The Church’s Compassion
2 Corinthians 8 & 9
In recent years many studies have focused on what’s taking place in Communist China among Christians. The reason people are studying is because when the Communists took over in China in 1949 and outlawed Christianity, there were several hundred thousand Christians. Then the churches were closed, the Red Guard went on a rampage, and anywhere they found a cross, they tore it down. The cross was despised. Christians were persecuted – put in prison and driven to the countryside. For ten years, from 1966-1976, not just the Christian faith but faith of ANY kind was outlawed. Today, China still considers itself an atheist state, but has relaxed some of the rules and regulations on religious expression. They still frown on religion and don’t allow much to happen that isn’t under government control. But while for decades we had no idea what was happening behind the curtain to the indigenous Christians in China, we’ve been able over the last couple of decades to go back in and find out.
And with the relaxing of regulations and the reopening of churches, we’ve discovered that there are multiple millions of Christians. Until the Communists took over, when people were free to do as they please, they had hundreds of thousands. Once the persecution took place, Christians began to multiply, and there are multiple millions. 44 million in 2018, according to the Chinese government. In the 1950s, the underground church took over. The underground church consisted of small house churches that met illegally to worship, pray, and study. And the numbers of people coming to Christ exploded.
Paul Kaufman and his family traveled to China in the late 1970 or early 1980s, and he wrote a book called China: The Emerging Challenge. In that book he gives a clue as to why during days of persecution millions of people would come to know Christ. He talks about the Jesus Family of northern China. In 1942 there was a tremendous drought in northern China. Aid began to pour in from churches outside of China to help those people who were starving. The Jesus Family refused to take the aid. They continued to feed their people – not only that, but to give away their harvest. They started by giving away 10% of their harvest to others, then they worked up to 20 percent, and finally they worked up to where they gave away 90 percent of what they harvested. They supplied food for five hundred people from forty-three acres of land. The Communists could only support one family per acre. Somebody asked the leader of those people, “Why would you refuse aid when others were starving?” Listen to what he had to say. “Those foreign churches would have robbed us of our anchor. It is our financial needs that drive us to our knees and force us to cry to him.”[i] And then, in their poverty, in their lack, they used the bounty of their little 43 acres to feed 500 people. In the midst of a famine, they didn’t sit on it. They gave it away.
Last week, we started our a new sermon series called “We ARE the Church.” We’ll be looking to Scripture for guidance on what it means to be the church, the people of God in the world. We don’t GO to church. We ARE the church. We started out last week by talking about the church’s LIFE, and that message is available on our web site and on YouTube if you’d like to watch it again. Today, we’re looking at the church’s HEART. The church’s COMPASSION. Today, we’re going to be looking at St. Paul’s second letter to the church in the city of Corinth. Turn with me to 2 Corinthians. We’re going to be looking at chapters 8-9.
In these chapters, Paul actually compares two churches. Well, he compares the churches in Macedonia, churches like the Philippian church, with the church in Corinth. He draws on the contrast between the generosity and compassion of the Macedonian churches with the potential for stinginess and selfishness in the Corinthian church. And as he does that, he paints a picture for us of the heart of generous compassion God desires for his church, for his people in the world. Let’s start with 2 Corinthians 8:1-5.
The word “grace,” the Greek word “charis,” appears several times in these two chapters. It’s a theme that runs through them. “Charis,” “grace,” means both joy and gift. It’s a gift given or a favor done joyfully, without any expectation of a return of the favor. Nothing in return. When we think about grace, we think about the undeserved, unearned nature of grace, but we don’t realize that it’s also a gift joyfully given. It brings the giver joy to give the gift. Grace is an unearned, undeserved gift joyfully given or a favor joyfully done.
Paul uses that word, grace, over and over again. Funny thing too, because he’s talking about money. Like most pastors, he’s doing it as indirectly and as politically, as sensitively, as he can. But he’s talking about money in these two chapters. He’s talking about GENEROUS compassion. We often think of grace as what God has done FOR us in Christ – paid the penalty for our sin, offering us forgiveness and life. And grace includes what God has done FOR us. But it’s bigger than that, believe it or not. Grace also includes what God is doing IN us, transforming us to be like Christ, and it includes what God is doing THROUGH us, extending his care and compassion, meeting needs and sharing his love in word and deed.
Now, Claudius was emperor, Caesar, in Rome. And his reign was marked by several famines. Times when, because of poor conditions for growing crops, parts of the empire experienced severe famine. And at the time St. Paul wrote both his first letter to the Corinthian Church and this one, Judah was being devastated by a three year famine. The situation in Jerusalem was dire. And it was worse for the Christians in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was hostile to Christianity, and many of the Christians there had lost their jobs, even the support and protection of their larger extended families, because of their profession of faith in Christ. They were vulnerable in the best of times, and the famine had left them destitute.
So Paul decided to take up a collection from the gentile churches he had started in the regions to the west, to support the starving, struggling Christians in back east in Jerusalem. The predominantly Jewish Christians in Judah had sent Paul out as a missionary to share the good news of Jesus Christ in the gentile world. And now they were experiencing hardship, so Paul wanted the predominantly gentile Christians in the churches he had started to now support their brothers and sisters in Christ back in Jerusalem. So why does Paul talk so much about grace in a passage on money and generosity and giving? Because grace leads to generosity. Grace is God’s joyous generosity toward to us and in us. And our response to God’s grace to us is to become joyous purveyors of that grace. We share with others because of what God has done for us in Christ.
Now, look at V. 2. The Macedonian Christians were facing their own challenging circumstances. Paul uses the words “severe test of affliction” and “extreme poverty.” They weren’t in a great situation themselves. They didn’t have anything. But they gave what they could. In fact, they gave beyond what they could give. Look at V. 3. And not only was their generosity overflowing, they gave with joy. Look at V. 4. It sounds like Paul actually told them to be realistic and not to give because of their circumstance. He says the same thing to the Corinthian believers, who weren’t in dire straits. In fact, the Corinthian church was doing well. Look down at V. 7. They exceled in faith, in speech, in knowledge of God, in the earnestness of their walks with Christ. And Corinth, as a regional hub, was a wealthy city. The Corinthian church was well provided for. But even so, Paul tells them he has no desire for them to impoverish themselves to help Jerusalem. Look at Vv. 13-14. He simply wants them to do their part.
But look at what the Macedonian Christians did. They BEGGED him for the chance to be a part of the offering for the Christians in Jerusalem. They gave what they had, and they begged Paul to take it. They weren’t being generous because that’s what good followers of Christ are SUPPOSED to do. They weren’t giving grudgingly. They wanted to help. They wanted to give. For them, it was a joyous opportunity to participate in what God was going to do in Jerusalem. And even Paul said they gave more than they could, more than they should have. So much so that they had to earnestly beg him to take it. The gift itself was generous. But so was the heart behind it. It was a grace – a gift joyfully given. A favor joyfully done.
How often is our giving, our serving, our helping, done in an attitude of joy? When we’re volunteering in the food pantry, is it with joy, or is it grudging service? When we’re up for community meal, are we serving with joy, or are we grudging? When we place the check in the mail, or drop it in the box or offering plate, is it done with joy, or a sense of duty? When a neighbor needs a helping hand, or a ride, or a meal, do we do it with joy, or grudgingly? When someone needs help, do we serve with joy? God wants his church, his people in the world, to give and to serve with joy in their hearts.
Look at Vv. 8-15. And now look at 9:1-5. When this opportunity to give had first been made known, the Corinthian believers jumped at the chance to help. The joy was there. The spark was there. But now, a year later, they were struggling to stay engaged in the project. They were struggling to finish what they had started. A year ago, they had been as fired up as the Macedonian Christians about helping Jerusalem. Now … the fire was gone. The spark was gone. Their offering wasn’t ready. As time marches on, we get tired. And bored. Serving and giving no longer have the luster they once did. We get compassion fatigue. We lose interest. We burn out. Sometimes that happens for good reason, because the work of the many is being done by a few. But sometimes it happens because we get tired of giving up the same day of the week EVERY week at the food pantry. Or the same weekend EVERY month for community meal. Or we have a good idea of something we could do with the money we would normally give. That’s why, in Galatians 6:9, Paul says, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”
I heard about a little girl who experienced a major breakthrough in her life when she learned to tie her own shoes. Instead of excitement, she was overcome by tears.
Her father asked, “Why are you crying?”
“I have to tie my shoes,” she said.
“You just learned how. It isn’t that hard, is it?”
“I know,” she wailed, “but I’m going to have to do it for the rest of my life.”
My hunch is that some of us feel the same way when it comes to serving, giving, helping, loving. We learn that it’s exciting to give, to serve, to love. But isn’t there just a tiny bit of dread because we know we have to do it over and over again for the rest of our lives?[ii]
God wants us to give and serve with joy in our hearts, and to have the grit to finish what we start. He wants us to have a generous compassion that LASTS. The tendency of the church is to lose sight of what God has called us to do and to be in the world. To become so completely focused on ourselves as a church, that we lose sight of the hurting world surrounding us. We get compassion fatigue. We think, “I’ve done my part. Someone else can do the work for a while.” We get overwhelmed by the depth and complexity of the hurt around us. And as human beings we tend toward selfishness. That’s our natural bent. The Macedonian churches were small. They were extremely poor. And they were severely persecuted. And they FOUGHT to give. They FOUGHT to help. The Corinthian church had was comfortable. They had plenty. And they were struggling to follow through. They were struggling to be concerned with anyone else. They had a strong faith. They could articulate it well. They had an incredible knowledge of God, incredible teachers, and their faith was legitimately earnest. But they were weak in their concern for the hurting “somewhere else.”
Benjamin Watson is a man I admire very much. I’ve never met him, and I probably never will. He just recently retired from the NFL, where he played tight end for the New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns, and New Orleans Saints. He has Super Bowl rings and has lined up with Tom Brady and Drew Brees, two of the greatest quarterbacks to play the game. He is also an outspoken Christian. He is unashamedly pro-life, and has used his platform to speak out against abortion and has given his money and his voice and energy to the cause. As a black man, he has also spoken out about and worked for justice on issue of race in America and the difference between going through life in this country as a black person versus as a white person.
This week I opened up Facebook and saw his involvement in the condemning of religious persecution and the slaughter of Christians in Nigeria by Boko Haram. Abortion, race relations and racism, and the persecution of Christians in Africa. Those are three huge issues. I’ve also, in the past week, seen him calling people to pray for AND HELP those facing wildfires on the west coast and flooding from the hurricanes in the south. What I haven’t seen him do is quit. I haven’t seen him give up.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the pain and struggle happening all around us. It’s easy to get jaded, numb to it all. God is looking for his people in the world, his church, to fight that tendency. He is calling his people to give with joy and to joyfully finish what we start.
What is the heart of the church? Generous, joyful, determined compassion. And what is the result? Look at the promise of 2 Corinthians 9:6-15. A heart full of grace. Abounding grace. God’s work for you. God’s work in you. And God’s work through you. Abounding. Overflowing. God will keep you full. Let us pray.
[i] Phil Lineberger, “Great People Do for Others,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 62.
[ii] Heidi Husted, “The Sermon on the Amount,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 122.