Christian Aid Sunday - a Community of Charity

A sermon preached in the United Benefice by Martin Carr, 12 May 2013

Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

From the second letter of Clement: ‘Giving to charity is as good as a repentance from sin. Fasting is better than prayer, but giving to charity is better than both.’

When it came to charity, the early Church was militant. Acts of generous sharing were not merely praiseworthy, they were essential proof of the believer’s faith in Christ. As we so often overlook charity as a Christian virtue, reflecting more on less concrete concepts such as love, faith or forgiveness, Christian Aid Sunday is the perfect opportunity to ground ourselves in the fact that the life of the early Church was based in radical charity. Three examples should suffice, two from the Book of Acts and one from Paul.

In chapter 4 of Acts, we read this:
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

So the community according to this passage lived a communistic lifestyle, sharing all in common. No-one was in need. And as I have already indicated, this was not a voluntary state of life. In chapter 5 of Acts we hear of Sapphira and Ananias. They sell their property, but retain some of the money for themselves. Peter rebukes them, and they fall down dead. Harsh perhaps, but the point is made that radical charity, not private ownership, is the hallmark of the believing community.

In chapter 6 of Acts, another incident occurs calling our attention to the charitable function of the Church:
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task.

So as the Church grows, one group, the widows of the Greek-speaking believers, are left hungry. The apostles respond by appointing seven disciples to administrate the community’s charitable works. These include, notably, the martyr Stephen and the evangelist Phillip.

My final example of the charitable work of the early Church is Paul’s collection for the saints in Judea. Here he is in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 16:
Now concerning the collection for the saints: you should follow the directions I gave to the churches of Galatia. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn, so that collections need not be taken when I come. And when I arrive, I will send any whom you approve with letters to take your gift to Jerusalem. If it seems advisable that I should go also, they will accompany me.

The Judean Christians, those who were in fact the subject of the examples from Acts, were among the poorest of the early Christian communities. Whereas in Acts radical charity occurs within the community, Paul builds up a network of churches in which communities have charitable obligations towards each other. As he journeys through Asia, Macedonia and Achaea on his third missionary journey he takes up a collection with the intention of bringing it to the aid of the Jerusalem community. It is obvious that not every member of the Church is as radically generous as Paul himself. In the second letter to the Corinthians he launches a long exhortation urging their support for his charitable aims:
The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

Against this background we can begin to understand Clement a little better. At first we might think it rather unholy to exalt mere acts of charity above more spiritual disciplines such as prayer and fasting, but that is to misunderstand the nature of the early Christian communities. Joining the Church was a serious business; its members had solemn responsibilities for each other and the wider Church. It was this radical charity in fact which made the Christian religion so attractive to outsiders. Even Pagans were often forced to admit their admiration.

We, of course, are not the early Church. It would be a mistake to believe we can return to a golden age of Christian charity. But in fact we should be encouraged that many of the values of the early Church are now political realities. Even in an age of austerity large budgets support social welfare and international development, the fruits of two millennia of the Christian faith in our continent. But at the same time, the vision of the Book of Acts, that no-one should live in need, has yet to be realised. Millions are still crippled by poverty and hunger, by lack of education and healthcare, by poor amenities and dirty water. Christian charity is more necessary today than ever.

Today is the beginning of Christian Aid Week, the charity’s main fundraising event in the year. The money we raise will go towards supporting the world’s poorest communities, in just the same way as Paul’s churches sent their gifts to bring relief to the Christians in Jerusalem. I have been involved with Christian Aid for almost two decades, in fundraising and in campaigning. Christian Aid are not content merely to treat the symptoms of injustice, but are there to tackle its causes. Here in the United Benefice we have pledged our particular support to supporting Christian Aid’s work in Afghanistan. 36 percent of Afghans live below the poverty line. Less than half are literate, and among women literacy runs at only 13 percent. Maternal mortality is high. By supporting women’s education in Afghanistan Christian Aid aim to enable Afghans to have the skills and resources to make a better future for themselves.

So what can we do? Well as a start we can give. With your pew sheet this morning I hope you received a red Christian Aid envelope. You can make a donation in the offertory today, or bring it back to me here at church during the week or next Sunday. But as the Jerusalem church commissioned the seven disciples to bring relief to the poor widows, we must be commissioned ourselves for this great task of charity which underpins our life together. Are we able to go door to door collecting? Can we give a little time to shaking a tin on Notting Hill Gate next Saturday? Might we organise our own event to raise awareness of the issues facing Afghanistan or other poor countries? As well as the envelope, you should also have a sheet produced by Amanda, which lists some of the ways you can get involved. In an era where there is deep suspicion of Christianity among many in our society, Christian Aid Week is an opportunity for the Church to be visible and active promoting a positive and life-affirming gospel – good news for the poor.

Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor. So writes the author of the book of Proverbs. May we be so blessed as we live out our calling to share our resources, for the good of our planet and all God’s people. Amen.