‘The haves and the have nots’ transcript continued…
I first met Anna five years ago in Upper Egypt. During this first of many meetings since then, her team took me to visit Christians who had fled persecution in their own villages, and who were now living in extreme poverty as they tried to rebuild their lives.
After we had met some of these Christians in their homes, Anna said to me that, after she had first visited Christians such as these, God had clearly said to her, ‘now you have seen how my people are forced to live, you must do something.’
As we came to the end of our brief time together on that trip, Anna took me to one side and said, ‘When you get home you will pray for us.’ I said yes, of course I would. But then, ignoring the sort of social distancing rules we now have in place, she stepped forward into what we might call my ‘personal space’, and she repeated her words as she looked me in the eyes. ‘When you get home, you WILL pray for us.’ Again, but perhaps this time with a little more commitment, I said yes, of course I would. And I am happy to say that five years on Anna and her team, now partners with Release, are a fixed part of my family prayer life.
It seems that this time of lockdown has changed so many things in surprising ways. Who would have thought just a few months ago that many people would be frightened to go outside their doors? Who would have thought that we would have had to queue just to get in the shop to buy our groceries? Who would have thought that the government would be paying the wages of up to 40% of the workforce just to try and keep them in their jobs? Who would have thought that we would be having to leave our loved ones to die without us by their sides?
So much has changed, but some of the change we see is simply more of the same. At my own church I have been highlighting the contrast, that while there are some who have more time on their hands than ever, there are others whose workloads have increased so much that the government could help them only by introducing a 36-hour day!
And another point of contrast I have been making is that while there are some who are facing huge financial difficulties as a result of this lockdown, there are others whose disposable income has been significantly increased, because they have nowhere to spend their money. And I have been encouraging those in the second category, the ‘haves’, to not just keep this unexpected windfall for themselves, but to make sure it is used to help those who have not.
But really this is nothing new. At Release we are acutely aware that our ministry is based in a part of the world which can certainly be included in the haves, while most of those we serve live in nations which by nature of birth puts them in the category of the ‘have nots’. And it is not only their place of birth which dictates this, it is also the very fact that they are Christians. This is not even something which is new in our time. It is the reason the Apostle Paul wrote in the second letter to the church in Corinth of the need to be aware of, and to provide for, those who have nothing.
Paul really doesn’t hold back in chapters 8 and 9 of 2 Corinthians. He reminds the believers in Corinth that when they first heard of the suffering and poverty of the church in Jerusalem, they, like Anna, had been convinced by God of the need to help, and indeed Paul says they had been the first to offer help. They had made a start, but it seems that something had stopped them.
For Paul, this, he says, is a test of their sincerity, and more than that it is a test of just how much they understand the gospel. He reminds them in chapter 8 verse 9:
‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.’
God literally gave everything for them. In spiritual terms they had nothing, they were the have nots. They had no currency that they could use to buy their salvation. And so God, from his glorious riches, did not hold back on even that which was most precious to Him, when He gave His only Son, to step into their poverty and exchange it for His riches.
This was the gospel that had been proclaimed to the church in Corinth, but did they really get it? Did they really understand how much God had given for them and did this in turn drive them towards acts of grace and generosity towards their fellow believers, their family members in Jerusalem, who at this time so needed their help?
Paul was not afraid to embarrass the church in Corinth, the church which had been the first to offer help, but which does not seem to have followed through on their offer. And in challenging them, Paul uses the example of another church in Macedonia.
The Macedonian church also knew God’s grace. They were a church of two paradoxes.
They were joyful in the face of trials, and they were generous in the face of poverty. Paul says, they gave beyond their ability, and the decision to do so was their own. Indeed, he says they begged, they pleaded with Paul for the privilege of giving, and when it came to expectations, they far exceeded all that was expected of them.
It reminds me of something I heard recently about a group of 10 Christian families in China who desperately needed help. When these families received some financial help from other believers, which was enough just to get them to subsistence level, these 10 families decided to tithe what they themselves had received to bless an eleventh family. Their generosity went beyond what was expected of them.
Back in 2 Corinthians Paul says, ‘but you in contrast with the Macedonian church, you need to remember again what God has done for you. Now finish the work so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means.’ In other words, walk the talk.
And Paul has a longer view in mind here. His aim is not that the Corinthian believers will always, whatever their circumstances, be giving to help their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. He goes on to say,
‘Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”’
At the time the church in Corinth was the church that gathered much, and the church in Jerusalem was the church that gathered little, but that might change one day, says Paul.
This of course begs the question: which church are we in this letter? What would Paul be writing to the church in the UK if he were alive today? Would he be writing to us and commending us as ‘the church who gave beyond their means, the church who begged and pleaded with him for the privilege of giving?’ Or would he be writing to us to remind us of how much the Lord has done for us, and to remind us of the fact that just because we gather much, we should not therefore just keep it for ourselves and become the church that has too much.
And this isn’t in any way about seeking to make ourselves feel better. When Paul picks this up in chapter 9, he concludes his mini sermon on giving for the sake of the Lord’s people by saying:
‘This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else.’
In other words, this is all about bringing glory to God Himself. Through the generous actions of his people many are giving their thanks not to those who give, but to God Himself. They are praising God as they see His people responding as they ought, with generous hearts acting in obedience to Him because they are so grateful for all that God has done for them.
Going back to Anna’s story. God had said to her that now she had seen, she must do something. It causes me to think back to my first connection with Release almost 14 years ago. I sat there with around 40 other men listening to a friend of mine, who would later become a colleague, speak of a trip he had just made to Nigeria. As he shared about some of the people he had met, and some of the scenes he had experienced, I wept in a way I had not done so previously. People butchered in their own homes, families burned alive, entire villages driven off their land, churches destroyed. Somehow, I knew then, as Anna did when she was first confronted with what she saw visiting Christians in Upper Egypt, that God was saying to me, ‘you have to do something.’
And so I did. I began to volunteer for Release, just a small amount to begin with, the occasional speaking opportunity and helping at exhibitions. But gradually God led me into the role I have today, where I have the privilege of knowing many of the people we work with across the world and sharing their stories as I travel around Wales and the West Midlands speaking in churches.
And I don’t think it was a coincidence that my first overseas trip with Release was to Nigeria, and on that trip God really confirmed what he had put on my heart earlier, as we met people who just 24 hours before we got to them had been attacked by Fulani herdsmen. In the attack 170 homes and 2 churches were destroyed, and 9 people killed (8 from one family who were burned alive in their home where they had tried to shelter from the attack.)
But what about you? I won’t assume that you have heard before about the situations that Christians across the world find themselves in, those who are oppressed, marginalised, beaten, driven from their homes, imprisoned, or even killed, all because they are part, along with us, of the body of Christ. But now you have heard, how will you respond?
Given the fact that 2 Corinthians wasn’t just written to a single believer, perhaps the real question should be ‘how will your church respond?’ Perhaps you or your church once prayed for and supported your family members across the world who suffer persecution for Christ’s sake, but it’s fallen off your radar recently? Perhaps you have never been aware of, let alone prayed for and supported, your brothers and sisters who are oppressed and imprisoned for following Christ. Perhaps these questions aren’t really important because the real question worth asking is what are you, what is your church, going to do to respond to it today?
Paul was writing to a church which had forgotten its initial commitment to its family members who were suffering. But he hadn’t given up on them. By the grace of God and for His glory they could once again show they had truly understood the gospel, the gospel which spoke of all that God had done for them, and they could respond by asking themselves ‘what can we, what should we, now do for our brothers and sisters who so desperately need our help at this time?’
And so as I close can I suggest a few ways you might respond. Firstly, we can all pray.
And as we do so we should seek to pray in an informed way. When Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, he was appealing to people who knew the situation for believers in Jerusalem, may even have had personal connections; they weren’t being asked to respond without knowing the situation.
And we should pray in an informed way. Release International’s free quarterly magazine is where you might begin; it will inform and resource you to pray for persecuted Christians. So, if you don’t currently receive it, let me encourage you now to sign up to do so. There are details on our website www.releaseinternational.org to help you sign up. And having listened today, why not share Release’s Lockdown Church talks and resources with your Christian friends?
Could you as an individual, or your church as a fellowship, also commit to support Release’s work? Again, there are details on the website showing how you can give either a one-off gift or hopefully commit to some regular support for Christians across the world.
And finally, I mentioned earlier that my role as a Development Manager is to speak at churches across Wales and the West Midlands. Release has a team of speakers like me who could come and visit your church after the lockdown, or in the meantime produce some digital talks for use in your church. Do get in touch with the office to find out more about this and to be put in touch with the relevant Development Manager for your region.
I close by asking that God would bless you and your church fellowship at this time, and that He would remind you of all that He has done in Christ on your behalf. God bless you.
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