The news that came out this week about the lack of care given to so many older people in our hospitals was pretty shocking. One response was given by Joan Bakewell, who has acted as a champion for older people in all sorts of policy-making.
How important it is to have as part of our inner being a longing to care for people, generosity, kindness. Joan Bakewell went on to ask where we get that spirit from. She said she had got that from going to Sunday School. Where do children get it today? That’s what makes what we as churches do with children and young people growing up around us so important.
What prompts us to do what we do is not just because it says so in the Bible. It is not just because that’s what we’ve got to do that. These are not just principles or values that we must uphold.
I think it’s fascinating to see how the Bible is made up the stories of real-life people who were grappling with a very troubled world – and we can learn from their experiences in that very real world principles that we should follow in today’s world.
On Thursday we shall have our visitors meeting which is what underpins the pastoral care we share as a church family. Today we start our commitment to Operation Christmas Child.. At communion we support Listening Post, Gloucestershire’s Christian counselling service.
Why? Why is giving time to pastoral care important? Why do we need to support a Christian counselling service open to anyone and everyone? In a time of austerity why should we bother with children on the other side of the world that don’t have anything? Why should we be passionate about our care of older people and committed to the care of the youngest?
What is it that motivates us?
I draw the principle that that is important not just from what it tells me in the Bible –I draw it from the way in which the people of the Bible grappled with just the same kind of problem.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the story of Paul.
It’s a story powerfully told in the book of Acts. From his first appearance on the scene at the martyrdom of Stephen as he stands by as Stephen is stoned to death, through his conversion on the Road to Damascus, to his travels spreading the wonderful good news of Jesus Christ all around the Mediterranean world, to his arrest in Jerusalem, his imprisonment in Caesarea and then his final voyage to Rome under arrest. At which point the story ends in mid air.
That’s a story told in the Book of Acts. But then the next 13 books of the New Testament are the letters that Paul wrote. What’s fascinating is that you can tie in the letters to the story that unfolds in Acts. Do that and in the end it becomes quite an exciting and tense story.
It is as Paul is visiting and re-visiting the cities of modern-day Greece in Macedonia, and Corinth that he becomes aware of terrible hardship that the followers of Jesus and many other people are experiencing on the other side of the Mediterranean in and around Jerusalem and Judea.
Paul is galvanised into action. And he determines to organise a collection around the churches in and around Greece. Someone is delegated as the treasurer who will look after the money.
Then it is that Paul has cause to write to the Christians in Corinth … and he talks about the collection he is making. He is thrilled to bits at the response the churches in Macedonia has made … and now he asks the churches in Corinth to match it.
2 Corinthians 8:1-7
Our brothers and sisters, we want you to know what God's grace has accomplished in the churches in Macedonia.
2 They have been severely tested by the troubles they went through; but their joy was so great that they were extremely generous in their giving, even though they are very poor.
3 I can assure you that they gave as much as they could, and even more than they could. Of their own free will 4 they begged us and pleaded for the privilege of having a part in helping God's people in Judea.
5 It was more than we could have hoped for! First they gave themselves to the Lord; and then, by God's will they gave themselves to us as well.
6 So we urged Titus, who began this work, to continue it and help you complete this special service of love.
You are so rich in all you have: in faith, speech, and knowledge, in your eagerness to help and in your love for us.
And so we want you to be generous also in this service of love.
You can almost hear them asking the question why? Why should we bother? They wouldn’t have known any of those other people at all.
Paul notices a joy they have in spite of themselves living in poverty and being sorely tested. He notices they are ‘extremely generous in giving’
But Paul goes right back to what is at the heart of the Christian faith for him.
It is Jesus Christ.
First, they gave themselves to the Lord.
That’s the starting point for what motivates us – we see something in Jesus Christ, not just his life and ministry way back, but his presence with us now.
First they gave themselves to the Lord, then they gave themselves to us as well.
What they shared was ‘a service of love’.
They may have lived in poverty but there was something in their spirit that made them ‘rich in all they had: in faith, speech, and knowledge, in eagerness to help and in this ‘service of love’.’
2 Corinthians 7:8-9
I am not laying down any rules. But by showing how eager others are to help, I am trying to find out how real your own love is.
You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; rich as he was, he made himself poor for your sake, in order to make you rich by means of his poverty.
What is important for Paul is not the laying down of rules. You must do this, you must do that. But it is being drawn to Jesus Christ and then channelling the presence of Christ to others.
He thinks of the way Jesus who was one with God, humbled himself, gave up everything and become a slave – he came alongside us so that we with him could be raised up to God.
The way Jesus lives his life gives us a model for living ours. So, Paul urges the people in Corinth to give as much as they can. And that is the operative word. These are not people in Corinth who had grown up with the Hebrew Scriptures where the principle of the tithe was common. So Paul goes back to first principles. And the principle he works out is one that is very much to the fore right through to today.
2 Corinthians 7:10-15
My opinion is that it is better for you to finish now what you began last year. You were the first, not only to act, but also to be willing to act. 11 On with it, then, and finish the job!
Be as eager to finish it as you were to plan it, and do it with what you now have. 12 If you are eager to give, God will accept your gift on the basis of what you have to give, not on what you haven't.
13-14 I am not trying to relieve others by putting a burden on you; but since you have plenty at this time, it is only fair that you should help those who are in need. Then, when you are in need and they have plenty, they will help you. In this way both are treated equally. 15 As the scripture says, “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”
Giving is not a burden – it is something to be ‘eager’ about.
Then give ‘as you are able’ – give with a real eagerness of heart ‘on the basis of what you have to give, not on what you haven’t’.
It is not a matter of placing a burden on people. ‘Since you have plenty at this time, it is only fair that you should help those who are in need. Then, when you are in need and they have plenty, they will help you. In this way you are treated equally.”
Isn’t that a great principle!
One thing more I notice when I read through this story.
At the heart of Paul’s message is a little word. Grace.
It means the free gift of God’s love.
That’s the exciting thing at the heart of our faith. Loving others isn’t the way you win God’s approval. God first loves us. And that is grace.
So we as Christians receive God’s gift of love, God’s Grace.
That little word is one of the most important words in the whole of the Christian faith. But if we receive God’s gift of grace, the free gift of love, we should be people of grace – who give our love freely and make very real expressions of that love.
That becomes a work of grace.
All that those churches in Macedonia have done so generously is seen by Paul in verse 1 to be what God’s grace has accomplished.
God’s grace starts with Jesus Christ – you see that in verse 9. For us as Christians what motivates us is not any end product, not the thought that if we do this then the world will change. What motivates us is that this is what Jesus Christ has done … “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; rich as he was, he made himself poor for your sake, in order to make you rich by means of his poverty.”
What we do then is to share the free gift of God’s love in every practical way we can. Because this is the very nature of the gift of God’s love that we have received. As we have received so freely, so we are to give freely.
In this way all are treated equally … and as the Scripture says, The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”