Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Subverting the charismatic debate

Is your church a charismatic church? I don't mean, does your pastor have personality. Nor do I want to ignite a debate about prophecy and speaking in tongues. Rather, is your church one where the charis of God is at work. (Charis being the NT Greek for grace) Is God's grace at work in your church? Is it charismatic?

We see the charis of God at work in the church primarily at the cross of Christ. Throughout the old testament God had shown grace to his people. But a question remained. How could God forgive people. In the death of the Lord Jesus on a Roman cross he answered that question. Jesus bore the wrath of God that we deserved so we might justly receive God's full favour. Paul explains this in Romans 3v21-25. This is a free gift of God's grace, charis, to all kinds of people. It's not earned or deserved. And this means it removes all kinds of boasting. Rich or poor. Upper class or working class. Educated or uneducated. White or black. Male or female. Though Jesus was crucified on a hill outside Jerusalem, the ground around the cross is level. Everyone comes on the same terms and so no one can boast about themselves. I'd love to explore that further but the glories of penal substitution and propitiation are a subject to explore in another post. [See Romans 3v21-30]

That said, difference exists! Look around your church. We're all equal, but some seem to be a bit more equal than others. How do we deal with the real differences that exist in the church? Why didn't God just make us all equal? Looking around any congregation we find a great range of affluence, some struggling to make ends meet while some enjoying lavish holidays and fine foods. It's always been like that.

The answer is found in God's desire to display his grace in the church. As Paul writes to the Christians of Corinth, in Greece, he wants to tell them about God's grace (2 Corinthians 8v1,4,7,8,9). He wants them to become charismatic! There is already much charis in the church. They serve one another in word and deed. But he has in mind another aspect of grace that he longs to see in them, the "grace of giving" (2 Corinthians 8v7) and for them to excel in it!

He begins with a true life story of the Christians of Macedonia (2 Cor 8v1-5). A story of the churches of Philippi and Thessalonia, who he writes to elsewhere in the New Testament. In the first century the Christians of Jerusalem experienced great famine. Paul was sent to teach God's good news to the non-Jews but he had commited himself to help provide for the Jewish Christians. The Macedonians knew of this commitment and Paul tells of how they begged and pleaded to be involved in this giving. The problem was that they too were experiencing extreme poverty (v2). Nonetheless, God's grace was so powerfully at work in them that they gave generously. In fact, they gave beyond their means (v3). And I take that to be saying that they gave financially in a way that meant they went without some essentials for a period of time. There were real Christians who went without food for some days because of the grace of God in their lives. They became financially irresponsible but Paul can't condemn them for it - rather he celebrates the effects of God's grace in them (v1). God's charismatic work among these Christians.
"Grace by it's vary nature overflows - more a gushing river than a stagnant pond" (Terry Virgo, God's Lavish Grace, p140)
God was at work in the Macedonian churches and they were displaying their treasure. Showing off what they most valued. Not the coins they pressed into Paul's hands but rather that what they most valued in this world wasn't food and money but Jesus Christ and his gift of grace to them. These were the Christians to whom Paul had written of the all surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ, in Philippians 3v7-11, and here we see it in action. He had told them of how dying was gain (Philippians 1v21) - how losing all the things of this world and being left only with Jesus would make him richer than he'd ever known - and they exemplify it in their actions. They treasured Christ above all things - which isn't to say physical things are bad but rather than Jesus is very valuable.

And Paul longs that the affluent and charismatic church of Corinth might share that kind of charismatic gift (2 Cor 8v7). This isn't however illicited by commands and regulations (v8). Paul refuses to issue such demands. Rather he tells a second story. This story is about Jesus (v9). Jesus who was infinitely rich. Jesus who knew in eternity past the riches of life in the presence of his Father. And yet, Jesus gave up his riches and became poor, humbling himself to a life of poverty on earth and a criminals death. Why did he do that? So that we might become rich. Not financially rich, but rich in God's grace - rich in enjoying God's favour towards us in Jesus. And this is the lesson of grace for the rich - that they might immitate Jesus, displaying their treasure - not just in going without a meal but, like Jesus, adopting a lifetime of less affluence.

Often today we think of charitable giving as something that we do with our excess money. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have shown this in recent years - so rich they didn't know what to do with their money so they started giving it away in vast quantity. The grace of God works differently and Paul's desire is that it would liberate the rich Corinthians from their riches to serve the starving Christians of Jerusalem. The Macedonians in their poverty gave beyond their means and yet the quantity given was probably quite small, they had so little. In Corinth the grace of God could cause them to give in vast quanity without even noticing - or it could work even more powerfully to lead them to adopt a lower standard of living for years to come - like Jesus' 30 years of poverty. Not just giving out of excess but perhaps giving up on some of the fine things of life, again not because those things are bad but rather in order to serve the needs of others in the church. It might mean giving up the size of their spacious home or their holidays. It seems uncomfortable and unthinkable to talk this way but what else can be meant by the words Paul writes here. They have the great opportunity to display how great a treasure Jesus is to them by releasing their great wealth for the sake of others.

Why not just give everyone enough - God could do that! God's ways are different. He works in our hearts so that the plenty of one might meet the need of another. Why? Because when we give up the money we have we show that Jesus is worth more to us than money. And when we give to another we display the grace of God in Jesus who gave up his riches to make us rich. That's what the grace of God looks like in a church. No rules can losen our grip on the contents on the money, car keys, house keys and other things in the pockets of the people of God. Only grace sets us free to treasure Jesus above all else. Elsewhere - one Christian has plenty, another has need - and only by God's grace will the plenty meet the need (v14). So the rich should consider what they have in the light of the cross of Christ (v12) so that the grace of giving might be completed (v6) in them. Only the grace of God can produce such radical change. Only what we find in the death of Jesus can kill boasting and release the gift of giving, working the grace of God so deeply into our lives that it even effects our money. Then we start living on the level ground at the foot of the cross.
"It is God's grace from beginning to end. He favours you with amazing kindness and then makes your heart willing to abandon possessiveness and freely give... ever increasing grace to the giver and making you a channel of grace to many." (Terry Virgo, God's Lavish Grace, p151)

Wise words from Luke Wood on giving and Should students tithe their student loan.

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