During Lent this year we have been exploring some Spiritual disciplines that can help us get closer to Jesus, and to ingrain healthy patterns of discipleship into our everyday life. We’ve thought about fasting, worship, lament and this week we are celebrating generosity.
Let’s start with our reading from the book of Acts, Luke’s history of the early church in the months and years following Jesus’ return to his Father’s side. The paragraph we read is quite early on in the life of this new community of faith, and if we read it carefully it is challenging. “No-one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had”.
When children are little, it seems to me that we spend a lot of time and energy trying to teach them two concepts. One is to share nicely. The other is that they can’t just take things off other children. How many times at Toddler groups (when they are running) up and down the country are there tears over one child monopolising a toy that another child wants to play with, or by one child swiping a biscuit off another child’s plate. Share nicely, and don’t take what isn’t yours.
As we grow older we call those who never learn to keep their hands off other people’s stuff thieves, and those who won’t ever share stingy. Both attitudes are forms of selfishness. I want what I want, and never mind anyone else.
In marked contrast to this, we see the members of the community of the early church pooling their resources, even getting to the stage of being able to say, it’s not mine, it’s ours, about everything they have. To be fair, this doesn’t seem to have been a widespread pattern beyond Jerusalem in the earliest days of the church. We don’t pick up any hint that this was fully repeated in churches in other towns and cities as the gospel spread, but we do get a repeated theme through Paul’s letters of financial sharing within and between churches in different cities and regions.
Underpinning all this is an important insight from that reading in Acts. When we transfer money from our personal bank accounts to the church’s bank account, we are not “giving to the church”. The church isn’t an organisation or institution separate from us. We are the church.
In the early church in Jerusalem they took that concept to its ultimate conclusion and shared everything. We don’t do that at All Saints.
Having said that, I do believe that this is a generous church. I know very little about the details of who gives what to the common pot on a name by name basis, that is kept confidentially by our treasurer. But I do know that there are about 150 households who give an average of £70 a month through our planned giving scheme into the common pot to resource our work financially. I know that when we ask for people to contribute to specific projects, like the Easter bags for families, we get people giving towards them.
I know that there are people who have received inheritances or business windfalls who have made one off gifts from those to the church. I know that we have received direct bequests from people’s wills.
I know that we give away 10% of our income to support mission agencies at home and abroad. I know that we support our local foodbanks with money, food, and volunteer time. There is a lot of financial generosity here at All Saints, and that is something we should celebrate. It releases us, as a church, to be able to do things that otherwise we would not be able to do. It is one of the ways that we put into practice our value of loving each other.
I also see this generosity at work as we put one of our other values into practice, loving our neighbours. In Luke’s first book, however, we read about Jesus instructing us to go even further, not to just to love each other, and our neighbours, but also our enemies. If we thought the example of generosity in Acts was challenging, how do we react to this one? It really doesn’t leave us anywhere to hide.
Jesus gives practical examples of how to put this into practice. Pray for those who ill treat you. If someone takes your coat, give them your shirt. Lend to people with no expectation of being paid back. If we take this seriously it makes squirm. The banking system would collapse, we’d end up with nothing, we’d get taken advantage of. It’s too difficult. Jesus can’t really have meant it. Can he?
Well, yes and no. It seems to me that Jesus’ aim was not to give us another list of rules that we could either tick off in a morally self-satisfied way, or to feel guilty about falling short of. It was about giving practical examples of what it means to live with generous hearts that have faith in a generous God. This whole section ends with Jesus giving the reason that we are to live like this. We live generously, because we believe and trust in a generous God. God is kind and merciful and generous to us, and so we are kind and merciful and generous to others.
We see this lived out perfectly in Jesus’ life and death. Even after they’d taken his coat and shirt, and every other item of clothing and nailed him to a cross, he prayed for his enemies, and then gave his life for us.
Picture in your mind a market place in the near east. You’re walking through the market. You come across a stall holder selling grain out of big sacks. You watch as customers come up and place their orders. Each customer brings their own grain pot and says how much they want – one or two cups perhaps. The stall holder’s cup looks a bit on the small side. He dips it into the nearest sack, takes it out and very carefully runs a straight edge over the top to knock off any extra. He then pours that measure into his customer’s pot and takes a coin. You walk on, and see another stall holder selling grain. A customer comes up and orders a cup of grain. The stall holder plunges a good sized cup into a sack, and draws it out. He gives it a good shake, and presses the grain down so that it packs tightly in. He puts it back in the sack, and fills the space at the top he’s just made with more grain. As it comes up, you see that there’s a little pyramid of grain on top of the cup, it’s piled up and overflowing. The stall holder pours this into his customer’s grain pot. I wonder which stall holder you’d go to go to for your grain.
A few verses later Luke records that Jesus said, “give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
Generosity is a discipline, it is a choice. We might find it easier to be generous in some areas of our lives than others. We might find it easy to give money, but not time. We might find it easy to lend things to people but difficult to forgive. We might be happy to volunteer but have difficulty making generous assumptions about other people’s motivations or actions. The great thing is that we are not alone in this. Our generous God has given us the Holy Spirit to challenge and encourage us. Jesus gave his life so that we could be forgiven when we fail. God has given us each other to practice on and support each other. So, let us be merciful, just as our Father is merciful.