There are a few things that might separate many of our churches from the one in ancient Corinth. One is that not many of us wear togas (at least not in church). A second is that not many churches can boast that they have the city treasurer in their midst. The church in Corinth most likely counted just such a person among its members, a man named Erastus.
Erastus is mentioned several places in Scripture, but it is Romans 16 that identifies him as the city treasurer. Paul wrote the letter to the Romans while in Corinth, so, he likely knew Erastus well. The New Testament scholar Richard Hays tells us that archaeologists have found a commemorative block at the ancient site of Corinth with the name of Erastus engraved in it. The block commemorates the fact that he funded pavement for a section of the city. The presence of Erastus is one of the many things that would have made the church in Corinth an interesting community. Most of its members came from gentile or pagan backgrounds, so Paul had to answer questions about food and idols and whether or not it is alright for a man to sleep with his father’s wife or a prostitute. Followers of Jesus from Jewish backgrounds wouldn’t have asked those questions. In addition to wealthy patrons like Erastus, the church in Corinth also had members that were relatively poor. This disparity became a problem when they celebrated their common meal.
The city of Corinth would have been interesting too. It was a city with two ports, each reaching different seas. I don’t know if you can picture a map of Greece in your minds-eye or not. It’s hard to hold a picture of Greece in your mind because even though it isn’t a large country, it has a coastline almost as long as China’s. But if you can picture it you notice that there is a large peninsula in the south. It’s like a glob of peanut butter falling off a spoon. It is just barely connected to the northern part of the country. The bottom glob is called the Peloponnese peninsula and the little string that connects it to the north is called the Isthmus of Corinth. The city of Corinth sits right in the middle of that isthmus. Because of its location it was a center of commerce.
The ancient Greek city of Corinth was destroyed by the Romans in the year 146 BCE and then re-founded by Julies Caesar in 44 BCE. That’s an important fact because older biblical scholarship depicted Corinth as a center of debauchery. Scholars noted, for instance, that the playwright Aristophanes used the name ‘Corinth’ as a vulgar term for sex. Yet, that was the city before the Romans conquered it. As Paul new it, the city would have been only a few generations old and probably no more or less decadent than other Roman cities. It would have been populated, as many newly-founded cities were, by ex-slaves, ex-soldiers and their descendants, people wanting to take advantage of a community with room for social climbing. Some of them, perhaps like Erastus, became quite prosperous—others did not.
Our subject today is stewardship. Our church network draws our attention to this subject every year. It’s a good thing. When we hear the term ‘stewardship’ some of us will automatically think of finances and others of us will think of the environment. I want us to think of both today and more, but my sense is that we have a particularly hard time talking about our wealth. By ‘wealth’ I mean our money, our stuff, and the resources connected to our work and education.
It’s been suggested that about a quarter of Jesus’ teaching dealt with wealth in some form or another. I haven’t double-checked that, but if we followed that model, every fourth sermon would be about money. That being the case, I must admit that as an employee of a church, to put it crassly, preaching on wealth makes me feel about as comfortable as some parents must feel when having the ‘talk’ with their children.
But if we’re going to reflect on stewardship of all that we have we should begin with thankfulness. We don’t all have the same financial resources, but we’ve all been given a lot: we’re residents of a relatively safe and prosperous nation, we have access to healthcare and education, we are free to move about and congregate as we please. Most of us have more than the basics. That said, gratitude isn’t a given for many of us. We’re tempted by a sense of entitlement. We’re discouraged sometimes when others are ungrateful, nitpicky or faultfinding. Christian stewardship begins, though, with thankfulness. It begins with a recognition that the universe doesn’t owe us anything. It begins, to refer to Psalm 36, with the recognition of God’s steadfast love, a love that extends to the heavens.
I want to frame our reflections on stewardship today with an unlikely text form Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth: I Corinthians 12:1-11. This passage is about the stewardship of gifts, expressions of God’s steadfast love. It is a part of a long section on spanning chapters 12-14 in which Paul treats the topic of worship. Here in the first part of chapter twelve Paul is dealing with spiritual gifts. The church in Corinth was having a hard time knowing what to do with the gift of tongues. Paul wanted his readers to know that these spiritual gifts did have a place in the community’s life but he also wanted them to avoid chaotic worship. I want us to look at this passage for clues on how we might steward all our gifts, spiritual and otherwise. The basic logic of Paul’s theology here applies quite broadly.
Let’s track along with Paul here, as we do we’ll uncover three things that are foundational to Christian stewardship. This is the basic birds and the bees mechanics. It’s the standard, this goes there and that does that and then the other thing happens, and presto you’ve got more bees—just the basics of stewardship.
At the end of the first paragraph Paul invokes a fundamental conviction from the core of the Christian faith: “Jesus is Lord.” Those voices that recognize Jesus’ Lordship are under the influence of God’s Spirit and those that do not are not. The phrase links us to the Psalmist’s claim that “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it . . . .” It seems, then, that when we talk about stewardship, whether it’s stewardship of our wealth or stewardship of our abilities or stewardship of the natural world, we are talking about caring for someone else’s possessions.
The steward manages something she doesn’t actually own, at least not in a deep sense. This is antithetical to our normal way of thinking, and there are so very many implications that it’s really quite hard to grasp. The young person deciding what to do with ‘her’ life or with ‘his’ gifts, isn’t setting up the decision quite rightly. The parents worried about ‘their’ children are missing something too. So is the farmer working the ‘family’s’ land. And so are the people who decide how to spend ‘their’ money. It all belongs to someone else. If we miss that fundamental reality nothing else Scripture says about wealth or stewardship makes much sense.
Let’s not be misled, it doesn’t seem to be case that Scripture calls for the abolishment of private property. It’s true that Jesus tells his followers in Luke 12 to sell their possessions and give alms, but I think we read that best alongside a passage like Hebrews 13, which tells us to practice hospitality. We can’t do either without wise care for the things God has given each of us to steward.
What does appear to be the case is that our financial decisions are indicators of how convinced we are that Jesus is in fact the Lord—the landlord, the bank account lord, the talent lord, the mutual fund lord, the lord of retirement, the lord of our homes, the lord of our lives. In Matthew 6 Jesus, says that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Jesus has a realistic perspective on the way wealth can be a competing object of our devotion. And so he points out that we can’t serve two masters: “You cannot serve God and wealth,” he says. When we affirm that Jesus is the one who has our allegiance, we can put wealth in its proper place.
What does this mean when you’re standing in the showroom of the auto dealership, when you’re perusing new TVs online or the next trip overseas? There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. Much depends on our individual situations, but the bottom line is that the money we are about to spend is money we hold in trust. So the first point from Paul is just this: all that we have is God’s. Stewardship begins with calling a gift a gift.
Paul goes on in the second paragraph to say that “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord.” The gospel text for this Sunday is from the second chapter of John. It’s the story of the wedding at Cana, the one where Jesus turns water into wine. It’s a marvelous story, the founding narrative of Christian foodies perhaps. That account is one of the best there is for showing the giving character of God. There’s nothing miserly about Jesus in the story. He replaces water with wine and fills the course of bad wine with the best.
The poet of Psalm 36 tells us that we all “feast on the abundance of [God’s] house.” He says, too, that God gives us “drink from the rivers of delights.” God is no miser, no cheapskate, no scrooge.
God is a giving God. One of the ways we see this is in the abundance of human talent and experience around us. This means that the way each of us contributes to the mission of Jesus’ disciples will be unique. What is possible for one may not be for another, but Scripture gives us the definite impression that each of us have something to offer. So we’re right to encourage each other to be generous and not to invest in trivial things. But it’s also right to recognize that each contribution will be unique. It’s when we forget this that we become judgmental.
To say that diversity is a gift is a pretty mundane claim these days. This may have been news to the children of the Enlightenment at one point, but it shouldn’t be to Christians who pay attention to Scripture. It seems to be the case that when Christian communities fail to pay attention to the full grain and texture of the Scriptures that they have to be pointed back to the biblical texts by the felt needs of the larger culture. One of the most potent images for the church in the New Testament is that of a body. Paul goes there in the second half of I Corinthians 12.
Bodies need different types of organs, different “members” is the word Paul uses. If we read closely, though, we realize that the Christian affirmation of diversity is a bit different than the one popular in political and educational circles today. Christian praise of diversity within the church hinges on an affirmation of the unity of God’s Spirit. We can steward our variety of gifts best when we are confident in the Spirit’s work in the lives of others. The Spirit’s work is never entirely in predictable, but we know God is at work when people grow in their expression of the character of Jesus.
So the second basic point is that because of God’s Spirit we can embrace the variety of God’s gifts. We can acknowledge that we all benefit from our not being the same. We contribute to God’s mission of steadfast love in various ways, but we all contribute. That’s one of the things that gives our lives meaning.
Paul goes on: he writes, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Spiritual gifts, which Paul then describes, are given for the good of all. Being a steward of God’s gifts means being concerned with the good of others. It means recognizing that what we have is intended as a blessing for other people.
This is true of our ‘personal’ finances as well as a church building itself—both are for the good of others in addition to ourselves. It is true of the wealthy adult and it is true of the young person dreaming about what they will do with the life God has given them. The third foundational point is that the things we have been given are given to us for the good of others.
For the church in Corinth this meant giving some of their wealth for the suffering believers in Jerusalem. At the beginning of the last chapter of Paul’s letter he describes a collection that was being put together for those in Jerusalem. His advice is practical “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn.”
It’s maybe easier to think of spiritual gifts being intended for the common good than one’s wealth. We can hardly exercise the gifts of wisdom, prophecy or healing by ourselves. What Paul’s instruction about the collection for the believers in Jerusalem shows us is the importance of being able to discern the necessary from the luxurious. They have to figure out what is extra.
Here I think we are reminded of an important spiritual practice. We’re moving beyond the basic mechanics of stewardship now to the stuff that’s a bit more romantic—the stuff of the heart, the stuff that makes the birds chirp and the bees buzz. It’s a good discipline to examine our lives and try to identify what is essential and what is not. It’s good to think about our desires this way too: what do we need and what do we want. Personal budgets help us here, so does taking the time to track what we buy for a month or so. This might be a good Lenten practice for some of us, itemizing our needs and our wants.
In Scripture the possession of wealth doesn’t seem to be a problem in and of itself. The problem is what we do to get it and the way it can affect our view of God when we have it. In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, the sixth chapter, he outlines the risks of seeking wealth (v.9): “[T]hose who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” Paul’s point isn’t so much that wealth is sinful, actually he isn’t saying that at all, what he is saying is that making wealth our main goal can get us into all kinds of trouble. And isn’t that true? We cut corners, offend, deceive, run others over. At a more sophisticated level we may even become complicit in unfair lending practices, predatory loans, unsafe labor situations and perpetuating the plight of the poor. We may also be tempted to be careless with our natural environment. Making wealth our central goal is risky indeed.
There is something to be cautious of too, in being wealthy. The rich, Paul says in verse 17 of the same chapter, shouldn’t be proud. They should not place their confidence in their wealth. The Psalmist says that God is “the fountain of life.” What, then, is wealth for? In Paul’s view those with wealth should “do good” and “be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.” Both James 2 and Galatians 6 suggest something similar: wealth, at whatever level, is a resource for doing good.
Knowing the difference between what we need and what we want frees us to be generous, and it frees us to not be controlled by our stuff. It can even have an effect on our propensity to worry. In Luke 12 Jesus tells us not to be anxious. We shouldn’t worry for two reasons: First, because there is so much that we can’t control. Worrying doesn’t help us change much. Second, because God loves and cares for us. Our culture is racked by anxiety. I wish we could say it wasn’t also true of Christians. What’s helpful, though, is remembering to be thankful and remembering to differentiate between what we really need and what we want.
There is much more that Scripture has to say on stewardship. We haven’t touched the economic codes of the Torah or the practical wisdom of Proverbs. But we have the basics in place. We know that Jesus requests our allegiance, and that we can’t give it at the same time to wealth. We know that we will all contribute to his kingdom, each uniquely. And we know that what we have been given is for the good not only of ourselves but also of others. Those are the basics, but we have said a bit more. We have recognized that knowing the difference between what we truly need and what we want can liberate us for generosity and slacken the strain of our anxiety.