There is a story that I came across many years ago about two brothers. These brothers each lived on the family farm and raised crops for a living. One brother never married and had no children. He was content to be a bachelor and live a life of solitude. The other brother married and was blessed with four children. The families were close and spent much time together.
One evening, the single brother thought to himself, "I live a blessed life. I have more than I will ever need to see me through my years on earth, but my poor brother. He has four children to take care of and provide for. It’s not fair that I have so much abundance and he has to struggle. I know what I will do. I will sneak out during one night per week. I will take a bag of my grain and give it to him so that he will have extra to provide for his children."
And the brother did exactly that.
On the other hand, the married brother thought to himself one day, "I am blessed beyond measure. I have four strong children who love and care for my wife and I. They will help me expand my farm operation, and they will take care of me when I am no longer able to work because of old age. But my poor brother. He has no one to look after him or help him with the farm work. He will have no one to take care of him when he is no longer able to work. I know what I will do. One night a week, I will take him a bag of grain so that he may have extra money to save for the future when he has no one to care for him."
And the married brother did just that.
Over time, both brothers were very surprised to see that their stores of grain remained unchanged. Both kept this knowledge secret from one another for fear that each would become upset.
Yet, as fate would have it, one night, both brothers met as they were carrying sacks of grain to each other’s house. Immediately they recognized what had been taking place and how each brother had thought about the other’s need. They embraced one another deeply and returned home knowing they would never want as long as each was alive.
This story popped into my head this week as I read through our second lesson from the book of 2 Corinthians chapter 8. In this chapter, Paul is encouraging the church in Corinth to remember its fellow churches in Jerusalem. As best as we can reconstruct from history and the tenor of this letter, the church in Jerusalem had fallen on very hard times. There had been a drought in Israel, and it decimated the income of the church there. The Christians were in dire need.
The church in Corinth was, by all accounts, a pretty wealthy church–or at least it had more than a few members who had means. This church wanted for nothing in that regard.
Paul saw the need in Jerusalem. He saw the abundance in Corinth, and he believed it was a match made in heaven. He asked the church in Corinth to share their wealth and give to the church in Jerusalem. As we look at the text, we will see that Paul is not commanding them to do so. In verse 8, Paul says, "I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others." Paul wants to see just how deep the faith of the church in Corinth runs. He wants to see if they are willing not only to talk the talk about being Christian, but he wants to see if they will indeed walk the walk. Will they seek to use the spiritual gift of generosity? That is what Paul wants to see, and he begins to argue why they should.
First off, Paul reminds them of what Jesus did for them. In verse 9, Paul says, "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." Jesus died on the cross for those of us who are Christian. He gave His entire life for us to save us from sin and death. He did so without cost to you and me. This gift Christ gave was free. Paul reminds us of this, and by doing essentially says, "This is the price your Lord paid for you, can you remain selfish knowing what Christ was willing to give?"
Then, Paul hits them with the second reason they should give. Verse 10 and 11 reads, " 10And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— 11now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means." In the previous year, apparently the Corinthians had talked about sending a gift to help out the folks in Jerusalem. They may have even sent a little bit, but Paul tells them, "Finish the job. It doesn’t reflect well on you to say you’ll do something and maybe even do a little bit of it and then quit. The Church of Jesus Christ doesn’t look good when it only does something half way or just gives lip service to what it thinks it should do. Words are cheap. Actions are not. Just do it."
Finally, Paul combats that worry that still arises today in many churches and Christian households. "What if we give and then we need later? Shouldn’t we just save for a rainy day?" Paul says this is not the way of faith. Faith takes a different path. Beginning in verse 13, "I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 14your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. 15As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.’" Put another way, "The church in Jerusalem has a need. You have the means. Help out. A day may come when the situation is reversed. You may be in need. The church in Jerusalem has means. They will help you out. Such is the way of Christ. We care for one another in our times of need. We rely on God to provide even if He uses other churches–and other people–to take care of things. Saving for a rainy day is not an option. Caring for your brothers and sisters in Christ who are in need is the only option."
Perhaps this is a very good lesson for you and me as well as we read through this text from 2 Corinthians. It helps us understand why we stay connected to the church–not only with each other here, but to the church at large. We are mutually caring for one another as Christ cared for us. And we are setting an example of how a community can live out the reality of heaven on earth–where all rely upon God and have what they need. And how does that look?
I am reminded of another story I heard long ago. It’s one I’ve shared with you before but will share again. One day, a man was approached by God. God asked the man what knowledge he would like to have. The man said, "Show me what heaven and hell are like."
God asked, "What would you like to see first?"
The man replied, "Hell."
In a flash, God and the man stood in a large banquet hall. A feast was laid out with all the most succulent dishes. The freshest fruits were surrounded by the finest cuts of meat. Steam rose from the most delicious vegetables. The most gorgeous desserts were scattered throughout the table.
The man thought to himself, "This doesn’t look too bad."
When dinner time arrived, the guests of hell walked in. Immediately, the man noticed something odd about the residents. They had no elbows! All sat at the table. At the Devil’s command, they began trying to eat, but because they could not bend their arms, the residents of hell kept shoveling the food onto the floor. No one could eat a single bite. None were ever satisfied at this banquet of food.
After watching this scene in horror, the man cried to God, "Enough, please show me heaven."
In a flash, God and the man were taken to another place. It was exactly as it looked in hell. There was the same banquet hall; the same food; the same chairs; the same table; the same everything! The man was astounded.
He was further floored when the residents of heaven walked in. They too had no elbows! Confused, the man looked at God. God just winked.
After all sat at the table and gave thanks to God, the residents of heaven began to eat. But there was a major difference between heaven and hell. In heaven, the residents fed each other.
Now go, and do likewise. Amen.