A Wealth of Generosity

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Two months back, we had The Big Sleep Out, to help homeless people. And Michael, who organised it and is in our church family, was himself homeless when he came to faith and spent his early days as a Christian in the underpass just up from here, asking for money towards the £21 he needed for a room for the night. And late one day he had nowhere near that. So he found a homeless woman whom he knew, who similarly hadn't got enough. And he gave her all that he had, so that she at least could get a bed for the night. And he'd say that it's knowing Jesus that makes you give like that.

And that's what our first Bible passage of this year's Giving Review is about. So would you turn in the Bibles to 2 Corinthians chapter 8. And if you look down to verse 1, you'll see how the apostle Paul, who wrote this, starts with a similar story to that one about Michael. Verse 1:

"We want you to know, brothers [and sisters], about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction [in other words, persecution], their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favour [literally grace] of taking part in the relief of the saints"

So "saints" isn't Southampton Football Club. It's just Bible-speak for all Christians. And the particular saints Paul had in mind were the Christians in Jerusalem – who were facing poverty, partly through persecution. (And if you check out the important websites of Barnabas Fund or Open Doors – organisations which aim to help us help our persecuted brothers and sisters worldwide – then you'll see that persecution usually spells poverty as Christians lose jobs and property and protection.) And so Paul organised a collection from the churches he'd planted to relieve the poverty of the Jerusalem Christians. And in Macedonia his church plants included the Philippians and the Thessalonians (who also have letters addressed to them in the New Testament). And they were also being persecuted and facing extreme poverty. And yet, far from saying, 'Sorry, we've got enough troubles of our own and not enough to cover our own needs,' they said to Paul, 'Please can we give? We want to be in on this.'

And if you think that doesn't sound natural, you're right. Because it's supernatural. So my first heading is:

1. Godly Giving Flows From Knowing God's Grace Personally (verses 1-5)

Just look back to verse 1. Where does Paul trace such unnatural giving back to?

"We want you to know, brothers [and sisters], about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia"

And skip to verse 9 – what is "grace"? Well, Paul doesn't give us a definition, but reminds us of a person:

"For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich."

So grace is… the Son of God leaving his glory and security in heaven – that was his being rich – and becoming human, with all the limitations and vulnerability of that (even vulnerability to death) – that was his becoming poor. And he became poor not just by giving up things for us, but by giving up himself for us, when he died on the cross to pay for our forgiveness.

So that's grace. It's totally willing, totally generous, totally over-the-top, totally unmeasured, and in one sense totally unexpected, giving – just like Jesus giving himself for us. And that's what Paul saw in these Macedonian Christians. Which was all the more remarkable because, in one sense, there was nothing in it for them.

You see, part of the Giving Review literature asks you, if you're a Christian who belongs to this church, to decide what you'll give to support the ministry here – which you (and maybe your family) do benefit from. But the Macedonians weren't going to benefit like that from their giving as it disappeared away to Jerusalem. It was more like the other part of what the Giving Review literature asks you – which is to decide what you'll give to support Christians and Christian work elsewhere, worldwide, away from here and our own interests.

And both those parts of godly giving only flow from knowing God's grace personally. So if we find ourselves feeling reluctant about giving, part of the solution is to ponder again what God did for us in Jesus at the cross, and to ask him to bring it home to us more.

So onto my next heading:

2. Godly Leadership Creates Opportunity, But Not Pressure, To Give (verses 6-9)

Look on to verse 6:

"Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace."

So a year earlier, this Corinthian church had also said to Paul, 'Please can we give to this collection?' Because they also knew God's grace personally. And so they'd started giving to a fund together – but then stopped. And that's why Paul sent his sidekick Titus, carrying this letter which we call 2 Corinthians, to encourage them to complete their giving – to finish the job. So, verse 7, he says:

"But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you – see that you excel in this act of grace also. I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine."

And the point there is: you can't command the kind of giving, or grace, that God wants to see in us. Because like I just said, grace is totally willing, totally generous, and in one sense totally unexpected giving – like Jesus giving himself for us. And that flows from inside – from a heart that's been changed by knowing God's grace personally – not from outside pressure. Of course you can produce guilt-giving by putting pressure on people. But you can't produce grace-giving – which is what God wants to see in us.

So Paul knew that all he could do was to create the opportunity for people to give; and that only God can create the desire to give. Which is how we should all see the Giving Review. It's an opportunity to re-think our giving before God, not an attempt by the leadership of this church to put pressure on you to give – because think of the ultimate example of this again, verse 9:

"For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich."

And he wasn't made to do that. It was utterly and freely voluntary.

So on to my last heading:

3. Godly Giving is Willing, Proportionate and Fair (verses 10-15)

Look on to verse 10, where Paul says:

"And in this matter I give my judgement: this benefits you, who a year ago started not only to do this work but also to desire to do it. So now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have. For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable [that is, acceptable to God] according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have."

So notice what it is that's acceptable to God there. It's not ultimately the amount given – the standing order, the one-off gift. It's the readiness, the desire, the willingness to give. That, above all, is what God wants to see, and work, in us this Giving Review. And if we all came to what we have to give from – our salaries, savings, pensions and so on – with that readiness, then the actual amounts would look after themselves.

Now, as I said last year, I know from conversations that some of us don't feel that readiness because of reservations about church – about how it's going and where it's going. And I just want to say: that I also have reservations about our church; and that there's no church you or I could belong to without some significant reservations; and that if, despite our reservations, we choose to make a church our spiritual home, then biblically speaking we should be giving to support the ministry we're part of.

So godly giving is willing – but how much do I give? Well, in a moment we'll hear that our faith target to support the ministries of JPC and St Joseph's this year is £1.2 million. And we're aiming for those of us at JPC to give £925,000 of that. And here at JPC, about 380 individuals or couples give in some way. More than that only the finance staff know – it's all administered confidentially from the rest of us. So divide 925,000 by 380 and that would be each individual or couple giving £2,000 Gift-Aided. But that is an absolutely useless and unhelpful figure to have told you. Because for some of us, giving that kind of amount is impossible and so that figure is simply discouraging and paralysing. Whereas for others of us, including Tess and I, giving only that figure would be positively ungodly.

So look again at verse 12 to see how God operates. He doesn't divide by 380. He says:

"For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have."

So, you're to give according to what you have and I'm to give according to what I have. In other words, we're all to give proportionately to what we have to give out of. The Giving Review literature suggests giving 5% of income to JPC and 5% to world mission, if you're just starting out on giving. But that's just a starting point.

Now Paul realised that the Corinthians – like us – might feel under pressure to give more than they could really afford. So, verse 13, he says:

"For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened [in other words, you end up in poverty, so you can't meet your own needs], but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need [over in Jerusalem], so that [maybe one day, when the tables are turned] their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, 'Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.'"

Which isn't saying: all Christians everywhere should have exactly the same amount of wealth. But it is saying we should aim for all Christians everywhere to have their needs met. Now, as one Christian leader helpfully put it, 'We can't give to everything – we can only give to a few, significant somethings.' But when we have more than we need – which is most of us – then giving to a few, significant somethings is what we should do, to aim for fairness in small ways.

Well, I began with that story of Michael giving all he had that day to that homeless woman. Paul began with that story of the Macedonians giving out of extreme poverty. And maybe that's left us feeling, 'I don't really give with that kind of spirit – but I'd like to.' In which case, the most important thing to take away is that giving like that only flows from knowing God's grace personally. Which is why a communion service, to focus us on what Jesus did for us on the cross, is a great place to start a Giving Review.

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