“THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH IS MISSION,” A SERMON FROM II CORINTHIANS 8:1-9
Dr. David Ahearn, June 27, 2021
We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; 2for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 3For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, 4begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints— 5and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, 6so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you. 7Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. 8I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. 9For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. [II Corinthians 8:1-9]
I am deeply honored to be invited to give the address at KKFI’s 71st Anniversary. I first became associated with KKFI 9 years ago, during a time that my home North Georgia Conference built bridges with Methodist churches in the Philippines. Ma’am Nancy explained KKFI’s mission and took me on a tour of Manila North Cemetery. I knew instantly that it would be an ideal place to bring LaGrange College students to learn about missions and service. Over the years, the staff of KKFI have been overflowing in hospitality and have been role models for loving service. But even more, the members of the staff have become great personal friends. I truly believe that I am part of the KKFI family and that I have another home halfway around the world.
The pandemic year brought great suffering to everyone and has strained every financial and emotional resource for the KKFI staff. It also has forced all organizations—LaGrange College, The United Methodist Church, and KKFI included—to reflect prayerfully on the future. What is our core mission? How might we best fulfill that mission as we move into this new era, facing many new challenges?
I chose as our text today an excerpt from one of Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth. It is a fundraising letter. No doubt KKFI has written many of those over the years! He is trying to convince the wealthy Corinthian church to participate in a collection drive to support the impoverished Christians in the Jerusalem mother church. Most of the Roman world suffered a famine in those days. The famine hit especially hard for the Christians in Jerusalem, whose members sold all their property to care for the poor in their community. Though blessed with wealth, the Christians in Corinth failed to see any obligation to financially support a people so geographically distant and ethnically different from their own. Paul begins our passage by shaming the Corinthians. Paul reminds the Corinthians that the church in Macedonia (probably the church of Philippi) gave generously despite their own poverty. Do you want to be outdone by the poor Philippians, he asks?
I chose this passage because there are obvious parallels with our situation today. We also are in the midst of a worldwide “famine” caused by the pandemic that has affected people very unevenly. As is often the case, the wealthier Christians manage to survive while the poor suffer. But Paul also is delving deeply into some fundamental questions in this brief letter: Why did Jesus call us together? What is our mission? Why do we exist? What is our purpose as a church?
We know that support of the poor mother church in Jerusalem was a central focus of Paul’s ministry. He mentions it in three different scriptures that extend from the beginning of his mission work (Galatians 2:10, Acts 11: 27-30) to the end (Romans 15:25). Why was this fund drive so important to him? First, Paul is struggling to maintain a sense of unity in the church. Paul and various partners moved out from Jerusalem to found churches all over the Roman world. Paul’s letters in the New Testament are a roadmap of his journeys. With Barnabas, he founded a large church in Antioch, Syria, that became the hub for Greek-speaking churches. After, he moved West, founding churches in what is now Turkey (Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians), Macedonia (Letter to the Philippians), Corinth in Greece (Letter to the Corinthians), and Rome (Letter to the Romans). These churches stretch over 1500 miles and include myriad languages and cultures. In those days, it would take weeks to travel from Jerusalem to Rome. We would expect each local church to think of itself as solitary, focused on only its own unique people and problems. However, in our passage today, Paul insists that the church in Corinth recognize that the worldwide church is just one body, and the local church in Corinth is only one member.
We need to hear these words today, don’t we? The church has spread worldwide in ways Paul could never have imagined. The Universal Church takes its shape in every conceivable language, culture, ethnic group, and nation on earth. In this time of crisis, it is perhaps human nature to pull ourselves inward, retracting into our shell like a turtle that feels threatened. In addition, the Methodist Church is preoccupied with talk of division and separation that fractures unity and distracts us from our core mission. However, Paul reminds us that in the words of our Apostle’s Creed, we are one “holy catholic Church.” We belong together.
But there’s an even deeper truth in Paul’s short letter that is masked by the English translation. In verse 7, Paul implores the Corinthians to join this “generous undertaking.” At least, that’s how the Revised Standard Version translates the invitation. (I wonder how the phrase is translated in the Tagalog translation.) The Greek words are “charis perusseo,” which probably translate better as “abounding grace.”
On an even deeper level, then, Paul invites the Corinthian church to claim an opportunity to experience grace. Contributing to the relief fund is an invitation not simply to give resources but to receive blessings. Paul goes on to explain that this is what Jesus did for us by emptying himself, giving up and giving away that we might know glory, that we might know hope and salvation. “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (verse 9). Whenever we Christians give to meet the needs of others, we experience again that moment when we all have received grace from God without deserving it, simply because God loves us. To sum up so far, Paul’s plea for the Corinthians to support the Jerusalem fund is thus twofold: it reinforces the feelings of unity between churches across distance and cultures, and it invites us to renew our experience of receiving the “abounding grace” of God.
We Methodist talk about “the means of grace.” If you saw John Wesley for spiritual counseling and complained that you feel spiritual dead, that God seems far away, that you aren’t growing as a Christian, he’d ask you if you are partaking regularly in the “means of grace.” Wesley grouped the “means of grace” into two kinds. The first are the works of piety, which includes prayer, taking communion, attending worship services. Wesley would ask you if you are attending church regularly. Wesley would ask if you are taking communion whenever you have opportunity to do so. He’d ask especially if you pray daily.
The next group in the “means of grace” are works of mercy. If you complained to John Wesley that God seemed distant, or that your spiritual life seems dried out, he’d tell you to visit the sick and help them as best you can. He’d challenge you to visit the poor and do all you can to improve their lot in life. He’d ask how you are spending your money. He’d ask if you are taking seriously the Methodist charge to “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”
One of the reasons I became a Methodist is that this tradition gives a central place to works of mercy. These aren’t just “good deeds” that a Christian does as an afterthought. Rather, works of mercy as much “means of grace” as are prayer and attending worship. Both Paul and John Wesley recognize that experiencing “abounding grace” in our lives requires habits of both “works of piety” and “works of mercy.” Paul’s plea to the Corinthian church to support the Jerusalem Christians teaches us a lot about what it means to be a church. Yes, we must meet the spiritual, social, and physical needs of our own members. But we also exist to be in mission. Our focus is outward. We are called beyond ourselves. And we are called to be linked in mission with other churches, united in our calling to bring God’s love to the world.
Mission work seems to renew the givers even more than the recipients. I want to share with my friends in KKFI how much you have been a source of grace in my life. My spirit gets buoyed up every time I visit when I see your unflagging love for each person in your care. My confidence in the church has been renewed to see how you so seamlessly merge “works of piety” with “works of mercy.” Paul was right. You have invited me into your mission and through you I experience very deeply “abounding grace.”
We all learn from our own experience what Paul was trying to tell us in his Letter to the Corinthians. When the Church takes on its first great task of missions, it experiences “abounding grace.” We experience how much we have already received in grace from our Lord and the joy we have in living that out. We learn how to be present to the world around us in the same way that God is present with us.
Both KKFI and the Methodist Church have big decisions ahead about their futures. As we ponder these changes, we need to come back to our core identity. Missions is our vital energy. Missions is our purpose. Missions is our reason for being. Missions is our hope for the future. We churches spread across the globe are called to be united. We are called to be in mission, together.