Final sermon: "Concerning the offering"
1 Corinthians 16
Today’s sermon concludes the series I’ve been preaching on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.
In a long and sometimes confrontational letter, Paul dealt with that church’s tendency to divide into factions, with matters of morality and custom that tend to break down along lines of different cultures, with the conduct of worship and the foundational doctrine of resurrection and eternal life. And then he comes at last to matters of housekeeping – comings and goings and the handling of money. He says,
Now concerning the contribution for the saint: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of the week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that contributions need not be made when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem. If it seems advisable that I should go also, they will accompany me. (16:1-4)
Now, this offering Paul was getting up amongst the Corinthians was a contribution for the relief of the poor among the Christians in Judea. A few years earlier, during one of the famines that happened under the Emperor Claudius, when Paul was at Antioch, the church there had sent gifts for famine relief with Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem. James and Peter thanked them very much, and approved of Paul’s opening to the Gentiles – but urged him, no matter how far afield his ministry might take him, to continue to remember the poor, especially the poor among the believers in Judea.
Paul was very eager to do this, and so it became a regular part of his ministry - this sharing of love by means of an offering for the poor, believers in one place assisting believers in another place, just because they shared the same faith. So, this offering was not merely a good turn, but a re-affirmation of the bonds of fellowship among the churches as well. What I’m getting at is that it wasn’t a one-off, not a sometime thing. It was a regular part of the work Paul was doing in Corinth and Galatia and Ephesus and everywhere else he had contacts.
And it wasn’t as simple as it would be today. You have to remember that they didn’t have checks or credit cards back then. If you were going to send a gift of money from one place to another, it was going to come in the form of so many little pieces of metal. It was heavy, and it was easy to steal. Which is why you needed a large entourage to safely deliver it – which Paul refers to here in v. 3, when he talks about the people accredited by the Corinthians to carry their gift to Jerusalem.
Let me drive this point home in another way. We’ve just come through a general election. Political experts talk about a candidate’s “campaign war chest” as the amount of money that candidate has available to buy advertising, hire staff, conduct polls, and so on. In the ancient world, when an army went on campaign – a military campaign - it carried a literal war chest: a huge, wooden box bound with iron and with several locks. This box was full of money to fund the army’s operations while in the field. Only the commander and his praefectus fabrum
– his quartermaster – had access to it. It traveled with its own company of armed guards and was usually stored in the commander’s own tent. If your campaign war chest ran out, you had only the supplies on your persons and in your wagons, and when those were gone, your army couldn’t move or fight any more.
Merchants also carried a lot of money with them on trade tours. Which is why they hired armed guards and traveled in large caravans. Moving large amounts of cash around was not easy in the 1st Century. It shows the importance the leadership in all the churches attached to this ministry, that they spent so much time and energy organizing it, accounting for it, shipping it safely, and then dispensing it.
What I’m saying is that “missions” has always
been part of the Church’s work – and so has encouraging people to give as they are able to such things, and to give regularly and sacrificially. Note where Paul says in v. 2, "On the first day of the week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper . . ."
Nor was this kind of relief offering for the saints in Judea unusual. The Church had been doing this kind of thing locally for its entire existence. The earliest church had many people who sold off all their possessions and donated them to the Church to get it started, with the finances being supervised by the apostles. When that got too complicated, they still kept up the work of supporting those who had few means of their own. Each local church maintained a large number of persons with gifts – mostly in kind (allowances of food and drink and so on), but probably also with some cash now and then.
In this letter, Paul refers to them in the passage on marriage. Remember when we talked about “enrolling widows who are real widows” – meaning women who are not interested in marrying again, and who also don’t have any family to support them? Well, the Church enrolled them by putting them on a list of people to be supported from the whole church’s contributions. This is still done in Africa, where “widows' work” is an important part of the local ministry. There was no “social safety net,” and if you didn’t have a family, and you couldn’t get a job, you were helpless. So, the church helped as it could, and it did it regularly.
It supported orphans, both directly and by arranging foster care and adoptions. Up until the 20th Century, this has always been something we have done. Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s congregation in 19th Cent England founded and supported several orphanages. When a minister of another group criticized Spurgeon, rather than debate him on doctrinal terms, he challenged him and his congregation to a contest of good works, saying, “the God who answers by orphanages, let him be God.”
The church helped with dowries, with food and assistance in times of unemployment. It helped square escaping slaves with the law, and sometimes helped buy their freedom. Almost 300 yrs after Paul wrote 1st Corinthians,
Nicholas of Myra – St. Nicholas, our Santa Claus – was noted for his aid to the poor, to girls without dowries, and to children. Well, Nicholas was a wealthy man, but more important, he was a bishop, and a great deal of what a bishop did was dispensing church funds to help the poor – especially the poor among the members of the church.
We have few other references to offerings, whether special or regular, in the early church, but it’s obvious that they were receiving and using a significant amount of money, contributed regularly and sacrificially by the members. And even though they didn’t have any real estate of their own in the 1st Century – no official church buildings - that didn’t mean there were no expenses for those early congregations to look after. They might be meeting in premises donated for their use by a rich member, as an extension of Christian hospitality, but that just means somebody made a pretty significant in-kind gift of the use of his or her house. And while Paul refused any material support or salary for his work, lest anyone say he was only doing what he did for gain, nevertheless in this letter, he defends the church giving material or monetary support to church leaders. They didn’t quite have a paid staff yet, but they were headed in that direction – and the money for that would have to be found from somewhere.
What I’m getting at is that at no time, ever, was the Church like a hobby group meeting in somebody’s basement, where the only support to be arranged was who was going to bring the snacks this week. Sometimes people get a romantic notion that the early Church was just like a home Bible study or an old-fashioned Methodist class meeting, where the only thing being exchanged around the room is love and prayer.
This overlooks the fact that all successful long-term Bible studies tend to build relationships in which people offer each other a lot of tangible support – like food when someone is sick - because that’s how you show love in practical terms. And also, sooner or later, the group will start doing little projects together to support causes they care about. Meanwhile, Wesley’s instructions to the original class leaders included having them account for the gifts saved up and presented by their class members each week, in terms remarkably similar to Paul’s instructions here.
Wherever Christians gather, they start to give. And it’s not always money they’re giving; money is only one way to express the sharing which is the Christian life, but they’re always expressing the love of God through some kind of giving. Giving of time, giving of effort and skill, giving of prayer for each other, giving of money directly or through the church, giving of hospitality: because God gives to us, so we in whom the image of God has been restored by Christ, are moved by the Holy Spirit to make our lives about giving.
Indeed, the whole point of the Christian life is to give yourself away, as fast as you can – because love is a highly perishable commodity, and you can’t store it up. But the faster you give away your love, the faster God, directly or through the people of God, can fill you up again. You don’t need to worry about running out. Oh, there are practicalities to consider, I know – but most people worry far too much about how little they can get away with giving, when they ought to be trying to figure out how to give away as much of themselves as they can. John Wesley’s advice is still as good today as it was 250 yrs ago: Earn all you can, Save all you can, Give all you can.
And it applies to more things than just money.
Still, money is a matter of concern. It’s a large part of how the church maintains itself, and also a large part of how it does the ministry God has called it to do. And at this time of year, we are getting ready to ask people to make an effort to estimate their giving to the church for the coming year. This helps the congregation’s leadership with their task of managing the church’s resources, but it’s not just a matter of administrative routine.
What it also is, is an opportunity for each of us to go over our own situation – to see how we’ve prospered, as Paul would say – and to offer ourselves to God in faith. To dare to stretch a bit and see if we can’t give ourselves away just a little bit more, a little bit faster – not only in thanksgiving to God for all he has provided us, but also in expectation that the more we empty our hands, the more God can fill them. The Christian life is an imitation of Christ. It’s about giving ourselves – all that we are, and all that we have - that the world might know him, and love him, and serve him.