If you want to skip the sermon and just watch the unscripted enacted “parable of giving back to God” with 13-year-old Zachary, watch the video below. Zachary blew us all away with his 50/50 deal!
This is the fourth in our series on stewardship, in which we are concentrating on what it means to be a church – the church of Christ. In the first week, we reflected on what it means to be a God-focused (or Christ-centred) church. In week two, we reflected on being a people-driven church. Last week, we considered the role of the clergy in a people-driven, God-focused church: a clergy-supported church. And today, we consider what it means to be a generous church, or a generously giving church.
Can we accept the following core principle? Everything that exists was made by God, comes from God and belongs to God. Everything: the cosmos, the earth, the plants and animals, water and air, life itself, and we ourselves. You and me. Even the things we have made as humans originate with God – we made them from materials that come from God’s creation, using the intellect and the capacity for learning that God gave us, made by people, whom God created. Everything comes from God and belongs to God.
Including our money.
We may feel that we’ve earned our money, worked hard for it, deserve it and that it belongs to us. These are not untrue. But again, our capacity work, to learn to do our work and do it well, and the things we work with, and the self that is you who is doing the work – all of these were created by God, come from God and belong to God. Therefore, our money also is God’s. All of it.
It is a common misperception among Christians that our money belong to us, since we worked for it, earned it. This is neither true nor correct. We have to challenge this misperception many of us hold. This is vital to our being able to properly think about the money that we earn.
If we think of all the money we have as coming from God, then the small percentage of this money that we give to the work of God in and through the church, is really a blessing, because the large percentage of the money that we get to keep for our own use is a gift from God. A grace.
God invites us each to give proportionate to what we have. Traditionally, this would be ten percent of what you earn (gross or net – you decide). You could choose to give more than 10% or less than 10%, as you feel led. But having 10% in mind is a good point of departure to reflect critically on your attitude to and practice of giving.
The bottom line is that we – and you – have to give to God’s work.
It really is not optional. Everything you have is from God, and God expects you to give at least some small portion of that back to him. But God really doesn’t want you to do it grudgingly or sulkily, like a chore or unpleasant task. No! God loves a cheerful giver. God loves us to give out of gratitude for all we have already received from God, out of thankfulness, out of joy and out of the privilege to participate in God’s work in the world.
At our church, St Stephen’s Lyttelton, we’ll be doing our dedicated giving pledge next Sunday (3 October). During the coming week, give serious thought to how much of the money God has entrusted to you you will give back into God’s kingdom.
This is the third in our series on stewardship, in which we are concentrating on what it means to be a church – the church of Christ. In the first week, we reflected on what it means to be a God-focused (or Christ-centred) church. Last week, we reflected on being a people-driven church. Today, we consider the role of the clergy in a people-driven, God-focused church: a clergy-supported church.
Last week I emphasised that the people are the church, not the clergy, and that even without clergy, a church is still a church; while a minister without a congregation is really not a church. I wish to reiterate one of the things I said last week: there is no mediator between God and people: You have direct access to God. Priests, ministers, clergy to not mediate between you and God. As Paul write, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).
Clergy, therefore, are just one part of the body of Christ, performing their roles as equals with everyone else. Paul writes about this in 1 Corinthians, regarding a congregation that had split over those who preferred Paul and those who preferred Apollos. Paul makes it clear that neither of them are really very important: “7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything (referring to himself – Paul, and Apollos), but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. 9 For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. … 16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Corinthians 3:7-9 & 16).
But, lest we think we can get rid of all our clergy, the Second Testament is full of references to clergy, under various names, such as apostles, oversees, deacons and elders. These are all people who are called, set apart and placed in positions of leadership, for example: Paul writes, “Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). An overseer, which is what Timothy was, is a kind of clergy person. Elsewhere Paul writes, “This, then, is how you ought to regard us [apostles]: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed” (1 Corinthians 4:1). Here again, Paul refers to clergy (apostles). But notice it is as servants of Christ, not leaders. Yes, also as those entrusted with the mysteries of God. Clearly, clergy are part of the Christian Church.
The expectations of these clergy is high. Dauntingly high! See some of the expectations that Paul and Peter have of those in Christian leadership:
1 Corinthians 4:2 “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.”
1 Timothy 3:2-13 An overseer is to be above reproach, faithful, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, sober, gentle, peace-loving, not money-loving, a stable family, a mature Christian, good reputation among non-Christians, hold to the truths of the faith, a clear conscience, etc.
1 Peter 5:1-3 Elders (could be clergy and/or lay leaders) are to be shepherds of God’s flock, watching over them, doing so willingly (not because they are obliged to), not pursuing dishonest gain (integrity in the workplace), eager to serve (no mention of leading), not dominating the people, being a worthy example for others.
(Peter’s focus on shepherding, which Jesus picks up when he describes himself as the ‘good shepherd’, causes me to like the term ‘pastor’ and the ‘pastoral’ role. I try to think of my role in the church as shepherding.)
These expectations honestly daunt me. In truth, these are expectations of all Christians. But there is far less wriggle-room for clergy. We are expected to deeply embody these values and to set an example of Christ to those we minister to.
To be sure, the Bible contains numerous examples of bad leadership from clergy, and we see and hear God’s judgment against them. I regularly read Ezekiel 34, to remind myself that God is not playing around when it comes to God’s expectations of church leaders. Here is just an extract from this chapter:
God says, 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 7 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As surely as I live, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves [on their flock]. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. (Ezekiel 34:2-10)
Let us admit that most of us have had experience of church leaders who failed us in their pastoral responsibilities; who have not lived up to these expectations. And let us admit also how their actions may have harmed the church and us as individuals. This is the sad reality of the church – pastors do fail us.
To be sure, God will judge the shepherds, elders, overseers, apostles, deacons and priests when they (when we, when I) fail to live up to God’s expectations. We go into the ministry knowing this, with fear and trembling.
But we ourselves should recognise the humanity of clergy, avoid judging and strive to forgive when we’re let down. We can’t hold on to resentment. We need to learn to forgive, to let go, to move on. Else we get stuck in a vicious cycle of anger and hurt, that keeps us trapped and unable to experience God’s love and healing.
As I take up today the role of Rector of St Stephens, Lyttelton, I wish to articulate my commitment to you as your pastor. I will certainly fail at times and let you down, but this is what I will strive for during my time among you. And I invite you to (kindly) pull me aside and point out those times where I fail. I will do my best to hear, learn, repent and do better:
I will strive always to be kind, compassionate, inclusive and loving.
I will listen, be open-minded, hold to a people-driven church, be responsive and flexible to your needs.
I will endeavour to be fair, impartial and consistent, and also honest and direct.
I will ask God to help me be consistently Christ-centred, Word-based and Spirit-led.
I will use the gifts God the Spirit has given me – leadership, teaching and pastoring – to guide, equip and support you. We are a clergy-supported church.
And I will try hard not to get in God’s way. God forbid that I become a stumbling block to the work God wants to do among us!
And so I invite you all us to work together in partnership to build God’s kingdom in and through St Stephens.
We focus on stewardship for one month of each year – the month of September. It is the time when we reflect on everything that God has given us – which is everything, every single thing – and how we use this in God’s service. Stewardship has its roots in the creation story in Genesis chapters 1 and 2.
After God had created humanity – male and female – in God’s image in Genesis 1, God immediately said to them, “Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen 1:28). And in the narrative in Genesis 2, God placed the man God had created in “the Garden of Eden, to work it and take care of it” (Gen 2:15).
In both narratives, the first thing God does after creating humanity is to entrust God’s creation to humankind, to rule over it in God’s stead (which is what a steward does) and to tend and care for it (which implies care and love). For us today, stewardship involves taking care of everything God has entrusted to us – our bodies, our relationships, our family, our finances, our possessions, our gifts (or talents or abilities), our time, our earth, our future – and using these to build God’s Kingdom.
Stewardship is not only an individual thing, but also a collective thing. We are called, as the Body of Christ, as a collective, to steward our church and to each participate in building the life of the local church as a place in which people can grow, receive support and healing, learn about God, contribute to those who are in need and fellowship together. Stewardship is thus as much about your church as it is about you.
The book of Nehemiah
The book of Nehemiah, which is largely written as a first-hand account by Nehemiah himself, provides us with a good foundation to stewardship.
Jerusalem had fallen and the people of Israel had been taken off into exile in the East, to Persia. The walls of the city had been destroyed, leaving the city vulnerable to anyone who wanted to take stuff. Nehemiah, whose name appropriately means “God comforts”, arranges with King Artaxerxes to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city. He does three main things:
First, Nehemiah rebuilds the walls of Jerusalem. He ropes in everyone – the priests (or clergy) and all the people, working as families and neighbourhood (suburbs), to build up the walls. The walls serve to protect the city from foreign invaders, to create a safe sanctuary for those who dwell therein. People put their heart into the work, even putting their lives at risk, holding a spear or sword in one hand and a shovel in the other. Nehemiah writes in 4:6, “So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half it height, for the people worked with all their heart.” It reminds me of how the people of St Stephens, Lyttelton literally built the building themselves, as we recentlysaw in a video on St Stephens’ Day.
This kind of working to build the church is what stewardship involves for us, particularly if we are members of a church that has been broken down in some way. Churches are not perfect, and things can break. When they do, all the members of the church – clergy and laity – need to stand shoulder to shoulder, with a sword or a shovel, and work together to build up the church. After all, we are the church.
Second, Nehemiah takes care of the poor. In chapter 5, Nehemiah learns that some people (wealthy, elitist people) are taking advantage of the crisis by requiring poor community members buy back the land they used to own or charging them interest. Nehemiah writes, “When I hear their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials” (5:6-7). He called them together and instructed them to cancel the interest on loans and to return people’s property to them. They said, “We will give it back and we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say”. Here we see those with more giving to those with less. We see people cultivating concern for those in need. We see a faith community forming, based on sharing and care.
This kind of working to build a church that takes care of its own is what stewardship involves for us. This is particularly so, if we have an economically diverse church, or if some are struggling with life’s challenges more than others. Caring for each other within the church is something Jesus emphasises over and over again – it is this love for one another that reveals to the world that we are Jesus’ disciples. It is at the heart of stewardship.
Third, Nehemiah gets the prophet Ezra to read the Law to the people (chapters 8-9). The people gather every day and the listened to the Law being read. In response to hearing the word, they repented of their sin. Their song, in chapter 9, verses 5-37, repeatedly starts with “You” – You alone are the Lord, You give life, You are the Lord God, You made a covenant, You have kept your promise, You saw the suffering, You send signs, You divided the sea, You led them, You came down, You made known, and on and on and on. They turn as a group, as a body of believers, towards God. They focus on God.
And at the end of that chapter, they made a collective commitment: “In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing…” (9:38). Among other things, they commit to stewardship: “We will bring to the storerooms of the house of our God, to the priests, the first of our ground meal, of our grain offerings, of the fruit of all our trees and of our new wine and olive oil. … We will not neglect the house of our God” (10:37+39c).
This kind of engagement with the Word of God, and the response of penitence and commitment to dedicated giving, is what stewardship involves for us. We are asked to commit seriously to God, to make a solemn pledge to give of our time, our abilities and our finances to to the building up of God’s church and the work of God through the church.
What does this mean for us?
Even in the midst of Covid, with all the restrictions on our meeting, stewardship calls us to build our church. That means to come back to church, whether in-house or on-line. Too many have drifted away from church and from fellowshipping with others, even though church is available online. We must come back and practice again being church – whether inhouse or online. We must relate to each other, which we can do between services, by phone, WhatsApp and Facebook. And we must participate in praying for each other.
We must take care of those who are poor and vulnerable. A key way to do this is to give some of our financial resources to the church. A good church will use these resources to build out God’s work through the church, not to line the pockets of clergy. A good church will account for every cent that comes into the church, and demonstrate how the finances it receives are used to build the Kingdom of God.
We must immerse ourselves in the Word of God, through reading scripture, through listening to sermons and teachings, through prayer, through joining a mid-week group. In so doing, we root ourselves in Jesus, and begin to be transformed into his likeness.
I encourage you, as I encourage myself, to reflect carefully on stewardship over this coming month, and on our place within the church of Christ.
Our Gospel and New Testament readings today are nicely synchronised.
Mark 7:1-23 has Jesus telling us that we are not defiled by disregard of human customs nor by what we put into our bodies (though he is talking here about religious purity (see verses 1-8 for context), not about drugs, alcohol, sugar, etc.), but rather by what comes out of our hearts and mouths (sexual immorality, theft, envy, arrogance and so on). He emphasises that it is what comes out of our mouths that is important, not what we put into our mouths.
Jesus criticises the religious leaders of his time for for emphasising human norms of behaviour and forsaking the command of God. And what is the command of God? Simple. To love God and to love our neighbour. These are the most important things in life – more important than any other command. Human rules about how to behave, what to eat, how to eat and so on, are irrelevant when it comes to our standing before God. What is important is what is in our hearts and how this comes out in our attitudes, words and actions. What should be in our hearts and what should manifest in our lived lives is LOVE – love for God and love for others.
James seems to have remembered this teaching from Jesus and picks it up in his letter, James 1:19-27, where James says that we should be quick to listen to others and to the Word of God (these are the things we should quickly allow in) but that we should be slow to speak and slow to anger (speaking and anger are things we should be slow to put out).
Being quick to listen means to be open and receptive to people around us, to make time for them, to be interested in and concerned for them. Our default response to people should always be to slow down and listen, listen with care, listen carefully, and listen with love. And we should also be quick to listen to the word of God – to the scriptures – which he says is “planted in us” (v21) like a tree, that can take root and grow and produce fruit. And the fruit of this Word/tree is our attitudes, words and actions – these should emerge out of the Word that we have allowed to grow in us, out of the love of God in our hearts.
On the other hand, James cautions us that we should be slow to speak and slow to anger. He is clearly speaking about our relationships with other people – in v27 he says that the religion that God wants (accepts as pure and faultless) is for us to to look after widows and orphans in distress (that is, to take care of those who are vulnerable) and keep ourselves from being polluted by the world (that is, not to conform to human customs and worldly norms of behaviour).
James speaks particularly about the tongue, which he says we must “keep a tight reign on”, like a wild horse that is ready to bolt. He actually speaks at length about the dangers of the tongue in chapter 3, where he says, “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” We have to watch (and yes, even censor) our words, because they are more powerful than we think – whether they are words of healing and restoration or words of criticism and judgement.
Rather, says James, we should be slow to speak and slow to anger. This reminds me of how God is often described in the scriptures, as a “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (e.g., Psalm 86:15). We should be like God – quick to love and slow to anger.
There has been a shift in the world since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. He and his followers shifted social norms about how we use words. Speaking out whatever we think about people, and saying it bluntly and without regard for kindness or niceness has become a new norm. The attitude of not self-censoring and saying whatever one wants has been valorised – made into a virtue. We think we have a right to say whatever we want and that any kind of consideration of how our words might impact someone else is just a form of bleeding-heart leftism, political correctness or a sinister censorship of our right to free thought.
But no! This is completely out of alignment with the example and teaching of Christ and of his disciples! For Jesus, love and consideration for others is THE highest command (along with loving God) and checking what comes out of heart and mouths is clear in Jesus’ teaching in Mark 7. James takes up Jesus’ teaching and unpacks it even more, with strong warnings about reining in (i.e. censoring) our tongues. Just read James 3 and see for yourself.
The path of the Christ-follower involves being full of love, quick to listen, slow to speak, abounding in love and desiring to build up others. Our words matter. This is the way of Christ.
Our reading this morning is from John 6:1-21. We will be spending five weeks on this chapter. I think that this is the most consecutive Sundays we spend on any chapter in the Bible. (I stand to be corrected.) This is because we receive here some of Jesus’ most profound and important teaching – about the Bread of Life, the Bread of Heaven. It starts with a story about ‘real bread’ and becomes a story about ‘Real Bread’ (Bruner’s commentary on John).
In the first 15 verses of John 6, we are introduced to bread. It sets the scene for the rest of the chapter. We can read this story at two levels: on the ground floor, it is a story about Jesus feeding 5000 men from five small barley loaves and two small fish – a story of compassion and care; on the first floor, it is a story about an invitation to faith – faith in Jesus, who is the Bread of Life.
The ground floor – a story about caring
Jesus is on the mountain side and he sees a large crowd heading his way. John writes “Jesus looked up and saw”. Jesus is always looking up and seeing. We get this again and again in the Gospel narratives. He has his eyes open and sees the needs of those around him. If you listen to my messages over the past month, you’ll hear it over and over. He sees. And he has compassion.
So he asks his disciples how they can arrange bread to feed the people. It is a huge ask, of course, with 5,000 men, plus children (we know there are children there, because soon we meet a ‘boy’ in v9) and women (if there are children, there are surely women). So, there were perhaps 15,000 or 20,000 people! Andrew brings a boy who has a little bit of food – not much more than a snack. Jesus gives thanks for the food and distributes it to the people. (One wonders what the boy thought about having his lunch annexed by the Andrew and Jesus!) Everyone eats their fill, so much so, that there are 12 large baskets (big baskets that could hold a man) of leftovers of the barley bread.
Many of us believe that Jesus performed a miracle, in which he multiplied that little bread into much bread. Others believe that when people saw Jesus’ (and perhaps also the boy’s) generosity and compassion, they were moved to share what they had with those who had less. And so, what we see is a social miracle about people moved to caring and sharing. Either way, this is a story about Jesus caring for others – caring for our everyday needs. As we often pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. Bread is life in come communities. In others, it is maize meal porridge. In others, it is rice. Every society has a staple food that provides the foundation of life. Jesus cares about this and wants people to have food in their stomachs. And to have it abundantly.
The first floor – a story about faith
The feeding of the 5000 is an important miracle story in the Bible. It is the ONLY miracle, taking place between Jesus’ baptism and his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, that appears in ALL FOUR Gospels. There is no other miracle that appears across all four Gospels, except this one. And in John’s gospel, it introduces a lengthy chapter about the spiritual meaning of Real Bread. Still, even on the first floor, the real bread is just bread. But the interactions between Jesus and the others are an invitation to faith.
John tells us that the event takes place just before the Passover festival (v4). The Passover symbolised, as it still does, liberation and redemption from slavery in Egypt, God standing up for the people of God, God caring for God’s chosen ones. It is central to Jewish faith, like the cross is central to Christian faith. This cues us that this is a story about faith.
Seeing the large crowds, Jesus invited Philip to faith: “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” For sure, this is a big ask – it is a big crowd. But Philip was there in John 2, when Jesus changed water into wine – a lot of wine, a lot of really good wine! Jesus invites Philip to have faith. A faith response might have been, “Lord, I can’t imagine where we could get or afford so much bread. But I know you can make a plan! If anyone can feed this many people, it is you!” That would be a faith response, particularly after witnessing the water into wine miracle. Instead, all Philip can see is the large crowd. He loses sight of Jesus. His faith fails him.
Andrew shows a little faith, however. He finds a boy with some food. He emphasises the smallness of what the boy has: “five small barley loaves and two small fish” (v8). And then his tiny bubble of faith pops: “But how far will they go among so many people?”
Yet, that is all Jesus needed: a tiny morsel of faith. He takes those small loaves and small fish and gives thanks for (literally ‘eucharists’) them and feeds 5000+ people. Jesus is not constrained by the size of our faith. Andrew’s faith is feeble, small and easily fizzles. But what is important is not so much our faith, as the one in whom we place our faith: Jesus is more than capable of calming our storms, feeding us, healing us, helping us. He is the Lord of lords and King of kings. He is God incarnate. He can do anything.
It is only in the collecting of the leftovers that the disciples and the people recognise a miracle has taken place. I think Jesus instructs the disciples to collect the leftovers so they can see and touch the miracle, much as Jesus does with Thomas in John 20 – “Put your finger here; see my hand”. As Thomas was invited by Jesus to see, touch and respond in faith, so were Philip and the other disciples invited to see, touch and respond in faith. And so are we. Particularly during times of turmoil, illness, loss, distress and hunger.
Immediately after the story of the feeding of the 5000, we have John’s version of the story of Jesus walking on the water (see my sermon on this same story from Mark’s Gospel, a month ago). The disciples are alone in a boat on a lake in a storm and struggling to make headway. Jesus sees their plight and walks across the water to them. They are terrified to see him, but he says, ‘It is I; don’t be afraid“, and he climbs into the storm-rocked boat with them – he chooses to be in the boat in the storm with them – and immediately, they find they have reached the other side of the lake, where they were headed.
Jesus remains more than capable of riding out and calming the storms in our lives.
In Ephesians 1:3-14, Paul sets out in great depth and compact detail, his views on God and God’s relationship with us. This message is so timely in these days when we feel beset by Covid, together with the many other challenges we face in society. In a time like this, we need these words in Ephesians to take root in our hearts, where they grow and flourish. Paul’s writing is dense and compact, so I’ve extracted the words and phrases he uses and clustered them under three headings as follows:
The generous love of God
Blessed us, in the spiritual realm, very spiritual blessing, in Christ, in love, according to God’s pleasure, he has freely given us, redemption, forgiveness of sins, riches of God’s grace, bring unity to all things, under Christ, he lavished on us, according to his good pleasure.
These words speak about the extravagant, lavish, abundant, never-ending love of God that God pours out in a continuous and faithful stream into our lives. We are washed, saturated and soaked in the love of God. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that can separate us from this love.
God’s plan and God’s sovereignty
He chose us, before creation, he predestined us, according to his will, all wisdom, all understanding, he purposed, when the times reach their fulfilment, predestined, according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.
God is King. God is in charge. God has a plan, God’s will shall deliver on that plan, God is sovereign. Sometimes it may feel that God has lost control and we are floating free in the ocean, battered by the storms of life. But God is always in control, and we are always in the palm of God’s hand, even (perhaps especially) when it doesn’t feel that way.
Our place as God’s beloved
You also were included, you were marked in him, with a seal, (the sign of Christ), a deposit, a guarantee, an inheritance, God’s possession, adopted, sonship.
God holds us firm. God has marked us with the seal of the Spirit. We were marked at our baptism with a cross, the sign of Christ – that sign does not fade or dissolve. God can spot us in the largest, densest crowd. God knows those who are his own – he does not lose sight of us. He has adopted us as ‘sons’ – as those who receive the full and complete inheritance of God, even though we are not God’s own offspring. We are utterly precious and valuable to God.
Our Eucharist readings for today align around the theme of generous giving. Read the texts:
Extracts from Psalm 112
1 Blessed are those who fear the Lord, who find great delight in his commands.
3 Wealth and riches are in their houses, and their righteousness endures forever.
4 Even in darkness light dawns for the upright, for those who are gracious and compassionate and righteous.
5 Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely, who conduct their affairs with justice.
9 They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor, their righteousness endures forever; their horn will be lifted high in honor.
Extracts from Matthew 6
1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2-4 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Extracts from 2 Corinthians 9
6-8 Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.
10-11 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.
Key lessons about giving generously
God consistently and insistently calls us to generosity. This giving is to be sacrificial, in other words, we give until it hurts a bit; we give so that we feel the loss a little.
Givers will be rewarded according to their generosity. There is a kind of economy of giving, with a return on our investment, possibly in this life, and certainly in the next.
Giving should be done freely. We should not give grudgingly, reluctantly or out of obligation. We should also not give in order to obtain a reward or recognition – indeed, we should give privately, secretly. Our generous giving is rather motivated by our response to God’s generous giving to us.
Two of Jesus’ disciples come to him asking for positions of authority in heaven (Mark 10:35-45). It is really an immature and arrogant request. Understandably, Jesus responds quite firmly. In part he points out that in the world people are grasping for positions of power that they can lord over others, but then he says, “Not so with you!” He calls us to a different value system.
And then he continues to says that “even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” If even Jesus – the Son of God – has come as a servant, how much more should we be servants. We are called to take on a servant mentality – as awful as that might sound – and to live out his role in the world – serving humanity.
We have a critical failure in South Africa of public service, from those employed by the State (who are called “public servants”, as described in the Batho Pele White Paper for Public Service). Far too many people who are employed as public servants (whether as general assistants, chief directors or ministers) have lost this focus – that they are employed to serve the public. But not just them – all of us! We Christians are all put here on earth to serve humanity, to serve the world. Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.
Tonight is Maundy Thursday, when we co-celebrate Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet and Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper (also known as the Eucharist or Mass). This year we read about these events in John 13:1-17 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. (I’ve preached about some of this before in a chapter in my book entitled the Kenotic U.)
What stands out for me this year is the extent of Jesus’ willingness to humble himself and serve humanity. Remember that this is God the Son we’re talking about. Not just a Rabbi, not just a priest, not a Bishop, not the Pope – God in human human form! Yet, Jesus, knowing his identity, gets up from the dinner table and strips down to his undergarments and dons a towel and washes the feet of his disciples. Peter, is so uncomfortable with this demonstration of humility from his master. And one wonders about Judas, who has already decided to betray Jesus, and Jesus already knows this – yet Jesus washes Judas’ feet also.
And he offers them his body – broken for us – and his blood – shed for us – for our salvation. He calls us to remember this every time we sit down for a meal. For Christians who follow the sacramental tradition – like us Anglicans – we celebrate this Eucharist at least once a week, because we regard this as the central demonstration of God’s love for us and so we re-enact Jesus great service to humanity.
Jesus whole stance, throughout his life, was one of servanthood. He is the lamb of God, foreshadowed by the Exodus story in Exodus 12:1-14. A life of sacrifice, of service, of humility, of love, of other-centredness.
After washing their feet, Jesus gets up and dresses again and takes up his place at the table and teaches them:
“Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
And shortly thereafter he summarises his entire ministry (John 13:34-35):
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
May God give us the courage to walk his path of service.
Our readings for today speak about the balance between knowledge and action – between what we know in our heads and what we do with our bodies. What we’ll see is that in the Gospels, Psalms and Paul’s letters, actions are more important than knowledge. It is not the knowledge is unimportant – no! Knowledge is important. But acts of love are even more important. The hallmark of a Christian is not so much what they know as what they do.
In our Gospel reading for today (Mark 1:21-28) we read about Jesus first ministry. We read that Jesus went into the temple and was teaching. And people were amazed at the authority of his teaching. The people later conclude, “What is this? A new teaching – and with authority!” Clearly, Jesus’ teaching, based on his knowledge, is important.
However, only 1 verse describes him teaching, and we don’t know what he actually taught. But there are 4 verses describing is actions. While he was teaching a demon possessed man came and challenged Jesus. Jesus cases out the evil spirit and the man is made well. This act of love, this work of love, gathers more attention than his teaching. And the people conclude, “He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.”
While both knowledge and actions are present in this Gospel passage, actions are far more detailed and compelling.
If we then turn to Psalm 111, we find a similar pattern. Verses 7 and 10 speak about God’s precepts. A precept is a general guideline or principle; not a ‘law’, which is far more specific and prescriptive. v7 says that God’s precepts are trustworthy and v10 that all who follow the Lord’s precepts have good understanding; it is the beginning of wisdom. Clearly, knowledge of God’s precepts is important.
However, 7 of the 10 verses speak about God’s works: the words of the Lord (v1), his deeds (v3), his wonders (v4), he provides food (v5), she showed his works (v6), the words of his hands (v7) and he provided redemption for his people (v9). Wow! So much attention is given to the actions of God. And these actions are described as being great, delightful, glorious, majestic, righteous, gracious, compassionate, powerful, faithful, just, holy and awesome! These are acts of love, and Psalm 111 is drenched in them.
While both knowledge and action are present in this Psalm, actions are far more prolific and compelling.
And finally, let’s look at 1 Corinthians 8, in which Paul provides some rather complex teaching about eating food offered to idols. I do not want us to get too bogged down in the specifics of the teaching, but rather to focus on what Paul says here about knowledge and action. In the opening verses, Paul says, “We all possess knowledge. But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” This sentence is so direct and clear – knowledge makes us feel bigger and more important, while actions of love build up the community. And then he continues, “Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know.” He cautions against over confidence in knowledge – that we may think we know a lot, but we may actually be wrong. And he continues again, “But whoever loves God is known by God”, though there is an alternate reading (in the footnote of the NIV), “But whoever loves truly knows.” Paul’s warning about knowledge is balanced with an emphasis on love. Acts of love are what are most important, says Paul.
In the rest of this passage Paul explains about eating food sacrificed to idols, and the crux of his argument is that acting on the basis of right knowledge rather than on loving consideration of the needs of others harms these other people. Indeed, Paul says that they are “destroyed by your knowledge” and that this is to “sin against them” and indeed to “sing against Christ” (vv11-12). And he concludes this passage saying that he would rather act against his own knowledge, to protect others from falling (v13).
In other words, what is most important is not for us to act on what we believe to be right, or even on what is actually right, but to act out of love for others, so as not to harm others. In summary, it is better to be kind than to be right.
All three passages today give us the same clear, strong and compelling message: Knowledge, while important, is not what is most important to God. What is most important to God, is that we act in love towards others.
What, then, will you do with this knowledge? How can you put into practice this precept, that loving actions towards others are more important than all the knowledge in the world?
Let me make one practical suggestion. Or rather, let me present this to you as a challenge and urge you to make a decision now to act on this. With the lockdown, churches have had to close their doors and we no longer see our sisters and brothers like we used to. This results in a fragmentation of the church community, and as a result, people may feel disconnected and alone, and their faith may wane.
I challenge you to identify two or three people who would normally have spoken to at church, but because you’ve not seen them for a while, you’ve not spoken with them. Give them a call or drop them a note. Reach out to them. Ask how they are doing. Ask if they need anything. Ask what you can do to support them. Show them the love of God. In so doing, we will work to build up our church community, the body of Christ.