I recently received notice that the theme for my state Conference’s annual meeting this fall will be “Generosity as a way of life.” A cynic might wonder if this is just another attempt to shore up the sagging finances that plague all the mainline denominations.
But the cynic should note that the theme of generosity is thoroughly biblical. This week’s epistle, for example, is from Second Corinthians, Chapter 8, which is a sort of proto-stewardship letter from the Apostle Paul.
The particular project Paul is raising funds for is a collection for the benefit of the church in Jerusalem. He has been traveling around Greece and Asia Minor visiting churches, many of which he founded, inviting them to give to this project. In this letter to the church in Corinth he describes to them the generosity of the Macedonians so as to shame and inspire them. Apparently Paul’s sometime traveling companion Titus has already been there and begun the collection among them, but perhaps with less than satisfactory results, given the need for this letter.
But Paul doesn’t only shame them into giving. He also encourages them with some flattery: “Now 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.” (2 Corinthians 8: 7) Paul knows what every wise parent or teacher knows, that encouragement often gets better results than shaming.
But neither shame nor flattery provides Paul’s best motivation for the Corinthians to be generous. What he wants to say that the Christian life by its very nature is a generous life and that generosity is rooted and grounded in gratitude for the gracious generosity of God in Jesus Christ. He writes them: “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.” (2 Cor. 8 9)
Many years ago a member of my congregation came to me puzzled about this passage. “Is it true Jesus was rich?” Wasn’t he a humble carpenter?” I answered him that he was right that Jesus was not a rich man economically. But Paul is speaking metaphorically. When he says that Jesus was rich but became poor for us, he is referring to Jesus giving everything up on the cross. The language reminds us of Philippians 2: 5-11 where Jesus is depicted as emptying himself of his divine prerogatives and taking the form of a servant, humbling himself even to the point of death. That is “the generous act” Paul refers to. The word in Greek means “grace,” and earlier translations said, “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I find it ironic that at the same time the mainline churches are admonishing generosity, a cottage industry debunking the cross is flourishing within their precincts. (see, for example, my The Cross and Violence: Is the Word of the Cross Good News, or is it Bad News?) I have read far too many ordination papers lately apologizing for the cross, and wonder if such a cross-less Gospel will make people feel generous?
Let me boldly suggest that a robust cross-centered Gospel may be the most efficient stewardship tool. Generosity doesn’t grow on its own, because it is a fruit, and not a root. The root is gratitude.
Isaac Watts’ hymn “When I survey the wondrous cross” captures this sense of gratitude and its fruits in the last verse: “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Can you imagine the nominating committee vetting stewardship callers by asking them about their doctrine of the atonement? I can’t either, but the thought amuses me.