The Circle of Grace
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 8:1-15; 9:6-12
When I was four my family moved from what was then the medium-sized city of Johnstown, PA to a tiny, rural community 35 miles north of Dayton, Ohio. Johnstown was a small-scale version of Pittsburgh at the time, with the city’s economy revolving around the steel industry. It bore no resemblance to little Lockington, Ohio. Not long after we moved there, I started kindergarten at a school with grades K-12 in the same building and on the same school bus. On the first day of school, I mounted those big bus steps in my dress, my lacey socks and white sneakers and stared down a bus aisle of children dressed in denim overalls as a variety of farm smells wafted through the air. While I had been eating my morning eggs in my nightgown at the kitchen table, many of the children on that bus had been gathering eggs from the chicken coop on the family farm. I had a tough go of kindergarten.
Conversely, I remember my district superintendent on the day he showed me the church and parsonage for Marquette Park in Gary, telling me that “he wanted to be sure I would feel safe there.” Having never lived in Indiana, I had no baggage for Gary and discovered there a congregation comprised of many transplants from Pittsburgh who’d moved to Gary when U.S. Steel downsized. I was back among my people. Understanding culture is really important.
Several years ago, I was asked to mentor a young woman who felt a call to ministry. However, she never completed the journey toward ordination because she did not understand, could not comprehend, the significance of worship as a necessary spiritual practice. It seemed to her that a God of love and grace, one all-powerful and all-knowing, would not need or even desire human worship. What could worship possibly do; what possible significance could it hold? Understanding culture is really important.
This morning we continue to consider what it means to give out of a sense of gratitude. There are a variety of reasons in our culture for giving. For example, sometimes we give as quip pro quo; like the Secret Santa at work at Christmas time. We don’t really want a silly gift from a co-worker who barely knows us and we don’t really feel like struggling to figure out what to buy for someone we barely know, but we do it because such an exchange is expected. Sometimes in our culture, we give out of guilt. When I was a youth pastor I witnessed parents who worked long hours but gave extravagant gifts to their children who would have really preferred some one-on-one time with that parent.
Yet when we give out of gratitude, our giving is a way of expressing thanksgiving or praise for a blessing or blessings we’ve received; and it can be a form of worship. Let me say that again: when we give out of gratitude, our giving is an expression of praise for the blessings we’ve received; it is a form of worship. So this morning, I’m going to talk more about this connection between gratitude, giving and worship.
As my opening story revealed, understanding culture is important. Cultural aptitude helps us understand why we do what we do; it allows us to act in purposeful and thoughtful ways. So why do we gather here for worship each Sunday? Why do we collect an offering? If we don’t understand the culture of biblical times, it is easy for worship to simply become rote actions, a collection of meaningless habits or rituals or – even worse – something we neglect because it lacks any significant meaning or value. Without some comprehension of biblical culture, we won’t be able to understand the meaning behind Christian practices such as worship and giving.
What we don’t always recognize as post-modern, westernized Christians is that gratitude and worship are interwoven ideas. Worship and giving go hand in hand. Our wider American cultural experience of gift-giving undermines and corrupts our ability to understand worship and giving as it was experienced and practiced in the early Christian Church within the first century Mediterranean world.
The topic of this morning’s scripture, Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, is something known as the Jerusalem collection. The Christian Church began in Jerusalem with Jesus’ original disciples who had remained in Jerusalem according to Jesus’ instructions awaiting the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.[i] Pentecost was a Jewish holy day so it was Jews who heard the message about Jesus on that day. Many lived in Jerusalem; many chose to remain in Jerusalem; and many would come to experience – for a variety of reasons – significant economic hardship.[ii] Now, the apostle Paul, many of us know, experienced a distinctive call to be in ministry with Gentiles or Greeks. Jesus was a Jewish Messiah, so initially that call seemed odd. But Paul met with Jewish Christian leaders in Jerusalem and, after much discussion they extended the right hand of fellowship to Paul and gave a blessing to his ministry.[iii] That word fellowship – as in the right hand of fellowship – is the Greek word koinonia, which also means sharing or commonality. So the Jewish church leaders in Jerusalem communicated to Paul that the ministry he was doing was a ministry they shared in together. Their target audience was different – Jews versus Greeks – but their ministry, proclaiming Jesus as Savior and Lord – was the same. They shared together in one, common ministry. And as such, they were to share the resources for ministry. So, when the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, those with whom the church originated, began to experience economic hardship, the Christians in Greco-Roman cities where Paul had established churches, were naturally expected to provide financial assistance.
But it’s important for us to understand that this was not seen as charity in the way we think of charity today. It was part of a cycle of grace. We think of grace as a “churchy” term. But it is more than that. I want to ask you to look in your bulletin at an explanation of something called the Cycle of Three Graces (or even the Dance of Three Graces).[iv] In the ancient Mediterranean world, grace flowed in a circle. So in the ancient world, the word “grace” was used to describe the generous disposition of a patron toward their client. When we realize that God is the giver of all good gifts, we acknowledge that God’s blessings are the result of God’s character or disposition, God is graciously predisposed toward us. Grace and mercy are the hallmarks of God’s divine disposition.
But this cycle or circle of grace involves more than God’s gracious disposition because God’s gracious disposition results in the giving of gifts or blessings – all that we have: life, water, food – as well as the ultimate gift of grace, Jesus, God’s Word made flesh sent as our Savior.
So, grace defines God’s nature and grace defines God’s actions.
But the cycle of grace doesn’t stop there. Grace also referred to the gratitude expressed by the “client” or recipient in response to the gift. Let me say that again: the word “grace” is also defined as the grateful response from the recipient for the gift. We have been the recipients of God’s gracious nature made manifest in Jesus. And so, when we live in ways that demonstrate our gratitude to God, we keep the circle of grace in perpetual motion.
So how do we demonstrate our gratitude: through our offering; the offering of praise or worship; the offering of our very selves; and the offering of our gifts, our tangible stuff to honor God and to help the “friends of God.” All throughout scripture we are told that God is a friend to the poor and vulnerable. And so our financial gifts support our church’s mission work, it supports our Caring Fund that assists those around us who are poor or vulnerable or in need for some reason. Our financial giving both honors God and assists the friends of God. Or, to put it in Paul’s words, our offerings are a ministry that supplies the needs of the saints and overflows with thanksgiving to God.[v]
Let me give an example from the ancient world. If I were a wood or stone worker and I needed some tool for my trade and that tool was broken or no longer worked, I might receive the gift of a new tool from the wealthy person who acted as patron to my village. And so, with my new tool, I might first make something for my patron, not because they needed it or couldn’t afford to buy it, but as an expression of my gratitude for their gift. And, I might further thank them by making something for someone else in need in my village and, when I did, I would not take the credit for the gift for myself. I would point out to them that I was able to give them this thing I made because of the generosity of our patron. So what I made and gave would both provide praise for my patron and assistance for another friend of my patron.
So, what I’m saying, my friends, this morning – in a nutshell – is this: worship may seem like an odd thing to us today. I mean, clearly it must, just based on statistics about declining worship attendance in America today. Yet even religious culture and church growth resources reveal a lack of understanding when it comes to this circle of grace and the role of worship and giving. Far too often, we define worship by the format of a service: is the music entertaining; will the sermon make me more successful in my daily living? What’s the point of hymns if I don’t even like to sing? But worship isn’t really about the hymns we choose or the anthem or any specific piece in the service.
Worship is really about praise and gratitude. I mean, do we believe that God is worthy of our praise? Or, do we consider ourselves self-made women and men who only attend church because it’s something we ought to do? Or does worship reflect our recognition that we owe it all to God, the ultimate patron? Is worship about our gratitude for who God is and all that God has done for us? Friends, the offering is not simply a part of the Sunday order of service; a line in the bulletin. It is a specific form of praise: it is praise of God through the return of our financial gifts or blessings to our ultimate giver or patron, God; a giving that springs from a deep sense of gratitude. We don’t simply give to balance the church budget or pay the bills… although obviously we need to pay our bills. But even if we didn’t have bills to pay, we would still need to give; we would still need to demonstrate gratitude and praise for the one with whom this never-ending cycle of grace began. Financial giving is a tangible expression of gratitude. It is an expression of worship and it both reveals and reflects the nature of our relationship with God. That’s why the apostle Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth that their willingness to offer their best to this collection for the poor in Jerusalem will reveal the sincerity of their love. Paul further reminds them that it is not about being forced to suffer or be put upon; but it is about sincere gratitude and love. Our giving in gratitude is a form of worship. As Paul says, it results in “thanksgiving to God.”
I want to close this morning by telling you about an experience I had right here in our church basement last Monday morning. As most of you know, we had our anniversary celebration lunch in the main fellowship hall last Sunday. It was packed with tables and chairs. And let me say I am deeply appreciative for the folks that set up the tables and chairs last Saturday. On Monday mornings, Character Restoration meets in our Friendship Room. So, before their class started, 3 or 4 of them met a couple church folks, including myself, in the main fellowship hall to break down the tables and chairs back and put them back. Those guys worked hard. The last one to finish up walked down the hallway with Steve Ash and me and I turned to thank him for his help. But he proceeded to thank me for the opportunity to help our church. It was clear to me; he wasn’t just being polite or socially appropriate. He really appreciated the opportunity to serve the church that makes space for Character Restoration. He was giving out of a sense of gratitude. He has been caught up in the circle of grace.
Friends, as we journey through this Stewardship month, I hope as you reflect on your financial commitment to Trinity that you will think about this cycle of grace. How has God blessed you and is your financial commitment to the church an accurate reflection of your gratitude for the richness of God’s grace poured out over your life?
[i] See Luke 24:49 and Acts 1:1-5
[ii] See Romans 15:26
[iii] See Galatians 2:9
[iv] For additional information on this topic, see: DeSilva, “Grace” in the Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 525. For a more in depth discussion see, DeSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity, p. 132-37.
[v] See 2 Corinthians 9:12
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