By Linda Rex
September 29, Proper 21— On the streets of Nashville I often see well-dressed people driving Mercedes, Jaguars, and BMWs at the same intersection with people in ragged clothing holding signs that say “homeless” or “help me”. At Good News Fellowship, we are often faced with the challenge, and the blessing, of helping those who cannot or will not help themselves.
One of the marks of a healthy community is the way it handles the radical difference between those who have and those who do not. The early Christian church handled these profound differences in a way which was counter to their Roman culture—a culture in which those who were wealthy were given a more elevated status than those who did not. It was not unusual for a wealthy person to sponsor or support someone less fortunate than themselves, but that person wasn’t normally elevated to a place of equal status with their benefactor. The believers in the early church, however, understood that in Christ, we are all equals, all members of one body.
God’s way of doing things is so different than ours. Today, when it comes to money and being rich, we often see extremes among people of the Christian faith. Wealth may be seen either as an evil to be rejected or as a sign of one’s favor with God because of one’s obedience and goodness. Either extreme is not how God meant us to view wealth. Wealth is given, the Word of God says, to be enjoyed, but also for the purpose of doing good and sharing with others.
Having wealth or nice things is great—it makes life pleasant and enables us to do a lot of things we could not do otherwise. But the problem with being rich is that often our focus turns away from the God who gives the wealth and blessings and turns to the riches themselves. People can get so absorbed in accumulating and maintaining their wealth, and enjoying it, that they miss the whole point of it all—they are a beloved child of a generous and loving heavenly Father, a dad who wants to share all of his blessings with them.
If we took the time to turn away from our abundance and wealth for a moment and to turn to Jesus, we would see a wealthy, abundantly blessed Son, who did not for a moment count any of his good stuff worth holding on to. We read in Philippians 2:5-11 how the Word of God, the divine Son of God, temporarily set aside the privileges of his divinity for our sake. He knew we would be and were caught in the poverty and darkness of our sin, and evil had us in its grip. Death was the result of our stubborn willfulness and pride. Because of this, he set it all aside to join us where we were to bring us to be where he was.
The one gift above all others the Son of God wished to share with us, which supersedes any physical blessing or gift he could give us, is the ability to participate in his perfect, intimate relationship with his Abba. He and the Father always have been, are, and always will be, one in the Spirit. This is the relationship we were created to participate in and which we seem to always trade in for the tangible things of this life.
In this culture, at least in this country today, we are surrounded with so much abundance, that it is hard to see beyond our human existence. We have so many human solutions to our problems that we lose site of the role God is meant to play in all of this.
We may believe we don’t really need God’s healing when we can go see a doctor, or a specialty surgeon, visit a hospital, or even see a psychotherapist. All of these are excellent ways to take care of our health, and yes, we should do them when we can, but what about starting the whole process with the one Being who has created us, given us life, and who can heal us, however others may or may not be involved in the healing process? Wouldn’t it be more important to have our heavenly Daddy with us through the whole circumstance, walking with us and guiding us, helping the doctors and nurses as they give us care?
Many people grew up in families where the only food available was eggs from the chickens, milk from the cow, and food from the garden. They survived quite well on the little that they had because they had an implicit faith in God and in his provision. Today if we don’t have our favorite foods on the table or in the fridge, we think we are starving. The blessings we have so easily become more important than our relationship with the God who provides them. What has happened to us that we have lost this simple connection between ourselves and God, and knowing that we are his beloved children and he is our loving Father?
What about filling our cupboards and refrigerators with food? I do meet people who are lucky to have one good meal a week. I rarely ever hear them say that they asked God for their daily bread—to take care of this simple need. Strangely enough, we often expect other people to take care of us rather than simply calling on and trusting in our Abba Father to provide. I’ve heard many stories from people over the years who told about how God provided for them in a variety of ways—often through other people, but without them being asked to do it—it was solely a work of the Spirit. Wouldn’t that build your trust in and love for your Abba if you saw him provide for you without you first asking other people to take care of you?
Getting back to my point, I see that we are so blessed with so much, but it is never quite enough. We experience life in this world as a glass half empty rather than half full when our focus is on what we do or don’t have rather than on the One who gives it to us to enjoy and to share. Jesus came so we could have life abundant—not with overflowing coffers of wealth, but with an abundant overflow of God’s love and grace and the ability to participate individually, and as brothers and sisters, in a personal relationship with our heavenly Father through Jesus in the Spirit.
By all means, we should enjoy those blessings God gives us. We can enjoy the benefits of living in America, experiencing an ease and pleasure so many in the world wish they could share in, and do so without guilt and shame. These are God’s gifts to us.
But God says to us that the greatest treasure of all is that which is stored up for us in heaven when we take the abundance we have and share it with those less fortunate than us. We, along with Jesus, join others in their poverty and darkness to bring them up into fellowship with us, into a place of equality and unity in our uniqueness. We share what we have been given, not because we are asked to or expected to, but because Christ is at work in us, in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, giving us a desire to share what we have been given with those around us and to share in our Abba’s generous heart toward his beloved children.
The divine life we are called into involves both receiving and giving. There is an ever-flowing pouring out and pouring into that are part of the perichoretic love of the Father, Son, and Spirit, and we are included in that life as we trust in Christ and follow the leading of the Spirit. All we have, all we are, we receive as a gift from Abba. Do we receive these gifts with joy and gratitude, as gifts from a loving Father? Do we bless our Abba with love and fellowship in response? And, today, how would Abba want us to share his abundant gifts with others? Are we being obedient to the Spirit’s promptings to share?
Dear Abba, thank you for all your many gifts and blessings, and most of all, for including us in your life with Jesus in the Spirit. Give us a heart of generosity and an understanding of the transience of physical wealth so we will hold these things loosely and freely share them with others. Keep our eyes on you and our hearts enraptured with your love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.” 1 Timothy 6:17-19 NASB
See also Luke 16:19–31.
By Linda Rex
Many years ago, I attended a mega church for a while. It was located a little distance from me but provided some important counseling resources which were not available in my neighborhood, nor with the other church I normally attended.
One of the first things I noticed about this church was that nearly every car in the parking lot was only two to three years old and in good condition. I was a little embarrassed to have to park my old clunker next to the shiny minivans and SUV’s, but I did it anyway. As I walked inside the building, the people around me seemed friendly, though preoccupied. They were good folks, and I found it quite easy to melt into the crowd and not have to engage anyone in conversation.
After a few weeks, I became more and more aware of the subtle difference in financial status between me and the other people in the church. Most of the conversations between the people in the study group I joined involved decisions about a second or third car, a summer home, or a long vacation in Hawaii. I did not feel able to contribute anything to these conversations because I was still wondering how on minimum pay I would handle all the bills I had coming due in the next week. It was rather awkward for me, but I was there to study the Word of God with fellow believers, not to wrestle with financial inequities. So I let it go.
As the years have passed I have on occasion experienced more of this disparity between the wealthy church, and the broken community within and without the church who needs helped and healed. I have met and grown to love some pretty amazing people for whom the distress of suffering financially or physically is a foreign concept, or one they have experienced only briefly in their lives.
These people are compassionate and generous, but they can sometimes be completely out of touch with the everyday struggles of the needy. It’s not that they don’t care or are indifferent, but that it’s either not a part of their everyday experience, or they feel it would not be genuinely helpful for them to take on responsibilities which belong to the people who are struggling. And they have a valid point.
The culture we live in today often looks perplexedly at the Christian church, wondering why we are not more helpful to those who are suffering. I have no doubt there is room for us to grow in our generosity and helpfulness towards the poor and needy. But it may be that those who are being critical of us have a skewed view of what it means to have life and to have it abundantly. In other words, it’s possible we value different things than they do.
Historically the church understood that divine abundance doesn’t necessarily involve monetary wealth. The kind of abundance Jesus spoke of has a whole lot more to do with the generous outflowing of love and grace from the God who made us and redeemed us than with physical wealth, popularity, and material goods. True abundance involves growing in our relationship with the God who made us and growing in Christlikeness, which involves struggle and sometimes suffering. It involves our participation in a spiritual community which has Christ at the center.
Wealth in itself is not a bad thing. Nor is it a sin to live comfortably in a safe neighborhood where everyone has large homes, big yards, and a swimming pool in the backyard. These blessings provide ample opportunities which would not exist otherwise, and include their own unique set of dangers and temptations. There are benefits and potholes in every walk of life.
Throughout the centuries the church as a whole and individually has at times fallen prey to the subtle deceit of greed in all of its forms. The financial well-being of churches and their leaders sometimes preempts the care of the poor and needy. The health-and-wealth gospel distorts the truth about the Word of God, equating financial and material success and abundance with proof of goodness, success, and godliness. It’s easy for well-blessed Christians to slide into a place of spiritual apathy or an unconscious desire for more and more when all their needs are supplied and they don’t have to struggle to make ends meet. Because of all this, those who are critical of Christians have been well-supplied with ammunition to find fault with us.
But the calling to the Christian church, whether wealthy or poor, still is to preach the gospel to those we encounter on the roads of life. We are to share with others the good news about Jesus Christ, no matter who they are, or in what situation we may find them.
In some ways it can seem easy to preach a meaningful gospel to someone who is starving or homeless. We can offer them what they are needing at the moment and then tell them about Jesus and his love for them. I would imagine it must be much easier to see God’s love in a real way when you are in real trouble and someone offers you love and grace in the midst of it.
It also seems to be much more difficult to preach the gospel and be heard by those who really have no need for God in their lives. When a person is reasonably content with their life, and is able to handle everything they face day by day, God is extraneous to them. In their lives, he really serves no purpose except perhaps to limit them in some way. Or their faith may just be something that is part of their family heritage and really has no personal impact upon their lives.
This is why as I see the material abundance in this country and encounter financially successful people in every walk of life, the question arises in my mind: How in the world do you share the gospel with people who feel no need for it? What do you offer to those who believe they already have all they need or can earn enough to supply it themselves? What if these people are much more generous to the needy and poor than those worshipping in your own church down the street? Why should they care about becoming a Christian when Jesus or those who represent him seem indifferent to them, as well as to those who are suffering or doing without?
The gospel we need to tell must offer something much deeper than just relief from suffering or freedom from sin. The gospel must touch at the core of our humanity. We need to help people personally encounter in Jesus Christ the amazing God who created us and sustains us and who calls us into relationship with himself.
The gospel we offer has great power. It is such good news! In Jesus Christ, we are given the real presence of God in our humanity, living our life, dying our death, and raising us to new life, a life which is at this moment hidden with Christ in God and offered to us right now in the gift of the Holy Spirit. Surely, there is a deep hunger hidden somewhere in the human heart, longing to hear this good news, no matter how distracted a person may be by their abundance and blessings.
And so, we pray. We serve. We love. We pray and care for each and every person we meet, helping them see God is offering them the same gift which was given to us. And we trust in God’s good time, he will enable them to encounter the truth of their need for him, and the wonder of his precious gift of life in Christ Jesus by the Holy Spirit.
Abba, thank you for your faithful love and for all the abundant blessings we receive from you. Thank you for the gift of both prosperity and poverty, for in the midst of each of these we can come to know you and learn to trust you more. May we always be on guard against greed and indifference, and freely share with others all you have provided for us, through Jesus, and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Then He said to them, ‘Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.’” Luke 12:15 NASB
“For our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit; but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness—nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority. But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.” 1 Thessalonians 2:3-8 NASB