Many people think the church is always after people’s money.
It’s a reputation we’ve got. And sometimes, it’s deserved.
We had a wedding here a few weeks ago. The photographer told me of a church that charged a couple £200 extra to have confetti thrown down the aisle. I said someone has to clean it up, so they can charge a bit more to pay the cleaner, but £200 is a bit steep. To which he replied that it’s an extra source of revenue as well. I then tried to explain that the church isn’t in the business of making money. He looked at me as if I should know I can’t lie to him. “The church, not trying to make money?”
Well, yes, actually.
In our combined services we’ve worked our way through Paul’s letter to the Philippian church for several years; today we reach the end. They are being commended for how good they are at giving their money away!
In fact, the whole Christian message is about giving. Proverbs 19, verse 6, says this: “Many curry favour with a ruler, and everyone is the friend of one who gives gifts.” How true that is. Everyone’s on the look out for a wealthy benefactor. And the Christian good news is that our God is the ultimate giver.
And in response, the Philippian church had sent Paul a gift, almost certainly of money.
Paul also wanted to work hard not to give the impression that he was always after people’s money. He took great pride on never charging a fee for his services. The good news of Jesus is that God wants to bless us free of charge. Paul wanted to be able to say that he’d offered that gospel message free of charge.
Which meant he worked hard as a leather worker to keep himself funded. But he also relied on Christian churches giving to support his work if he was to keep going. He wrote this letter of Philippians from prison, probably in Rome. The film The Italian Job tells us that they eat spaghetti three times a day in Italian prisons. In ancient Roman prisons, conditions were much poorer. The Philippians’ gifts meant he got to eat in prison.
There’s the pattern. God is a giver. The Philippian church is a giver. And Paul in his ministry is a giver, and would hate to be known as a fund-raiser.
And Paul writes to thank the Philippian church very publicly. This letter was a public letter. It would have been kept by the church, and read by other churches. Paul wants the example of the Philippians’ generosity to become very well known. They’re a model to the other churches.
And they’re a model to us.
We’ll find they’re a model to us at two levels. Individually, we see a model for us as individual Christians as we consider our own giving, our own generosity. And then collectively, we see a model for us as a church, as we consider how we as a church might be generous.
So let’s look at this model of Christian generosity. Let me draw out 3 features of the Philippians’ giving.
For a costly gospel
Number 1. It’s giving for a costly gospel. For a costly gospel.
Paul describes their giving as sharing with him. Verse 14: “It was good of you to share”. Verse 15: “Not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving except you only”. They’re sharing.
That’s one of the key words in this letter to the Philippians. It’s the word for fellowship, partnership, koinonia. The letter opened, chapter 1 verse 4, with Paul rejoicing in their partnership in the gospel. Paul is travelling over the Mediterranean spreading the good news of Jesus, and the Philippians are true partners with him.
And it’s because of this gospel partnership, this fellowship, this sharing, that they’ve sent him their money. What we’re seeing here is that gospel partnership includes money. By all means pray for the gospel ministers you support. By all means speak highly of them to your friends and on social media. But if there’s a gospel ministry you want to support, money is a part of it too. Supporting a minister or a ministry includes meeting their financial needs.
But as I say, this is giving for a costly gospel. Paul says that it was good of them, verse 14, to share in my troubles. Paul’s ministry has landed him in a Roman prison. We heard in chapter 1 that he was due to find out any day now whether he’d be executed or released.
This has cost Paul financially. He can’t work. It’s cost his reputation too. We know from the letter of 2 Timothy that his imprisonment was the point when lots of Christians abandoned Paul. He was a tarred brand, risky to be associated with. If your name appears too many times on the front gate visitors register, you might get a knock at the door and be joining Paul.
Paul’s ministry has cost him everything. Chapter 2, verse 17: “I am being poured out like a drink offering.” It’s cost him everything.
But rather than flinching at the cost, the Philippians have risen to the challenge. Here’s someone paying a big price, and who may soon pay the ultimate price. They’ll support him. They’ll dip into their pockets and keep him going.
So for us. We give to support the gospel. There are lots of other causes you can give your money to, and most of them are good. Often at a funeral there will be a retiring collection for a cancer charity or a hospice. People give generously, and rightly so.
But only Christians will have any interest in supporting the spread of the gospel, the good news of Jesus. Nobody else will see that as a thing worth doing.
We need to be careful too as we support other churches. When we’re not having combined services, we’re working our way through 2 Peter. He is writing to Christians who are being plagued by false teachers who are peddling a fake Jesus. They are not preaching the gospel; they are undermining it; they are persuading people to put their trust in a false gospel instead. It goes without saying you don’t fund that kind of ministry.
If our giving is for a costly gospel, then we need to be discerning. The Anglican Church is a very varied organisation. The different things you’ll hear taught from one church to another are sometimes so significant that it is a different gospel being preached. We need to give money, as a church, for a costly gospel. But that means planning carefully what we support, and not blindly supporting everything that calls itself Christian.
For years, we as a church have supported a couple called Dick and Caroline Seed who are training the people who will train the next generation of church leaders across Africa. They’re based in South Africa. That’s not a work that will impress the non-Christian world. They’re not helping in education, social work or healthcare. For some time, we haven’t been able to send them any regular financial help as a church. I’d love to see that restart. It’s what partnership in the gospel entails.
Many of those on the frontline of gospel ministry have given up a huge amount to do so. To be a Christian in some part of the world is to put your life in danger, every day. Some Christians get pilloried in the media for teaching unpopular truths. Would we be brave enough to make a public statement that we are one of the churches that supports such people financially?
There’s the first facet of the Philippians’ giving. It’s giving for a costly gospel.
Second, it’s giving by everyone. Giving by everyone.
Let me hold up my hand and confess something here.
I’ve heard it said that when someone becomes a Christian the last thing to be converted is their wallet.
What this means is that the person gradually starts to realise what it means for Jesus to be Lord of their life. They start letting him in, one room of the house at a time, and letting him take control. And often, the last area of life to change is our money. It’s some time before the new Christian starts to give to support the ministry of their local church in a regular, systematic way, with standing orders and Gift Aid.
Here’s what I want to confess: I have been complicit in this.
I have assumed that the myth is true. And so as we talk about what it means in practice to follow Christ, I’ve been somewhat slow to talk about money. Now, to be sure, there’s a noble aim there too. As I’ve said, everyone assumes that the church is after people’s money, and the smallest thing could reinforce that, so I mustn’t talk about money all the time.
But at the same time, when someone becomes a Christian, Jesus wants to take charge of every area of life, including their money. Disciplined, sacrificial giving is part of Christian discipleship, for every Christian. Not just for the spiritual elite.
And this is what the Philippians were so good at. They modelled the fact it’s giving by everyone.
Look at verse 15: “Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only”.
Do you see it? They got straight to work supporting Paul, the moment they became Christians. This was “in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel”. They became Christians, and straight away turned around and said: “We need to support you as you take this message to other people.” And they did.
We can’t assume someone else will do it. As it turned out, in those earliest days, no other church was supporting Paul. If the Philippians hadn’t been doing it, nobody would have been.
And look just how quick they were. In the next verse, Paul says: “even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need”. Paul got kicked out of Philippi in the last verse of Acts chapter 16. He arrived in Thessalonica the first verse of Acts 17. It was next port of call. In the time it took Paul to travel the 100 miles from one town to the other, they’d got their whip-round sorted.
Giving to support gospel ministry is something for every Christian; you don’t need to have been a Christian 5 minute to start. And it’s something for every church; you don’t have to be a wealthy church to help in small ways, and you can’t assume someone else is doing it.
Giving by everyone.
Third feature of their giving. It’s giving to God. To God.
Why do I say that? Because of verse 18: “I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.”
In the Old Testament, God’s people offered sacrifices. Some were to deal with sin. The whole animal was burnt. It symbolised the fact that the person who has sinned against God deserves to die. God graciously allowed them to kill and burn an animal instead. Now that Jesus has come, we don’t kill animals any more. But God graciously allowed his own Son to die, so that we can escape God’s judgement.
But there were other kinds of sacrifice. Some were called fellowship offerings. They symbolised the fact that God has brought his people together; we’re now one big family, and we celebrate that with a shared meal. They would burn part of the animal first, so that the smoke would go up to heaven. They were picturing the smoke as God’s part of the meal, a pleasing aroma, a fragrant offering. They weren’t just eating a meal with one another; God was joining in as well.
That’s the picture here. When the Philippians gave so generously to Paul, I said earlier that it symbolised their sharing, their fellowship, with him. But just as the Old Testament fellowship meals were not just horizontal, neither was their giving. They weren’t just giving to Paul and his ministry. It was an act of giving to God as well. As the Philippians give, the aroma goes up to God, and he’s pleased.
Which means that their giving is actually not giving; it’s an investment.
You probably know that you can only claim Gift Aid on money you pay to a charity if you don’t get anything in return. So, if you give money to support the church, you can claim Gift Aid. But if you visit a theatre that is a registered charity, you can’t claim Gift Aid on the ticket price, only on any donation above and beyond the price of the ticket.
Well, don’t tell the Charity Commissioners, but when you give to support Christian ministry, you get something in return. Verse 17: “Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account.” This is the language of paying interest on an account.
Paul is correcting a possible misunderstanding. He does not write to the Philippians to say thank you in the hope that they’ll send another gift. Far from it; their gift has reached the bank of heaven. He wants them to get the interest payments they are due.
So, if someone pays £1000 into your bank account, if you’re lucky enough to have an account that pays interest, you get interest on that money the day it’s paid in. When these Christians gave to support Paul, they’re actually giving to God, so they get interest the moment the money is given.
Because these kinds of passages get misused, I ought to add that this is not promising that you’ll become materially wealthy if you give your money to me. Like I say, some preachers have abused this with a promise that being a generous Christian is the way to vast material wealth. That’s not what it’s saying.
What it is saying is that you start to accrue interest the moment you make your deposit. And when Jesus Christ returns you will find that giving to God, giving for a costly gospel, is never throwing your money away. God will amply reward you, and God is never anyone’s debtor.
They were giving to God.
What would motivate such costly giving?
So there are 3 features of the Philippians’ giving. They were giving for a costly gospel, this was giving by everyone, and they were ultimately giving to God.
What would motivate them to give so generously?
The answer comes in Philippians chapter 2, verses 5 to 8.
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!”
Here is what the Lord Jesus has done for these Christians.
These Christians were once sinners, lost, far from God, on the road to hell for all eternity.
Along came the eternal Son of God. You do not get richer than him. He had everything in heaven and earth at his disposal. The cattle on a thousand hills is his, as Psalm 50 puts it. He lived in the splendour of heaven itself. And he chose to leave all of that. He took on a new nature, our nature, a human nature. He became one of us, he lived in poverty, rejected, despised, spat on – literally.
And if that was not enough, he died out of love for you and me. Not just any death, but crucifixion. The lowliest, most degrading, most humiliating death possible. The one reserved only for the worst offenders. The one so appalling that it was illegal to kill a Roman citizen in this way.
And so he suffered the judgement of God on your sin and mine, so that we could be forgiven, and go free.
That was the generosity of the Lord Jesus for these Christians.
And that was the generosity of the Lord Jesus for us.
Nobody had more than Jesus. Nobody had more to lose than Jesus. And he freely, willingly, gave it all up, to be our rescuer.
You do not find yourself on the receiving end of generosity like that, and remain hard-hearted, selfish and miserly. In Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is transformed as he is shown his own reality and his own future.
This is a force far more powerful than simply seeing how you could suffer if you remain stingy. This is you being on the receiving end of the most unimaginable generosity. You cannot help but be transformed. You will want to give everything you can for others to know the same thing for themselves.
That was the experience of the Philippians. And I pray it’s our experience too.
Our experience as individuals, deciding how we’ll use our own money. Our experience collectively, as the church here, deciding how we’ll use our church resources.
This is the exact opposite of the stereotype of a church that’s always after people’s money. The wedding photographer could not be more wrong. We are not in the business of profiteering. We worship a giving God, so we become a giving people and a giving church.
This is following in the steps of Jesus the giver. As each and every one of us, each and every church, gives for a costly gospel, and ultimately to God himself.