We can’t be more sacrificial than God

This is based on a talk I gave for Plant North Yorkshire.

How can churches in Europe, especially in rural areas, work together to plant churches in Europe when they themselves are so often few in number. In North Yorkshire most churches have fewer than 30 people in the congregation. Some are without pastors. None has what you might call a staff team. We don’t have congregations full of people with nothing to do or bank accounts full of cash with nothing to do. None of us can plant with feeling it – without a feeling of sacrifice.

So there are lots of reasons to leave the task of reaching North Yorkshire to other people. Or wait until our churches are bigger, stronger, richer. I think that’s a mistake. In fact, I think our churches won’t grow bigger, stronger, richer if we don’t own the task of reaching our country. If we turn inwards then we will become introverted and introverted churches wither and die. But if we look outwards then God will bless our endeavours.

It is, of course, easy to be generous in theory. The practice of partnering together to plant churches will involve some tough decisions. But I want to celebrate and reinforce this spirit of generosity by looking at 2 Corinthians 8-9.

Paul is raising money to relieve the poverty of the Jerusalem church. 2 Corinthians 8-9 are his fundraising appeal to the Corinthian church. We’re not raising money for the poor. But we are asking one another to give resources for mission – money, time and (perhaps hardest of all) people.

There is another point of connection. The Jerusalem Collection was controversial. So controversial that in Romans 15:30-32 Paul asks the Romans church to pray that it will be well-received: ‘I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Pray … that the contribution I take to Jerusalem may be favourably received by the Lord’s people there.’

Why might a gift to relieve poverty not be received favourably? The answer is that Paul sees it as a sign of unity between the Gentile and Jewish churches. Their welcome of the gift will be a sign that they welcome the givers as fellow brothers and sisters in the family of Christ. And that meant accepting Gentiles without them becoming Jewish. It was a sign of unity in justification by faith.

The point is that giving is not just giving. It binds us together. It creates relationship. Paul puts it beautifully in 1 Corinthians 9:14: ‘And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you.’ It’s reflection of the words of Jesus: ‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ (Matthew 6:21) Your hearts follows your giving. It gives you a personal investment in the partnership.

Giving fosters partnership. And partnering together is an expression of our unity in the gospel. That means we need to be willing to receive help as a sign of unity in the gospel. And it means we need to be willing to give help as a sign of unity in the gospel.

I was once phoned by someone asking for the names of our worship leaders. At that time, our worship leader was me on my guitar, but I suspected that was not what he had in mind! So asked him why he wanted the information. The answer was that he wanted to bring the worship leaders of the churches in our city together ‘for unity’. They would rehearse together and then lead an evening of worship ‘for unity’. I kept pressing him on what the point of this was and he kept saying ‘unity’. So feeling mischievous I said, ‘We don’t believe in unity.’ Paused. And then added, ‘We believe in co-operation’. My point is that co-operation implies working something together for a bigger goal. Our unity in Christ is expressed when we work together to reach the lost.

So let’s look at 2 Corinthians with this in mind. I want to focus on two sections.

We can’t be more sacrificial than God (8:1-9)

2 Corinthians 8 begins: ‘And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches.’ (8:1) What is that ‘grace’? Verse 7 talks about ‘this grace of giving’ (8:7). The grace or the gift that God has give not the Macedonians is giving. Not simply, I think, the ability to gift, but also the opportunity to give. Giving itself is a gift from God.

But this is not just giving. This giving is sacrificial.

  1. Look at verse 2. The Macedonians are giving ‘in the midst of a very severe trial’ and ‘their extreme poverty’. Extreme poverty is not a good context for generosity. Except that Paul says it is! It’s the ideal context for sacrificial generosity. Notice at his formula: joy + poverty = generosity. Giving without poverty is not true generosity because it’s not sacrificial.
  2. Look at verse 3: ‘For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability.’ That’s the definition of sacrificial giving: beyond our ability. Think what that means for church planting. It means giving time when there is plenty for you to do in your own church. It means giving people when there is plenty for them to do your church.
  3. Look at verses 3-4: ‘Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints.’ This is willing and unconstrained. They’re not waiting to be asked. Instead they’re the ones doing the asking – asking if they can give because they count partnership a privilege.

What creates this kind of behaviour? Look at verse 5: ‘And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will.’ They didn’t have to decide to be generous – it was the natural consequence of a bigger decision: they had given themselves to the Lord and to his people.

How? Why? Here we come to the central point. Look at 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 through his poverty might become rich.’

You cannot be more sacrificial than God. Sacrificial giving expresses, reinforces and reminds us of God’s sacrificial gift. This is why giving is ‘a grace’. Giving is a gift because every act of giving:

  • loosens the power of wealth over us
  • strengthens our satisfaction in God
  • reminds us God’s generosity to us

Verse 7 is ironic. Paul says: ‘But since you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us – see that you also excel in this grace of giving.’ (NIV1984) The Corinthian was not short on confidence. Paul is about to address the super-apostles who boasted in their faith, speech, knowledge and so on. They thought of themselves as super-spiritual Christians. So Paul says, ‘If you really excel then you will excel in giving.’ Their danger is that they full of their own abilities – and no doubt they were very able – but they were missing the point.

A gospel church is more than an orthodox church which reads the right books, sings the right songs and has the right kind of preaching. A true gospel church a sacrificial church because at the heart of the gospel is the sacrifice of Christ.

We’re called to be sacrificial. But we can’t be more sacrificial than God.

In a future post we’ll look at 2 Corinthians 9 and see that we can’t be more generous than God.

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