An Act of Grace

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Almost exactly one year ago the Oxfam scandal erupted. Certain Oxfam staff members, stationed in Haiti to help in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, had been using prostitutes.

The response was swift. One retired man from Derby wrote this to The Guardian:

"I have been a direct debit contributor for several years. I am shocked that some of my donations have been used in the way it appears. If these allegations are not true then I shall reinstate the direct debit I cancelled today."

A lady who was volunteering at an Oxfam shop in London wrote this:

"It's disappointing as it's an abuse of power and we don't make money for people to use prostitutes. It's a gross abuse of trust and the cover-up is what is most damaging."

Another young lady from London said she would continue giving by direct debit, but wrote:

"This will put some people off, but that is a shame… the charity sector has had an issue with transparency and they need to look into it."

As we come to our church giving review just one year later, the Oxfam scandal is a sobering reminder that financial giving is based on trust – and if finances are misused, then that trust is easily broken.

And this is the very issue which Paul tackles in our Bible passage. Open your Bibles to 2 Corinthians 8:16.

1. Expect Your Financial Gifts to be Handled with Absolute Integrity (2 Corinthians 8:16-24)

My first point is this: expect financial gifts to be handled with absolute integrity (v.16-24)

Let me start with a quick recap – this part of 2 Corinthians is all about a financial appeal. The financial appeal started when the churches in Jerusalem were going through a period of persecution and severe poverty. Paul got wind of this and co-ordinated a region-wide financial collection from Macedonia (which included the church in Philippi) and Achaia (which included the church in Corinth).

The richer Corinthian Christians (who Paul is writing to here) were first out of the starting blocks to make positive noises about giving to this persecution relief fund, but they hadn't really got going…

… and while they had been spiritually snoozing, one year had flown by! The poorer Macedonian Christians had already given very generously and so now the richer Corinthian Christians were now lagging behind.
And Paul is writing to encourage the Corinthians to give to this persecution relief fund – joyfully, generously and sacrificially…

…but it seems that some people in the church were nervous about how the financial gift was going to be managed – could they trust Paul? Could they trust Paul to make arrangements for their money to be collected? Could they then trust Paul to take their gift to Jerusalem? And that's where we pick up the letter.

"But thanks be to God, who put into the heart of Titus (one of Paul's co-workers) the same earnest care I have for you. For he not only accepted our appeal (that's Paul request for him to go to Corinth to collect their gift), but being himself very earnest he is going to you of his own accord."

Paul reassures them that Titus – who they know and trust – will willingly oversee the collection.

But is that enough reassurance? No! Paul sends someone else too:

"With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel. And not only that, but he has been appointed by the churches to travel with us as we carry out this act of grace that is being ministered by us, for the glory of the Lord himself and to show our good will."

Titus will be accompanied by a widely respected church leader to Corinth to administer the collection. And that same church leader has also been appointed to go with Paul to carry their gift to Jerusalem.

Is that enough? No! Pauls sends a third person too:

"And with them we are sending our brother whom we have often tested and found earnest in many matters, but who is now more earnest than ever because of his great confidence in you."

Why did Paul, who was so busy – and so committed to preaching and prayer, spend so much time orchestrating the Corinthian giving review?

The answer is there in verses 20 to 21:

"We take this course so that no one should blame us about this generous gift that is being administered by us, for we aim at what is honourable not only in the Lord's sight but also in the sight of man."

Sadly, there are plenty of Oxfam-style financial scandals in churches around the world today. I think of a church in the South East of England who gave financially to an orphanage in India… only to later discover that the orphanage didn't exist and their money had disappeared. I think of a church in Northern Ireland where one of the church elders fled the country with another church elder's wife… and a decent chunk of the church finances. It's a real tragedy when these things happen. It's not just that money is wasted. It's that people outside the church have another reason not to take the Christian faith seriously – 'Huh! Another church financial scandal!'

…and perhaps worst of all, for people inside the church family, trust is broken. They don't want to give financially any more… or as much as they could any more…

And the only way to avoid this scenario is to keep working hard to handle financial gifts with absolute integrity – as Paul puts it:

"aim at what is honourable not only in the Lord's sight but also in the sight of man."

So what systems do we have in place at JPC to ensure that financial gifts given are handled with integrity?

All the regular accountability systems for charities are in place: confidentiality of donors is respected, accounts are audited and financial plans are communicated – not least through the Giving Review presentation which Jonathan will share shortly. But most of you know that already. Perhaps it's more helpful if I give you a brief window into the culture we are aiming at in the staff team. Let me give two examples.

On Monday morning, I was working away on admin (that's what I do on Monday mornings!) and I had a call from Jolene on the finance team.

"Hi Ben! We just wanted to clear something up. We don't have records of any money in from the meal at JPCi on Friday night. Can you help us?"

"Hi Jolene! Yes, it was the Christianity Explored Taster session and the Chinese Church cooked for us, so we did not charge for the meal."

The phone call lasted 31 seconds! Everything was cleared up! The point is that checks are in place.

Another example is our JPC Internationals weekend away in November. Because of the rising costs in our usual venue, I felt squeezed. I wanted to keep the weekend away affordable for students, but I also wanted to minimise the likelihood of making a financial loss for the church.

Tricky! Eventually, we changed venue for November 2019 to keep the weekend within student price range and not burden the church family.

We on staff are conscious that we're stewarding money given in trust.

Can I say if you have particular concerns about the way we handle your finances which are holding you back from giving financially, could I encourage you to come and talk to us? Talk to a member of staff. It's important to be honest about your concerns and to air them.

2. Be Ready to Meet the Financial Needs of the Church (2 Corinthians 9:1-5)

Firstly, expect your financial gifts to be handled with absolute integrity.

Secondly, be ready to give to meet the needs of the church (9:1-5)

Paul gently insists that while the Corinthians have a right to expect integrity in how their financial gift is handled, they do also have a responsibility to give to meet the needs of the wider church. Look at 2 Corinthians 9:1. Paul starts with a genuine compliment…

"Now it is superfluous for me to write to you about the ministry for the saints, (I don't need to write to you to persuade you about the importance of financial giving in principle) for I know your readiness, of which I boast about you to the people of Macedonia, saying that Achaia has been ready since last year. And your zeal has stirred up most of them."

But Paul is also firm…

"But I am sending the brothers (Titus & friends) so that our boasting about you may not prove empty in this matter, so that you may be ready, as I said you would be. Otherwise, if some Macedonians come with me (to collect the final gift from the Corinthians and take it to the churches in Jerusalem) and find that you are not ready, we would be humiliated—to say nothing of you—for being so confident.

So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers (Titus & friends) to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction."

Do you get the awkward position Paul is in?!

He is worried that the Corinthians won't be ready to hand over the collection when he arrives. If that happens he would look like a complete melon! And so would the Corinthians! And Paul wants to avoid this.

About ten years, I was a Reach Volunteer with Friends International in Exeter, working with international students. For one of our day trips, we visited the Eden Project in Cornwall and we booked a cream tea at a place on the way back. My colleague had booked the cream tea for 30 people weeks in advance, but I didn't confirm the booking! And so when I turned up on the day with 30 students it was really embarrassing… As we came in, the staff saw the size of the party and a look of panic swept across their faces because they clearly weren't expecting us!

I was embarrassed because they clearly weren't expecting us and felt nervous about whether or not they would rise to the challenge and produce 30 cream teas in record time! The students were oblivious to everything and enjoyed their cream teas!

That's exactly the kind of situation that Paul wanted to avoid! Paul wanted to make sure that the Corinthians were ready to hand over the financial collection when he arrived – that's why he sent a letter in advance – and then sent Titus & friends in advance – before he came with the Macedonian Christians to take their financial gift to Jerusalem.

You see the church in Corinth was a last-minute church – and Paul wanted them to be ready to give to avoid embarrassment! And I don't think I'm too out of line to say that JPC is a last-minute church too (!) – certainly for signing up to weekends away – or conferences – am I not right?!

And I think we're a bit of a last-minute church for giving too. Increasingly we give reactively to appeals rather than giving pro-actively in a planned way. And it would be good for this culture to change. Wouldn't it be better if we're ready to give in response to this February giving review to meet the needs of the church for the year ahead?

I know our culture doesn't help us. We live in a world of pay-as-you-go gyms and one-month mobile contracts. We instinctively want to be flexible and not tied into longer-term financial commitments. (And it's probably true that the younger we are, the more we feel the pull of this.) …But friends, do we see that giving in this way would save us the embarrassment of projected deficits and large appeals later in 2019? Wouldn't this provide a better platform for church growth in future?

The Corinthian Church was a last-minute church. Did they get ready? In the end, they did! Paul later writes to the church in Rome 15:25-26:

"At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia (including Corinth) have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem."

They got there in the end. Let's follow their example!

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