St Theodore's

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  Sermon of the Week

Look up the passage

  An International Church 1 Cor 16


  We tend to think of the world today as shrinking, getting smaller and smaller. For example, last week, Di and I boarded a plane in Melbourne and 2 hours later we were throwing off our jumpers and getting ready for a swim in the pool at Noosa. You can get on a plane this afternoon and by tomorrow night you could be almost anywhere in the world. The rest of the world is no longer far away. Certainly not like it was in Paul's day when travel was by walking or sailing ship or, if you were wealthy, perhaps, by horse or coach.
  Yet it's surprising what an international outlook Paul has as he writes to the church in Corinth. Look at the list of places he mentions: Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia (Southern Greece), Ephesus, Jerusalem. Despite the fact that most of his readers had probably never left their own city, they understood that they were part of a world-wide church in no less significant a way than we are today.
  This had clearly been part of Paul's teaching in his time with them. He would have shared with them the stories of his visits to other places; of the conversions that had taken place; of the lives that had been changed; and particularly of the relationships and partnerships he'd formed in the gospel. You see it in many of his letters, don't you? He often finishes with a report on the people with whom he's worked, people he calls his fellow workers, or partners in the gospel. And we find the same here. He mentions a number of people with whom they would have been familiar: Apollos, Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus and Aquila and Prisca who pop up in a number of places. Then there's the churches of Asia, a loose collection of churches probably centred on Ephesus.
   It's a broad brush picture of a Church that stretches beyond the horizon of the local area. In fact the reason these Churches now exist is because, in the first place, the Church in Antioch saw the need to look beyond its horizon to those places where the name of Christ was unknown. Well, actually it was because God's Holy Spirit raised their vision to the wider world. It's because God is a missionary God who sends his people out to share his grace with others. What we see here is a small part of the outworking of God's plan to tell people everywhere about his grace shown to us in Jesus Christ.
   But it's deeper than just a church that sends missionaries out to spread the gospel. There's actually a deep interdependence between the various churches, shown in the way they share both their money and their ministry personnel.
   Paul begins the chapter with a reminder to them of the directions he's been sending to the various churches regarding giving. He has a deep concern for the church in Jerusalem, their mother church. He's concerned about their poverty but he also sees this as a valuable exercise in cementing the relationship between the Gentile churches and the Jewish Church. The people in Jerusalem have been suffering great financial hardship for some time partly due to a famine and probably partly due to persecution. As a result, Paul has decided to organise a collection from among the various churches he's set up, to be sent to Jerusalem for their support. So he gives them clear instructions, first on how the money is to be collected, and secondly about how it's to be handled.
   In fact, what we find here is a valuable guide to us in thinking about how we should give to God's work and how the money should be handled.
   First he says "On the first day of the week." That is, on the day when the church gathers together to remember Christ's resurrection. A central part of our gathering together should be the sharing of our financial resources as a practical expression of our worship of God. What's more the idea of this being done on the first day of the week indicates this is a regular, habitual, practice, not just something that we do when the need arises.
   Now I'm not sure if there are people here like this, but I've certainly come across people in the past who would say to me, "Oh, I wait until there's a special need, then I give to that." Well, let's look again at what we read here: "On the first day of the week," that is every week, we're to put aside our giving to God. Now of course there's no suggestion here that this is a new law. This isn't meant to be a hard and fast rule about giving every Sunday and only on Sunday. In this day and age when most people are paid monthly, the first day of the week may well become the first day of the month, or whatever day your payday is. If you're on a pension, it might mean every second Thursday. But the principle is this: a regular, committed setting aside of money for God's service, given in the context of a worshipping community.
   Next, notice who it is that's meant to do this. "On the first day of every week, each of you is to put aside" your collection. This isn't an instruction for the wealthy. It isn't an instruction for those whose houses are paid off or whose children have finished school. This is an instruction for everyone: "each of you".
   And what are you to give? "put aside and save whatever extra you earn." Now for some people the extra they earn may be a few dollars. I'm reminded of the incident when Jesus pointed out the widow who put a couple of small copper coins in the offertory box in the Temple. Do you remember how he commended her for her great generosity. She gave out of her poverty because giving to God was a priority for her.
   For some the extra they earn may be a few hundred dollars. There's a table inside the news sheet today showing the amount of weekly giving that amounts to a simple tithe for varying levels of income. That is, not the extra we earn, over and above what we need to live on, that could amount to 20 or 30% or even higher, but a mere 10th of what we earn. I imagine there are a number of people in our congregation who would be earning more than, say, $50,000 a year. Well, if you're earning that and are tithing your income your weekly giving would be about $100.
   I had a look at last year's financial report during the week. Do you know what our average weekly giving per regular attender was last financial year? It was $20 per week. I wonder are we each setting aside, every week, or every month, the extra wealth that God provides us, over and above what we need to live on or are we just giving God our spare change?
   I was reading an article during the week by a professor of Marketing at London Business School. It's the observations of an outsider looking at the way the Church goes about its task of bringing salvation to the world. While his observations come almost entirely from a secular marketing viewpoint he does have some interesting comments to make, including this one. "How do we pay for this? (Improving our market share!) Out with the weekly collection: is there any better example of the archaic status of the church than a bowl being passed around for loose change? Instead we need to bring in a customer relationship management strategy with different payment plans, including easy pay direct debit."
   Well, he may have a point. These days the weekly offering, for most people under 55 at least, is an anachronism. These days when I have a bill to pay I ring up and pay over the phone with my credit card, or I connect to the Internet and do it though electronic banking. If I go to the shops to buy something I do it in most cases with a credit card. My gym membership, among other things, is paid by regular monthly payments taken automatically from my credit card. So why aren't more of us using that sort of facility for our weekly or monthly giving? When the plate comes around today, are you going to check in your pocket or your purse to see what loose change is there or have you thought out beforehand and set aside an amount that reflects the prosperity God has provided you with? I actually wonder what would happen if we didn't pass around the collection plate. Some people might be relieved that they don't need to give anything, but would it encourage others to give directly by credit card or EFT without the embarrassment of not having something to put in the plate each week? Maybe that's something for vestry to think about some more.
   Next, notice what he says about how the funds collected are to be handled. They're to be collected regularly, as we've seen, so that they don't need to do a quick whip around when he arrives. Then when he gets there he'll delegate some of their representatives to take the collection to Jerusalem. He'll send letters with them to assure that they're well received and to explain the nature of the gift. And if it seems advisable he will even go with them.
   So the money is to be handled scrupulously. He'll let them decide who is to take it to Jerusalem. But it's also to be handled in such a way that it shows clearly the connection of the Corinthians with the gift. This gift is to be a tangible expression of their fellowship with the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.
   I know there are times when it's important to make a gift anonymous. But there are also times when the person receiving the gift needs to know who sent it; when the knowledge of the other's financial support is a great encouragement. I know the Prentices and the Peters, for example, are greatly encouraged by our gifts to them each Christmas, not to mention the regular support we provide through CMS.
   Finally, he rounds up his letter with a series of personal remarks that remind us of the global nature of their ministry relationships. He assures them he intends to visit them again, perhaps even to stay with them over winter when no doubt travel became difficult. But he wants to ensure he can spend a reasonable amount of time with them. A quick visit won't do. Besides which, there seem to be opportunities opening up in Ephesus that he doesn't want to miss. At the same time though, notice that as the opportunities open up, the opposition appears as well. Perhaps the reason he's staying on in Ephesus is to ensure that the adversaries to the gospel are overcome before he leaves. In Acts 20 we find Paul's farewell to the Ephesians where he warns them of the savage wolves that'll come in among them after he leaves to try to attack the flock. He warns them to be on their guard and to remember the way he warned them day and night for 3 years of the dangers they face as God's people. So that probably explains why he's staying on a little longer in Ephesus.
   In the meantime he asks the Corinthians to look out for Timothy, who is still young and unsure of himself. They're to encourage him in his ministry for the Lord. Again we see the global nature of the church. Timothy is a young man from Ephesus, whom Paul has sent to Corinth presumably to preach and teach in his place. It's like they're doing an exchange of pulpits.
   Again there's a lesson for us here isn't there? It's important that we're willing to share the ministry resources we have here with others, whether it's by sending out missionaries, by releasing people to be team members on Cursillo, by you allowing me to be part of wider groups like EFAC or various Diocesan committees, encouraging Michael Dowling in his work with CMS, etc. The principle is that God has given us these gifts, but they're gifts for the Church, not ours alone. And as we see here, when one person goes, God so often seems to send someone else in their place. So all are enriched.
   Another who's left them is Apollos. So Paul sends them news of him. And then he encourages them, as he has the Ephesians, to "Keep alert, stand firm in [their] faith, be courageous, be strong."
   Finally he gives a special mention to Stephanas and his household. Notice what's set them aside as leaders of the Church: "They have devoted themselves to the service of the saints;" They've seen the priority in the Christian community of service; of being available for those who need them, whether through hospitality or through going out of their way to serve those in need. Their visit of Paul was just one example of this, I guess. That word 'devoted' indicates a dedicated and disciplined lifestyle. The nature of their devotion to God is such that it sets them aside as leaders that people will look up to. And in turn, Paul tells the Corinthians to put themselves at the service of such people. It's only justice isn't it? They've devoted themselves to the service of others, so the church should be seeking to serve them in return. Such people deserve recognition he says. You might like to think about those people in this community who have devoted themselves to the service of the saints and make sure that they too are being served and looked up to by the community in return.
   And so the letter finishes. Corinth is a church with great resources, both material and spiritual, but it's also a church with great responsibilities. It needs to recognise that it's part of a world wide church and express that membership materially. It needs to be on guard against those forces of the evil one who would turn it aside from the gospel, from the truth of God's word. It needs to stand firm in the faith received from the Apostles, and to do so with courage and strength, guided always by the love of God shown to us in Jesus Christ.
   Let's pray that we too might be people who recognise our place as part of a wider household of God, and who will stand firm in our faith in God and in his Son Jesus Christ.

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