[This is Week 5 of a 5-week preaching series on 2 Corinthians.]
Preaching text: 2 Corinthians 8:1-15; accompanying text: John 13:31-35 Theme: Generosity
As we have seen, Paul’s ministry was about a “word” of reconciliation that could only be authentically embodied in a life of “service” freely given for others. Thus, an important dimension of his apostolic work of spreading the gospel to the Gentiles was raising funds, in turn, from among the Gentiles for the poor among the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.1
Central to Paul’s appeal to Corinthians to give to the Jerusalem collection is the theme of “grace” — God’s freely given gift, which flows within and through us on to others — although the significance of this theme is obscured by the fact that the Greek word charis is translated in a number of ways in chapters 8-9 (e.g., as grace, blessing, generous act, thanks, and in relation to the collection, as privilege and generous undertaking).
When Paul holds up the Macedonians as an exemplar of giving his emphasis is on the fact that it is God’s grace that enabled their paradoxical abundant joy and extreme poverty to overflow with a wealth of generosity in the midst of a particularly difficult time (2 Corinthians 8:1).2 And his appeal to the Corinthians is rooted in their “overflowing” with all sorts of spiritual gifts — including Paul’s love for them — so that they might overflow in this grace as well (2 Corinthians 8:7). Of course, Paul’s primary exemplar is Christ’s grace: though rich, he became poor for our sakes so that by his poverty we might become rich (2 Corinthians 2:9).3
This appeal is not a command; Paul is merely “testing” the genuineness of their love against that of others (the Greek verb here dokimazo, the same word he used when “testing” the Corinthians with his painful letter and later call to forgive; see 2 Corinthians 2:9).
Two points are central to the advice he gives about giving; he used them to describe the Macedonians’ giving (2 Corinthians 8:3) and he will them in reiterate in 2 Corinthians 9:7-8. First, giving is to be voluntarily and not done out of compulsion. Second, it is to be done on the basis of what one has and not on what one does not have; the point is not to be greedy with what one has. (Paul is not calling for an extreme asceticism here.)
Paul’s intent in all this is not relieve others and put pressure on the Corinthians, but rather simply to call for equality (isotetos, translated as “fair balance” in the NRSV). God’s overflow of grace not only grounds the possibility of our being reconciled with one another, but it also grounds the possibility of our being able to have genuine reciprocity with one another. Our current overflow meets another’s current need, so that at some other point in time their overflow may be there for us in our time of need. After all, is this not what koinonia is all about — not only sharing in one another’s pain and joy, but also sharing in one another’s poverty and wealth (see 6:10)?