Spiritual gifts (5)

Sermon: Sunday, 16th June, 2024
Speaker: Alistair Donald
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 8:1-15 and 9:6-11

This morning we continue our series on spiritual gifts. In recent weeks, we’ve looked at serving encouraging, hospitality and administration – all of which are listed in the New Testament as gifts that some of us have.

This morning we come to consider the gift of giving. Now, it may seem strange to say that giving is itself a spiritual gift, but it is in fact true: It’s listed by the apostle Paul his letter to the Romans. ‘If your gift is giving, then give generously.’   (Romans 12:8)

Now we know that not all gifts are for all Christians. For example: not everyone has the gift of administration. And if someone has the gift of administration, they might not have the gift of, say, encouraging, both of which we’ve looked at.

So perhaps you’re thinking, ‘Oh well, I don’t have the gift of administration, so maybe I don’t have the gift of giving either!’   Not so fast! This one is different. What Paul is talking about here is the special gift that some well-off people have of being particularly generous. As Jesus said in Luke’s gospel, in the context of being ready for his return at the end of the age: ‘From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.’   (Luke 12:48) So there are those who may have a particular gift of being able to give more than others. And that gift of giving is a spiritual gift.

But as we’ll see, giving is something that all of us are called to do, and here’s why: because it comes from the nature of God himself. God is a generous, giving, God. And as the Holy Spirit transforms the believer into a greater and greater likeness of God himself, it’s obvious that the generous nature of God as a giving God will – or should – be increasingly reflected in the life of his followers.

One further point of introduction: you may well be thinking that what I’ve said up till now concerns the giving of money. Well, we will be looking at the giving of money in due course. But the point is this: giving isn’t only about money; it’s also about how we use our time and other individual skills.

So let’s begin by looking at the grace of giving in general, founded in God’s grace to us. And look at these 3 points: Grace of God, gratitude and giving. The Christian’s motivation for giving is out of gratitude to God for his grace to us in Christ. One measure of how grateful we actually are for all he’s done is how we respond in giving.

William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, asked how the ministry had been so successful. His reply? ‘Jesus Christ has all of me.’ And that’s the key for us!

Psalm 24 opens with these words : ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it…’   (Psalm 24:1) So you and I, and all we have – our time, our motivations, our skills and our money: all belong to God! As Paul says, ‘You are not your own, you were bought at a price.’   (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

First, let’s look at the gift of time. Time is important to all of us. We use expressions like ‘a waste of time, being ‘short of time, ‘pushed for time’ and so on. And some of us are very poor in the availability of our time. You might be thinking, well I don’t have any more spare time. You don’t know how stressed and busy I am! There are no more hours in the day! I’m stressed just thinking about it! Well, that may be true. Some of us experience extreme time-poverty. But even within that busyness, it will be counter-productive if we shut out our time of refreshment with the Lord in prayer and Bible study.

Yet others of us are really quite time-rich. My wife and I are aware of this since we retired. We are much more time-rich than before. What are we to use that time for? Some of you may also be relatively time-rich. How do you use your time? Might it not be a good idea to use that time to visit those of our number who’re sick in hospital, or stuck in the house, or who are sad and down for some reason? Or give some time to regular volunteering? God is God of all of our time; we are accountable to him for how we use it. Just as we’re accountable to him for the time we fritter away online or in from of the TV.

But for the rest of today’s message I’d like to turn to our use of money. Someone has calculated that there are some 2,300 verses on the subject in the Bible! And no less than 11 of the parables that Jesus told concern money. Money is often dearer to our hearts than it should be.

First of all, where should we be directing our giving of money to the work of the Lord? It should definitely start with our regular giving to the local church. After all, it’s here that we get built up in our faith by having a minister who can devote his time to adequate preparation and Bible study. It’s here that we are in a caring fellowship, who will see to our pastoral oversight according to the New Testament pattern.

So our giving starts with giving to the local church with regular giving – but it needn’t end there – we will wish to follow the New Testament pattern of having a care for those near and far who are in poverty – via such ministries as Blytheswood and so on, as the Lord leads us. We will also wish to be generous, as our circumstances permit, in helping particular needs among our fellow-believers as we become aware of them. That might mean an anonymous envelope with cash popped though a letter box late at night, so that the left hand doesn’t know that the right hand is doing, as Jesus himself put it.

Well, before we look at our passage in 2 Corinthians on giving in some detail, here’s a verse from 1 Corinthians. ‘On the first day of every week, each of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income.’   (1 Corinthians 16:2) That’s pretty clear, don’t you think? Regular setting aside in keeping with your income. So those whose income is less will be able to give less than those whose income is more.

How we give is important because it reflects the state of our hearts. Do I give grudgingly because I have to? Or dutifully because it’s expected of me? Or do I give thankfully because I want to, in response to all that God has done for me in Christ. For as one of the verses in our passage says, God loves a cheerful giver.

Grace, gratitude, giving

‘And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches.’   (2 Corinthians 8:1)

Note that word ‘grace’. Paul is telling the congregation in Corinth, in the South of Greece, about the generosity of a church in the North of Greece, in Macedonia. And he’s saying that their generous giving is a result of God’s Grace.

‘And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. 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.’   (2 Corinthians 8:1-5)

And here’s the key to generous giving: ‘They gave themselves first to the Lord…’   (2 Corinthians 8:5) If Jesus is truly Lord of my life, he is then Lord of my mind, my affections, my goals, my dreams and my finances.

How much we give to the work of the Lord is a useful indicator of how much we value the work that the Lord has done for us. If our Giving is pretty minimal, then that shows than our appreciation for what Jesus did for us on the cross is also pretty minimal. But look at these early verses of Chapter 8 again: The Macedonian churches gave themselves first to the Lord… and their rich generosity flowed out of that. The grace of God that they knew in having their sins forgiven, of having new life in Christ, also resulted in the grace of giving.

You see why these 3 words are linked: grace / gratitude / giving. I expect that we know that some congregations are much better off than others. We might think of a city congregation, where most members are on a good salary. Well of course, they will be good givers! So that must be the kind of Church that Paul is talking about when he talks about these generous Macedonians up north, right? Not at all! ‘Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints.’   (2 Corinthians 8:2-3)

So this is quite a poor church, a persecuted church even. And Paul didn’t even have to raise the issue of finances with them! ‘They gave entirely on their own’ with no urging at all! They were tugging at his sleeve wanting to give even beyond their ability. Think of the widow in the children’s talk earlier. She gave everything she had to the work of the Lord. She knew she could then trust the Lord for her daily needs.

Now Paul isn’t having a go at the congregation at Corinth. He knows it has many good points, and he even lists these in v7: in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in love for Paul and his companions and so on. (verse 7) He marks them as 10/10 in all these things! But he says, just as you excel in these things – see that you also excel in the grace of giving.

We have much to be thankful in our own congregation. I hope you find it a welcoming and caring place, where we’re in the journey of faith together and where we share each other’s joys and sorrows… We have lovely meals together. And the baking! If Paul was visiting us, he might even say we excel in these things! So then let’s then excel in the grace of giving.

Now do notice Paul’s tone here: ‘I am not commanding you…’   (2 Corinthians 8:8) He’s not shouting at them. You can see that in some online Christian channels when it comes to giving – lots of shouting! Lots of commands!

‘I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, how for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. (Obviously meaning spiritual riches here). And he goes on in verses 10-12 to say, in effect, follow through on what you promised last year. It’s easy to make a pledge, less easy to follow through!

So how much should we be giving? We’ll see that Paul gives us general principles of generosity, rather than laying down absolute rules. Maybe we sometimes prefer rules? That makes it easier. We want easy answers. But New Testament giving flows from our giving ourselves to the Lord, and then each working out our response to his rich generosity: Grace – gratitude – giving

Look at what Paul says, ‘Remember this, whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.’   (2 Corinthians 9:6) That’s like the verse in Proverbs; ‘One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty.’   (Proverbs 11:24) These sayings that are generally true – but they’re not a rule that will feed our greed. Why do I need to say that? Have you heard of ‘Prosperity Theology’? You get it with some TV evangelists and others.
They’ll take a verse like this and say, ‘Hey, you need to sow generously! So if you send me £50 right now, then God will bless you with much more! It’s guaranteed! It’s in God’s Word.’ But God’s Word is never meant to appeal to our greed. God is not like a big cosmic cash machine, where if you press the right button then out pops loads of money so we can buy what we want! What nonsense! No-one should be deceived by that kind of thing and how tragic that some Christians are.

But it’s generally true that if we sow generously, then we’ll reap generously, since God is generous – and if that happens, then it is so that we can in turn be generous in giving it on!
Look at vv 10 and 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.’   (2 Corinthians 9:10-11) You will be made rich in every way. Why? So that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

You see how wrong this idea of so-called Prosperity Theology is? God’s generosity is not some ‘Get Rich Quick Scheme’. If God is generous to us, then that has one purpose only – so that we can be generous in our giving in turn, and that will result in someone thanking God! It starts with God and his grace. That leads to gratitude. And that leads to giving – which in turn means someone will glorify God for what they receive!

I’ve kept until the end the important question of How much? The principles are given in verse 7: ‘Each one should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.’

So there we have it. No compulsion. We each decide in our hearts what to give. We are to set it aside every week. I don’t know about your heart, but my heart can be a bit sneaky sometimes. My sinful heart might lead me to be stingy and mean. I might want to give the minimum I can respectably give. But God isn’t stingy and mean. So then I remember that God is generous, not stingy. I remember that he loves a cheerful giver. So what am I to do? How much should I give to the work of the Lord? ‘On the first day of every week, each of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income.’   (1 Corinthians 16:2)

In keeping with your income. Some people think the answer is easy – we should give 10% of our income: ‘tithing’ as it’s called in the Old Testament. But this isn’t as straightforward as it might seem because there was more than one tithe; there was the tithe for the Levites, the tithe for the poor and so on. Some scholars have calculated that these probably amounted to more like 20% of income, rather than 10%. Another difficulty is that the practice of tithing is not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament, except when Jesus uses it in a negative sense in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax Collector. There, the Pharisee tries unsuccessfully to commend himself to God by saying, among other things, that that he gives a tenth of all he gets.
Yet although tithing isn’t explicitly mentioned, it isn’t explicitly set aside either. So when Paul urges us to set aside a sum of money in keeping with our income, it’s reasonable to assume that he had that figure in mind. But it should be a guide, rather than a hard-and-fast rule.

There may be some of us here today who are living so hand-to-mouth on a low income that giving 10% to the work of the Lord is quite simply not possible if they’re to eat and pay the bills. Yet out of gratitude to God they will want to give what they can – and do so cheerfully!

There may be others among us for whom 10% is all too easy, and not really sacrificial at all – and certainly not near the commitment of the Macedonians who gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. For those in comfortable circumstances, deciding in our hearts what to give may well involve quite a bit more than 10%. For it’s God alone who knows our hearts. God alone knows the level of our gratitude to him, which will be reflected in the level of our giving. And again, we should give not reluctantly, or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

And above all, we should remember our generous God, who has freely given us salvation, new life and the promise of eternal life, not through anything that we deserve, but only through his Grace. How can we not in turn respond with gratitude, a good measure of which is our level of giving to the work of the Lord?

How much we give to the work of the Lord is a useful indicator of how much we value the work that the Lord has done for us. And generous giving will, in turn, result in thanksgiving to God, to whom be all the glory.