One of the things Kate and I like most about preaching here is this little book (it’s called the Lectionary) that sets out official Bible readings for each day throughout the year.
At our last church, the Lectionary was completely ignored - the Vicar simply chose readings to support the preaching themes he had chosen, and gave each sermon a bold title that left the congregation in no doubt as to where things were going – earnest titles like “Why should I give to the church?” or “What does the Bible say about money?”
It’s clearly preferable to let each book of the Bible speak for itself. And that’s where the Lectionary comes in. It stops us preachers from preaching too often on the passages we like. It stops us cherry-picking key verses that bolster our own agenda. Just as helpfully, it draw together passages that help to clarify and enrich one another, just as our lessons from John and Ephesians do today.
Of course it’s still necessary to focus on the real-life issues facing the church family. Right now there’s a pressing need for us to reflect week by week on the financial needs of the church. And sometimes the official readings are directly relevant to the issues that need to be addressed; for example, if we’re talking finance, the rich young ruler whom Jesus challenged to loosen his grip on wealth; or the widow cheerfully putting her last penny into the Temple coffers. Readings like that coming up at a time like this are a preacher’s dream.
It isn’t that easy for me this morning. Neither of today’s readings says anything directly about finance. But sometimes God’s Word speaks most powerfully when it doesn’t talk about the problems facing us, but puts our understanding of them into a larger and more illuminating context. And this morning’s readings are a case in point.
The first reading, from Ephesians, focuses not on what we should do about money, but on exactly who and what we are as the church. At the time it was written, the church was being pulled apart by cultural divisions and conflicting agendas – not unlike today – and many Christians were confused about what their membership of the church meant. And so Paul’s first priority was to help his listeners grasp what they were really part of.
What Paul wants to clarify for his listeners – and what he clarifies for us – is that we are a people who have been brought in from the cold - made part of something precious and unique and stupendous. We have been brought out of a world that is distant from God who is the source of all love and goodness; we have been brought into a kingdom in which – for all our weaknesses - God’s love reigns supreme in Christ. Paul sums it up this way: We’re no longer outsiders; we’re fellow citizens with God’s people, members of his household. We’re intimately connected with God and with one another; Paul compares us to a gigantic building that has Jesus himself as its cornerstone. In short, we’re not just a club, not just a charity, not just a self-help group. We are a holy temple, a dwelling place for the living Spirit of God. Church isn’t something we do; church is what we are.
In our second reading, Jesus himself spells out what it means to be church. And this picture is a more challenging one, because while Paul has stressed the privilege of being church, Jesus is stressing the responsibility. Jesus starts by commanding us to love one another, and the verb he uses (agapatē, for those interested) means more than just feelings of affection; it refers to the kind of practical love that Jesus himself showed when he died for humanity on the Cross of Calvary – the kind of love that makes sacrifices for others. And when Jesus goes on to warn us of the hostility that his church will experience from society at large, the implication is clear: Caring for one another won’t just be a duty – it will be the very key to the church’s survival and the very basis of its mission to the world.
And so, to summarise:
· Paul reassures us that we’re no longer outsiders, no longer isolated from God’s plans and his people. We’ve been brought in from the cold, made part of a unique and beautiful structure, one with Christ as its cornerstone, one that brings the presence of God into the very heart of human society.
· Jesus himself warns that our membership of the church earns the world’s hatred. But he does so in order to impress on us the importance of his opening words – our responsibility to make loving sacrifices for one another.
So how does this inform our attitude to stewardship? Neither passage speaks directly about money, but then neither of them really needs to. Rather, they show us that in relation to the church there can be no ‘me vs. them’. If we give to the church, we aren’t depriving ourselves, any more than when we give good things to loved ones in our own family. Because my family is an extension of who I am, indeed the fulfilment of who I am. And that’s how Jesus and Paul would wish us to see the church – as the fulfilment of who we are as individuals.
As far as money itself is concerned, everyone’s ability to contribute is different but one thing is the same for all of us: We all know what it’s like to make hard choices in our domestic spending. It may be a choice between fixing the roof or buying little Johnny a new bike. It may be between having a holiday or changing the car or replacing our worn out clothes. The difference, when we accept who and what we are as Christians, is that we factor the needs of the church family into our juggling of spending priorities. And when we pray for solutions, we must expect God to use us as part of his answer.
Let’s bow our heads in prayer: Heavenly Father, help us to see ourselves for what we are: A body of people brought in from the cold, outsiders adopted into your household, and a beloved community that needs solidarity in the face of opposition from the world outside. Inspire us to live joyfully and generously. Enable us to see how all we are and all we possess comes from you and belongs to you. Help us as we struggle to set our spending priorities, and heal the blindness that so often makes it hard for us to put the needs of the church family on a par with our separate home lives….
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