The Most Unsavory Part of Worship Maybe you don’t like to attend worship services much. And why? Well, because that collection plate floats by your nose on such a regular basis whenever you take up a place in the pew. “The church,” you say, “is always begging for my money!” Shall I let you in on a little secret? Even regular churchgoers often complain about the same thing. They think that the most undignified part of the worship service is passing the collection plate. Worship planners often struggle as to where best to place the collection in the worship order. And the complaint of the worshippers is that the church is always begging for money, that the request for funding intrudes into the more ‘spiritual’ parts of worship. Churchgoers even joke about the fact that wherever two or three are gathered together, someone thinks to take a collection. No wonder there have been suggestions that the collection plate should be relegated to the church’s museum of archaic artifacts! And churches should just put a collection box in the narthex, where churchgoers could conveniently and discretely deposit financial support on the way out of the sanctuary. That way, it’s argued, the worship service could be left for things more edifying. Now, if the Apostle Paul were to join this conversation today, he would radically disagree with such thinking. He would think the offering is where it should be: right in the center of our worship to God. Indeed, I think he would argue that putting the offering anywhere but in a worship service misses the point of what’s happening when the collection is taken. WHAT OUR GIVING MEANS You know, we sometimes forget that it was Paul who initiated the grand—daddy of all church fund—drives—the “Great Collection” it’s sometimes called. That’s the collection that’s being discussed in II Corinthians 8. It’s a collection that was so massive that Paul devoted a whole EIGHT YEARS to filling the collection baskets. What was the Great Collection? It was a collection for the poor of Jerusalem. The Christian believers in the Jerusalem church had taken it on the chin financially for the sake of their faith. For them, there had been a deep financial cost to becoming a follower of Jesus. Christian converts in Palestine found themselves ostracized by their Jewish neighbors. Once successful craftsmen now found no buyers for their work. Widows and orphans found themselves excluded from the daily distributions intended to help the poor. Becoming a Christian in 1st century Jerusalem put you in a serious financial predicament, not unlike what happens to day in many parts of the world, where coming to Jesus opens you to the ostracism of your community. And so Paul undertakes what has to be the most remarkable collection in all history. It is a collection that opposes the high walls of division that had been built between Jew and Gentile for centuries. Jewish Christians in Jerusalem will now have the food set on their table by those with Gentile blood. Simply incredible! The walls of division between Jew and Gentile are collapsing before the generosity of Gentile believers who keep passing the plate for Jewish Christians in need. Now do you sense why this offering is so important to Paul? To be sure there were other places in the empire that could have used poverty relief. But this collection wasn’t just motivated by ordinary kindness. Paul chose Jerusalem as the target for this offering in order to announce the way in which Christ is transforming human relationships. This offering announces to the world that the wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile had come crashing down in the resurrection victory of Jesus Christ. Only a miracle of grace, a revolution of the Spirit, could result in Jewish Christians eating from a table set by Gentiles. This collection would affirm like nothing before it the UNITY of the church of Christ! And frankly, that is one of the core reasons why Christians still today are so serious about their giving. When Christian believers give, they affirm their unity with other believers. At least that’s what’s happening when our giving does more than just meeting the needs of our local church. A collection worthy of the Great Collection should be making a worldwide impact. A church that understands If a congregation is serious about it’s giving, those dollars are going far beyond the local church to impact the cause of the Kingdom around the world. The ordinary collection plate that sits in the local church is witness to the UNITY of the people of God—the truth that the church of God spans people from every people, tribe, and nation. Yes, when Christian believers give, they affirm their unity with other believers. At least, they do if the church is collecting dollars for more than their own member’s needs. A collection worthy of the Great Collection should be making a worldwide impact. A church that understands the unity of God’s people gives its resources to bring good news to the people of India, to open a health clinic in Africa, to launch a ministry in South America. The collection plate is a witness to the mission of the Kingdom of God. God is making ONE people of ALL nations, tribes and races from around the globe. The COLLECTION PLATE is the church’s weekly witness to the oneness of the church of Christ. Now, Paul understands that. But evidently, back in the first century, he was having a hard time getting the message across. The Corinthian church was having a hard time getting the hang of gracious giving. It seems that people haven’t changed much over 2000 years because if Paul were around today, he would probably still be encouraging us in this art of giving. He would say to many of us, “You made a good beginning in your financial generosity, but now you’re running out of steam. Your good intentions are flagging.” What does Paul say to the Corinthians to help them understand what it means to be generous with God and with their neighbor? Well, they need to understand the key principle that can make every collection a ‘great collection.’ And we need to understand that principle too. GRACE AND GIVING It’s the link between GRACE and GIVING. Grace and giving really go hand in hand. Paul helps us understand that link by introducing us to some givers who understoond that connection—the parishioners over at First Church of Macedonia. Now, if go to the New Testament you find the Bereans who diligently searched the Scriptures and are the New Testament model of Bible study; the Macedonians are the New Testament model of generous givers. And what was their secret? Well, Paul tells us they brought their financial giving into alignment with God’s grace. Paul writes: “We want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonia churches . . .” And a little while later he encourages the Corinthians to excel, with the Macedonians, in the GRACE of giving. Now if you think about it, this view of giving really turns our thinking upside—down. We think giving is something WE do ourselves. But Paul is saying giving is something GOD does THROUGH US. And our giving will never be what it should be until we get this principle straight. Because until we do, we will always fall into the trap of thinking that generous giving is just about us putting a little more human effort into the enterprise. People say: “You know I should really get my giving up there a bit this year.” But then, nothing changes. Our giving pattern remains the same. Why? Because we are giving out of OUR strength rather than God’s grace. Let me tell you—it’s going to take more than some good intentions to empower us to adjust our lifestyles and bring our desires in check. It will take an act of God’s grace. All around us our culture is screaming at us—More! More! More! You don’t have enough STUFF! You need MORE! It’s going to take a miracle of grace to live within our means—indeed, to live BELOW our means—so that we have something to return to God and to others. It’s going to take an act of grace to allow us to do more than TIP God on Sunday morning, to turn our last fruits into first fruits giving. The thing is, Grace and Giving need to go hand in hand. Now, Paul notes three things about the kind of givers that GRACE creates. EAGER GIVING First, Grace creates EAGER Givers! “Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.” The Macedonian church was not well—to—do. And Paul tells us in this chapter it was never his intention to impoverish his congregations by their giving. Yet when the grace of God gripped these Macedonian believers, there was a “giving beyond their means,” writes Paul. In fact, Paul says that “They urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints.” This is quite remarkable: people knocking down the door of the church in order to give. I must confess I’ve never in all my ministry had anyone PLEAD with me to give. It’s more likely the case that I’m the one pleading with people to be generous. But Paul says, when the grace of giving sweeps through a congregation, people begin asking: What needs doing? What need can I help meet? What ministry needs to be funded? In fact, if there was any reluctance going on here, it was on the part of Paul. He wasn’t sure whether he should accept such generous gifts from people who had so little. I have encountered this kind of giving myself—but not in North America. While visiting Christians in the Congo, I attended a worship service which had not one but four separate offerings. People were dancing their gifts up the aisle. And this in a church that was dirt poor. Why the eagerness on the part of these Christians to give? I’ll tell you. They were gripped by the grace of God. They were gripped by the Christ, whose generosity is unmatched. It is grace that produces EAGER givers. SACRIFICIAL GIVING Second, Grace creates SACRIFICIAL Givers Now what do we mean by sacrificial giving anyway? Sacrificial giving is not measured in terms of what is given away. It’s measured by what we keep for ourselves. I have no evidence to suggest that in total dollars, the Macedonians were giving more than the Corinthians. It could very well be that it was the other way around. Corinth was a wealthy city. It could well be that the Corinthians had ALREADY put more gold and silver into the plate than the Macedonians. Perhaps by now the Corinthians were grousing—we’ve already given more than our share! So what’s Paul’s hang—up? But Paul knows that sacrificial giving is measured in terms of what you keep, not what you give away. Dr. Roy Laurin tells of a westerner who was traveling in Korea in the years after the Korean War. He saw in the field a young man pulling a plow, while an old man held the handles. The westerner was quite amused by the sight, and snapped a picture. “Those people must be pretty poor,” he said to the missionary with him. “Yes,” said the missionary. “But I know those two men. They are Christians. And when their church was being built, they were eager to give something for the project. But they had no money. So they decided to sell their only ox and give the proceeds to the church. This spring they are pulling the plow themselves.” When I hear a story like that I get embarrassed. For I have to admit I have never given that way to God. Oh, in dollars and cents, I’ve given more than the worth of an ox. It may well be that you’ve given more too! But I have never given with the level of sacrifice as those two Korean Christians. Sacrificial giving is defined not by the size of the gift but by the proportion we give to God of our resources. Sacrificial giving means that we give IN PROPORTION to what we have received. And therein lies both encouragement and challenge. It’s an encouragement to those of us with little. For it means that even though you might not be able to write big checks, you can still excel in the grace of giving. The greatest giver in the New Testament was a widow who just put her two cents into the plate. But the PROPORTION she gave was far beyond what anyone else brought. She excelled in the grace of giving. You don’t need to be rich to give sacrificially. But it’s a challenge to those of us who have much. What proportion of our resources does God ask of us? I will clue you in on a little research that’s been done with regard to giving. Research studies show that as our INCOME increases, the PERCENTAGE of the income we give to the Kingdom of God falls. That is, someone who makes $20,000 a year on average gives a higher PERCENTAGE of their income to the church than someone who makes $100,000 a year. Now, that is a rather crazy thing, of course. After all, someone with $100,000 a year obviously has more discretionary income than someone with $20,000. But the issue isn’t how much of our income is discretionary, is it? I like the story of the family who had a son who had a paper route. He was expected to give 10% to the church. That went pretty well. He would get a check for 30 dollars and he would put three dollars in the plate. Then he went out and got his first “real job.” And his first paycheck was 250 dollars. Well, said his folks — that means there is 25 dollars for church. You’ve got to be crazy, he said. 25 bucks! That is REAL money!! And a lot of us honestly feel the same way. If we figured a tithe, 10%, on our income as a starting guideline for what to give away—we are shocked. Give away THAT much? That’s REAL money! But we can’t escape Biblical teaching, my friends. To whom much is given, much is required. Grace produces SACRIFICIAL GIVERS JOYFUL GIVING And a third principle: Grace produces JOYFUL givers. Now can our giving be joyful? Only if we leave behind giving as a legalistic, coercive thing. Elsewhere Paul says—he is NOT COMMANDING this generosity. Elsewhere we read in Scripture, freely we have received, freely we give. Now, only if we reach the point of FREEDOM in our giving can we find JOY in our giving. Only then can we be set free from the bondage that giving tends to create. And let’s face it, folks. In the Christian life, many of us see giving as a bondage—maker. Giving tends to focus on such things as church budgets, and denominational assessments. OK, we ask, how much more do I need to pay to keep the church afloat? How much is my share? Tell me what I OWE. Tell me what is my BILL. I’ll sit down and write you out a check, to the penny. And be done with it. Because down deep, we want to pay our way—and no more. Let other people pay their own way too. And when people talk that way—or, more likely—think that way, because we don’t dare say it, the shackles begin to clamp all over us regarding giving. The joy gets sucked out of it. The freedom gets destroyed. If giving as a Christian is like paying our taxes, then don’t be surprised if it’s about as much FUN as paying your taxes. What if I said to you God doesn’t need your money? Do you think God, the owner of cattle on a thousand hills, the owner of all the gold mines on this globe, the God who has never relinquished ownership on a thing—do you think God NEEDS your money? That if you don’t personally give to the Kingdom his plans will be stymied? Do you think that God is so weak that he wouldn’t find other means and ways to accomplish his purposes in this world? THE OPPORTUNITY TO GIVE My friends, giving is more a privilege than a duty. In his invitation to practice generosity, God is offering you a wonderful OPPORTUNITY to get on board the most exciting movement the world has ever seen. It’s a movement that is headed straight toward a new creation. He is giving you an opportunity to invest in the renewal of this world, with a company that has never failed to yield a dividend. He is giving you an opportunity to lay up treasure in the only bank that never has had a break—in—that has never had an investment go sour. Now, if I had the opportunity to put money in THAT kind of earthly investment—it would put a big smile on my face. Why wouldn’t such a kingdom investment do the same? Paul urges us to get out of the legalistic shackles which we put on when it comes to giving. The central issue in giving is not—what’s my share?—but how much should I give in response to the grace that God has shown to me in Jesus Christ? God’s giving grace produces JOYFUL givers. SEIZING GOD’S INVITATION But now, how can I become this kind of Giver: Eager, sacrificial, joyful? How can grace—giving become a reality in our own lives? The key is in verse 5: “They gave themselves first to the Lord . .. ” That’s the key: “They gave themselves first to the Lord. . . ” There is no real financial giving without first SELF—giving. Before you put your money in the collection plate, you have to put YOURSELF in the collection plate. It’s as simple as that. Our giving begins with the great confession of an old catechism that has meaning to millions: “I am not my own, but belong body and soul, to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” The Macedonians gave themselves to the Lord, yes, ——but then Paul adds: “and then [they gave themselves] to us!” These Macedonians knew that serving God meant putting themselves in service to other Christians, to the church. What the Macedonians did, we need to do. And as we experience the grace to give, we will increasingly resemble our Savior. Christ is the supreme example of grace—giving. The more we give, the more our character resembles his. The more we share, the more we experience Christ’s joy.