Defiant and Reliant
This sermon is formatted for presentation, not the prevention of errors.
Do you ever get your feelings hurt and then someone asks you why you’re so upset and you can’t quite tell them? As a part of my ministry with youth and young adults, I am often approached by young people who are struggling with a breakup and I will ask them questions about why they are upset and they will express that they feel guilty for breaking up with the other person. I’ll ask them what the purpose of dating is and they will say things like, “You date the person, you become committed, and then, when the time is right, you get married.” And I’ll ask, “What if it’s not a match? If that’s the case, why didn’t you marry your seventh-grade boyfriend?” Just because the other person is hurting, doesn’t mean you did the wrong thing in breaking up.
But they feel like they have done something wrong because they had a hard conversation. But not every hard conversation happens because someone did something wrong. Sometimes we have to have the hard conversations so that we can move on to better things that are a better match for us and our goals.
It seems like there was a similar kind of drama at work in the Thessalonian Church and that was getting in their way of being the church that Christ called them to be, getting in the way of being the church Paul knew they could be.
In the first part of 1 Thessalonians, chapter 2, Paul reminds them that he has preached the gospel to them at great cost to himself. Paul may have been at the center of this drama because he says, “I didn’t try to trick you. I didn’t bring a hidden agenda. I just wanted to share Christ with you.”
He continues by telling them that though he came with some clout provided by his being an apostle, he never tried to act too important. He came to minister with them, not to lord his authority over them. And the proof of all of this was found the truth that it is working. He says that they are the proof of his leadership. They heard the gospel and responded with holy spirit filled enthusiasm. They are the best witnesses for his defense.
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 (NRSV)
You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.
I’ve been involved in a lot of churches in my life. I took a couple of years off of going to church when I was a young man, much like many of us, or our children, have. But, I have mostly gone to church weekly for entire life. As a result, I have attended a lot of different churches and I have been able to see what the stronger churches have in common.
Can we get it out of the way that the goals of every church, or at least every church that is living their mission – the goal of every church is to make disciples for the transformation of the world. That’s using the language of our United Methodist mission statement from the Book of Discipline. But all churches are trying to do that, at least in theory.
The strongest churches that I have seen, though of course, they seek to make disciples and to see world transformation, they (also) have a clear sense of identity and call. That is, they know that they are the church that fills in the blank. Or maybe I should say that they are the church that fills in the blank. They recognize within their context and within a clear understanding of who they are (and of course whose they are), the see the needs of their neighbors: I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was in prison… Matthew 25, read it. As a church, they heard Jesus’s call and answered in the way that they felt led. The know, their deepest inclinations tell them that they are the church in their neighborhood that focuses on children, that focuses on families, that focuses on feeding people, that focuses on deeper experience of God…. They know their identity and they live “go, therefore, and make disciples of every nation… (Matthew 28) from that God-given identity. These are the strongest churches I know. They respond to the world, and to God’s call, from a deep well of faith and from a self-knowledge that brings strength in times of turmoil. They know whose they are and they know who they are.
But how did they get that way?
In the scripture that we just read, we find that the Thessalonian Church must be in the midst of an argument with each other, and with Paul, an argument that we only get to hear one side of. That is, we only hear Paul’s side. But that one side tells us a lot.
If I told you, “So then I said to him, ‘I am not a jerk!’” You could probably deduce that he had called me a jerk just before this moment in the dialogue. Modern biblical scholars and theologians have begun to ask us not to make these assumptions, but most of the time I think it rings true to our own human experiences. We can know that Paul, when he is on the defensive in this letter, has probably been embroiled in some sort of controversy.
But I want to encourage us to see Paul’s controversy as being a part of a larger goal. He desperately wants them to grow into the church that Christ is calling them to be. He wants to move them from being scattered and afraid and bickering to having a focused purpose within the story of God in Christ.
And Paul knows that this is going to be hard work. And I don’t mean hand work, exactly. I don’t mean the kind of hard work that, frankly our women’s group, and many others in this church have been doing this week with our annual Craft Faire. I mean emotional work. I mean the work of having hard conversations, defining who they are as a people, as a church, and as followers of Christ. The hard work of hard conversations that teach them who they are and how they are going to treat each other.
Paul tells them that they have become imitators of him and of Timothy and Silas, and he says that he has been clear and defined and didn’t “take advantage” of them; he didn’t “butter [them] up” to get their approval; and he did the hard work of showing them what they were meant to be when he “worked [his] fingers to the bone” (1 Thess. 2:1-9, sel., MSG).
His having to defend his actions in this way tells us something important: they don’t think of Paul like we do. He’s Saint Paul to us. He’s Bible to us. To them, he’s their silly pastor who always asks more of them than they are willing to give up. He’s the pushy, little, bald-headed guy, that comes around or sends letters every so often to interject where he is not welcome. He’s just their pastor. He’s not Saint… he’s barely welcome.
But he says what has to be said. He tells them, ‘You may not like the way I have done things all the time. You may not even like me all the time, but, if you search yourselves, you will see that I haven’t done anything wrong. You’ll see that all I am guilty of is loving God and loving you and seeking to see you become closer to Christ, closer to each other, so that Christ will be victorious within you and totally change the world.’
With this thought and this little speech, Paul lets us know that being a Christian, in the Church, comes with the responsibility of having hard conversations, conversations that we don’t necessarily like.
But here’s the best part, Paul says that this work, this preaching the gospel out of a deep sense of call and identity… it worked.
“And now we look back on all this and thank God, a [deep] well of thanks! When you got the Message of God we preached, you didn’t pass it off as just one more human opinion, but you took it to heart as God’s true word to you, which it is, God himself at work in you believers” (1 Thess. 2:13, MSG).
When these hard conversations are sacred, when they aren’t just bickering disguised as theology, when these conversations aren’t just our ‘human’ opinions standing in the way of what God wants to do because [and here’s the cliche’] ‘we’ve always done it that way,’ then God is going to work. Paul says it has worked. The Thessalonian Church is his best defense. For once they were lost, but now they’re found… still a little blind, but on the way to sight.
Isn’t that us? Still a little blind but on the way to sight. We’re bumping around, seeking God’s deepest call in this church, bumping into each other’s emotions, bumping into conversations we don’t want to hear, but that are deeply important…. Isn’t that us?
The good news for us is the same as it was for the Thessalonians: When we drop our guards, admit our faults, love one another without condition or cost, have the hard conversations, God is going to work in that. God just is. And in doing the work, we will begin to see with clarity who we are as a church, we’ll begin to see what we’re called to be. We will begin to be one of those stronger churches that a deep sense of their identity within the kingdom of God. We will truly begin to see Christ at work through us.
And so, as we go into ministry together, may we seek to accept, to love, to do the hard work of being a church together so that all may be blessed by Christ through us.