Bible Readings: Luke 6:37-42 & Philippians 4:10-23

Rejoicing in Generosity

This evening it really is the end of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi. He is ready to sign off, but before he does so, he has a final subject he wants to reinforce in the Philippians minds. He is going to talk about generosity. In some ways I really love talking about generosity, because my experience is one of God having been very generous to me and to my family. I have also known personally the blessings that I’ve received as I’ve been generous to others in different ways. One of the things that most delights me about the way God’s kingdom works is that it is a kingdom of abundance that challenges the systems of the world around us that are built on the lie of scarcity. The resources that God has given humanity are more than sufficient for us all to flourish, but they are unjustly distributed. Generosity subverts that unjust distribution and proclaims God’s kingdom.

On the other hand. One of the risks of preaching about generosity is that it can be heard as the church asking for money. It can come across as self-serving and importuning. There is also the risk of falling into the trap of the prosperity gospel, the false teaching that says that if we give money to the church then we will be materially prosperous, that treats God as some kind of sure fire investment scheme. It can be a tricky tightrope to walk, and there is part of me that is reassured as I see that Paul seems to sway a couple of times on it as he walks it.

“I rejoiced greatly that at last you renewed your concern for me, not that you weren’t concerned … not that I’m saying this because I need anything”

“It was good of you to share my troubles … not that I desire your gifts.”

Despite the risks of falling off the tightrope, we are going to explore generosity this evening, and I hope that the will forgive me if I also sway a little. We are going to talk about it because it is fundamental to Paul’s key theme in this letter, the theme of joy.

Paul has a deep and abiding joy that has kept him going through all kinds of difficult circumstances, and his understanding of generosity is one of the foundations of this joy.

The first generosity that seems apparent to me is a generosity of spirit that Paul has. Let’s look at verse 10:

“I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.”

Paul had a choice. He could have dwelt on how the gifts coming to him from Philippi had dwindled, he could have been bitter, he could have started to sulk. He could have played in his mind all the things that he’d done for them, and wallowed in the self-pity of being forgotten. He could have stoked up his anger. He doesn’t do those things, he chooses to make the generous assumption that the Philippians concern for him was continuing, but they have had no opportunity to express it.
We talked about this a bit last week, when we were thinking about reconciliation. We have a choice to make when it comes to thinking about other people, and our beliefs about why they do what they do. If we choose to be generous in our spirits, in our assumptions then it is true that sometimes we might be let down, but at least we will not be painting people into a corner, giving them no graceful way out of the situations they have got themselves into.

Paul’s generosity of Spirit is also seen in verse 17,

“What I desire is that more be credited to your account.”

In his own difficult circumstances, imprisoned and about to be put on trial for his life, Paul is more interested in the well being and flourishing of his friends than he is worried about his own needs. Paul has a truly generous spirit that delights in the prosperity and welfare of others, and isn’t perturbed by his own difficulties. Surely another source of his joy.

So Paul shows a generous spirit, but he does also talk about generous giving. He is grateful to the Philippians for their gifts to him, both gifts in the past, and the aid that has been sent now.

Interestingly he talks about it in terms of, “Share in my troubles” There is a sense in which giving generously to Christian mission organisations, to those in need, to persecuted Christians is sharing in their troubles. We pray for them, which is one kind of sharing. But as James says,

“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”

I don’t know about you but sometimes I pray about situations in the world almost in despair, as though those things are intractable. There’s nothing I can do, so I’m going to pray, and then leave it to God. It almost lets me off the hook of actually doing something. It’s a bit of a cliché, but sometimes we are actually the answers to the prayers we pray. Sometimes God does turn round to us and say, OK, you do it. Just as Jesus gave the bread and fishes to the disciples and it multiplied in their hands as they distributed it, so God has given us resources that, when given as God directs can have a multiplying effect.

This is one of the reasons that I was so pleased to read in the parish profile when I was thinking about coming here that we give away 10% of our income as a church to other Kingdom organisations. We partner with them in prayer, in the intercessions every week, but we also partner with them practically in our giving.

There’s another interesting thing that Paul says about the generous giving of the Philippians,

“I desire that more be credited to your account”

This is where it starts getting a bit windy on this tight rope.
Some of us might be a bit twitchy about the idea of there being the possibility of us having credit in our account with God on the basis of what we do or what we give. But there it is, in Scripture. And it’s not just Paul, either. What did Jesus say in our gospel reading,

“Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.”

Now, I am under no illusions. I have spent time with some of the poorest Christians on the planet in South Sudan, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo. I met with remarkable generosity and welcome there. In one village I visited, there was a camp for refugees, fleeing from the militias who had destroyed their villages. The village elders had decided to give land to the refugees who wanted to make their home there. That wasn’t a particularly big sacrifice, there was lots of land. But more than that, they had shared they had given each refugee family enough seed to plant the land in the first season. That was a sacrifice, that did put their own, pretty insecure food supplies at risk. This was true generosity. I know that in material terms these folk have not yet received a full measure back in material terms for the generosity they showed to me, and to others. But I know that they are richer towards God than many materially wealthy people in this country.

Generous giving of our time, our energy, and our money to the work of the Kingdom, with no thought of return is a source of deep joy. By it we engage in partnership with our brothers and sisters around the world and, as a blessed by product we store up for ourselves treasure in heaven, treasure which no one can take from us.

We cultivate a generous spirit and we practice generous giving because we have a generous God.

What does Paul say about this God who has led him into places of danger and imprisonment? He says this, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength” and again, “my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus”

Whatever situation Paul is in he always points to the generosity and provision of God. As John helped us to explore last Sunday morning, Paul was utterly smitten with Jesus. As Saul he had been a Pharisee of Pharisees, passionate for the law, persecuting the church, and then, on the road to Damascus he was met by the living Christ, Jesus himself and his whole world was turned upside down. He was given a revelation of the astonishing grace and generosity of God who gave the Son to die that we might live.

As Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome,

“He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”

Paul’s deep faith in the trustworthy generosity of God in all things is underpinned by his appreciation of the generosity of God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Sometimes it can be difficult to hold on to this. When we’re out of work, when our health is failing, when our friends or family let us down, when people we care for are hurting, when the bills are mounting up, and we can’t see a way out. Where is God in the middle of all that? Where is God’s generosity? Where is the God who provides for all our needs?

It seems to me, that Paul, imprisoned and on trial for his life, would have had the right to ask all those questions. And he might have done. But we know that he also looked at the cross and saw there such generosity that he choose to believe that in the end, even if following the death of his earthly body, that he would receive from God a full measure, pressed down and running over.

As we leave Paul in his prison cell, and the Philippian Christians as they start working out what to do with the things in this letter they’ve just received, it is my prayer that we go on walking Jesus’ way with joy, choosing to have generous spirits, to be generous givers, and to trust in our generous God.

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