that way.
For generosity, like other virtues, well, it doesn’t just happen, does it? Are there those Mother Teresas out there in the world that just seem to be naturally giving and generous? For sure. But then there is the rest of us, right? And for the rest of us, myself included, generosity is something that has to be ingrained and nurtured and even fostered.
Truth be told, virtues like forgiveness, love, and charity are things that have to be honed and developed over time. As you have no doubt heard me say before, we just don’t just wake up one day and decide we are going to be those things. It’s not like we can simply throw a switch in our brains that will suddenly and automatically make us virtuous and noble.
No. For character, moral-fortitude and virtues, well, those things have to be developed. And the only way to develop character and moral fiber is to work at such things. It’s to actually practice those very things that make for good character until they become almost second nature.
Loving people work at being loving. Gracious people work at being gracious. And generous people work at being generous.
There is the story of the math teacher trying to explain subtraction to her young students. “Tommy,” she says to one little boy, “if you had two apples and I asked you politely to share one of them with Susie, how many apples would you have left?” Tommy thinks for a moment and then says, “Oh, I’d still have two.”
And so it goes when it comes to any virtue. Whether with a young boy or full-fledged adult, they have to be intentionally practiced. No wonder we are so frequently encouraged in the pages of the Bible to be generous with our lives.
FOUR: I recently fell down into one of those Facebook rabbit holes that cost me 30 minutes of my life.
You see, someone posted a question wanting to know if people still believed in God, and soon the replies and comments were streaming in at a rapid clip. And while a whole lot of people still claimed to believe in God, many of them also claimed to have little use for the church. “I still believe in God,” went many of the posts, “but left the church a long time ago. I don’t need a church to have a personal relationship with God.”
And while I get it, while I understand churches often give people good reason to want to leave, such comments also reveal, I think, a rather impoverished view. For while having a relationship with God is surely important, the church is actually primarily in the business of forming and shaping followers of Jesus Christ.
Or as Tertullian reportedly once put it, “Christians are made, not born.”
Christians, in other words, just don’t fall out of the sky. To learn to live like Jesus Christ, after all, takes a lifetime. And churches, if they’re doing their job, should be doing just that. They should be challenging, exhorting, and training people to live like Jesus Christ - to be loving and forgiving and welcoming and, yes, generous, just like Christ was.
And anyone who, frankly, finds themselves at a church where they aren’t being asked to grow every day more and more into the image of Jesus Christ, well, then they probably should find another church.
But likewise, anyone who also thinks they can make that journey on their own, anyone who thinks they can grow more and more into the image of Christ without the support, aid, and, yes, prodding of a community of faith, well, they are, I would suggest politely, fooling themselves.
CONCLUSION: Well, early followers of Jesus were apparently a pretty generous lot.
While we don’t want to overly glorify them, for they were hardly perfect, they did seem to be living new lives - lives of grace and love and charity. So much so, that the people around them were eager to also become followers.
For loving people work at being loving. Gracious people work at being gracious. And generous people work at being generous. For Christians aren’t simply born into the world. They actually have to be made.
Now to the ruler of all worlds, undying, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever! Amen.