You don’t have to be an Einstein to know that the real Albert Einstein was correct when he said: “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.” Jesus taught that. He said that if you try to save your life, try to hold it tightly to yourself, you’ll lose it. But if you lose your life in the Kingdom, you’ll find it.
Paul not only taught it; he lived it. Looking back on that first, difficult visit to Thessalonica, he writes, “You know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain....” The persecution, the suffering, the mistreatment, the opposition we faced together ... it was not in vain, which is another way of saying that it was all worthwhile.
“So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God – not just the story of Jesus in the Gospels – but also our own selves.”
I suppose that a good copy editor, looking at that sentence, would point out that it is redundant to say, “our own selves” – after all, your “own” self is the only “self” you’ve got! But I think Paul did it for a purpose, to underscore the call to share our selves, our life, our whole being.
Do you remember the day they came to Jesus and asked, “Jesus, which is the greatest commandment?” I mean, if you had to boil it all down into one great word about human life, which would it be? What really makes life worthwhile? What fulfills God’s intention for human life? And Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
The greatest thing in life, the thing that really makes life worthwhile, is loving God with our whole heart and mind and strength. But God, after all, is intangible, invisible, infinite. So Jesus says that this love of God becomes tangible, visible, finite in our love for others. God’s love becomes real as we share our own selves in love for others.
I’d submit to you that this is very radical stuff. I know that it sounds like what you expect to hear in church on Sunday morning, but think about it out there in the world in which we live the rest of the week. This is radical stuff! In fact, it is a contradiction of the most commonly held assumptions of our culture today.
Latin American theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, said: “Christians are those who believe, contrary to the law of physics, that we stand straight when our center of gravity is outside ourselves.” People of faith are folk who, contrary to the assumptions of the world around us, believe that life is really worthwhile, we really stand up straight as human beings, when our center of gravity is not our own self interest, but is outside ourselves.
We’ve been conditioned to think that life is really worthwhile when it is centered in ourselves, as if the primary purpose of human existence is to get our needs met, our hungers satisfied, our desires fulfilled. We’ve been conditioned to think that Whitney Houston knew what she was talking about when she wailed, “The greatest love of all is easy to achieve, learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.”
That’s a crock! Look at the kind of society around us. This is the kind of society you get when people think that the greatest love of all is loving themselves. This is the kind of world you end up with when people think that the most important thing in the world is their own self-interest.
Nothing could be more of a contradiction of the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ, which shows us that the greatest love of all is not easy to achieve. The greatest love of all is giving ourselves for the sake of others. Now, that’s radical stuff. Get hold of that, and it’s like being born again. It’s a total conversion in the way we think, we live, we act. Only the life lived for others is a life worthwhile. We are called by God to share our own selves.
So, what does it mean for us to take this great spiritual truth and make it a finite, tangible reality in our own experience? For 40, 50, 60, and more hours a week we use our talents, our brains, our energy, our skills – some of us even give our health – to our careers.
At the end of the week or the month we bring home a check, which is nothing more or less than a tangible expression of our selves, our lives. It is my breath, energy, intelligence put into a usable, finite form. That’s why it’s so important: it represents something of who I am. It is a piece of myself.
And do you realize what the church invites us to do with that? The church invites me to take a piece of who I am, a tangible part of myself, and put it on the altar before God. Nobody else does that for me.
There are a lot of good charities which need my support.
There are a lot of cultural and educational institutions which deserve a part of my resources.
There are good Christian organizations around the world in which I ought to invest. But there is only one place where I can put a piece of myself on the altar before God, and that’s right here – in the community of faith.
If you ask me: Fred, what is the most important element in our worship service?,” I would say it is the offering. It is that moment when we put a piece of ourselves on the altar before God, to be used for God’s purpose in the world.
The Bible does not begin with how much the church needs to receive, but with how desperately we need to give, how we need to share ourselves, to allow the love of God which we feel in our souls to become a reality in our world. The problem is not that we think too highly of our money, but that we don’t think of it highly enough, on the level Jesus thought of it, as a way of connecting our lives with the love of God.
I’ll never forget the first time I worshiped at the great Riverside Church in New York City, the Protestant cathedral on the Hudson. The aisle must be the length of a football field. We were late getting there and ended up in the front row of the balcony. I’ve long ago forgotten the sermon, but I’ve never forgotten the offering.
As I watched the ushers from the balcony, I realized that they reflected the cosmopolitan, international identity of that church in that city. There were folk who looked like me – white, young, males – but there were also Asians, Blacks, young people, old people, men and women – as they received the offering they represented the whole body of the Church.
The choir finished the anthem and the organist began to modulate into the Doxology, gradually building rank upon rank of the organ. Just as I thought he must be reaching the full power of the organ, the ushers started down the aisle. As they came down the aisle, the congregation stood, row by row as the ushers passed. From the balcony it looked like a great wave of humanity, rising up before the altar.
When the ushers reached the Communion Table, the organist opened up the trumpets which were up behind the balcony, and it lifted us up in a moment of worshipful ecstasy. I said, “God, You are doing something here! There’s a divine transaction going on here! God is at work in the gifts of His people.” It was a moment of genuine commitment and spiritual power as people’s lives were offered to God. And I’ve never viewed the offering in the same way since.
How much are you willing to share? The Spirit of God probes all of us with that question. And may we, like the apostle, be determined to share, not only the gospel of God, but our own selves. It is, after all, the best thing you have to share.
Rev. Dr. Fred Andrea is the pastor of Aiken’s First Baptist Church.