Sunday, October 25, 2020

The Last Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week the Last Sunday after Trinity.

The Last Sunday after Trinity 

Reading: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12

This week’s second reading is from St Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. The Church at Thessalonica was one of the Churches that St Paul is referring to in his letters when he talks about the Churches of Macedonia. Another Macedonian Church, of course, is the Church at Philippi. These Macedonian Churches seem to have been the Churches that were the most supportive of St Paul’s ministry. They did not give him the problems that he had, for example, with Churches such as the Church at Corinth.

St Paul refers in our reading to his first visit when the Church was established in about AD51. He writes about how he and his co-workers, St Silvanus and St Timothy, had been ‘shamefully mistreated at Philippi’ (1 Thessalonians 2:2). St Luke describes both the mistreatment and the establishment of the Church at Thessalonica in Acts chapter 17. All this took place on what is somewhat misleadingly known as St Paul’s second missionary journey. This was when St Paul and his team where forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the Gospel in Asia and, instead, St Paul is given a vision of a man from Macedonia, who says in the vision, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’ (Acts 16:9).

St Paul and his co-workers respond at once to the vision. The first place they visit, as we have been seeing in the sermon series on the letter to the Philippians, is Philippi. After St Paul and his team leave Philippi, they travel down the Via Egnatia, the Roman road linking the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire with Rome, and come to Thessalonica, some 95 miles from Philippi. I think it likely that this was one of the times that St Paul intended to travel on to Rome but was ‘prevented’ (Romans 1:13).

Thessalonica was the capital city of the Province. St Luke tells us that they preached in the synagogue there for ‘three sabbaths’, but were forced to stop because of violent opposition from the Jewish community. From what St Paul writes in the two letters to the Thessalonian believers, it doesn’t seem they immediately left Thessalonica itself. St Paul describes how they ‘worked night and day’, not only in preaching the Gospel but to pay for their stay there and to avoid being a financial burden on the Church.

Nevertheless, St Luke in Acts (Acts 17) and St Paul in this letter both make clear that the opposition got so severe in Thessalonica that St Paul had to leave abruptly, and far sooner than he wanted. The opposition was directed particularly at St Paul personally, as it often was. It was so bad that, even though the Jews in Beroea, the next place they went to, were initially more receptive, Jews from Thessalonica pursued him and stirred up trouble for him there too. The result was that St Paul, not for the first time in his ministry, had to flea for his life, this time by sailing to Athens.

St Paul and St Luke tell us that St Paul sent St Timothy back to Thessalonica to see how the Thessalonians were getting on. St Paul’s concern is that having only been with them for such a short period of time, and then leaving them so suddenly, the Church might not have survived. He realized too that the opposition to the Gospel would not end just because he had left. St Paul makes repeated references in the letter to the suffering and persecution that the Thessalonian believers are themselves experiencing.

Eventually, St Timothy comes back from Thessalonica and meets up with St Paul in Corinth. He is able to put St Paul’s mind at rest concerning the Church at Thessalonica and update him on what has happened since St Paul was forced to leave. St Paul then sends this letter to them to encourage them and to give them advice on a number of issues.

The main emotion that St Paul has in writing this letter is thanksgiving. Thanksgiving that God has chosen the Thessalonian believers; thanksgiving for their response to the Gospel; and thanksgiving that they are persevering. The response of the Thessalonian believers has been such that everyone has heard of their faith. Their response to the Gospel has made a big impression in the regions round about. St Paul writes:

‘For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead - Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.’ (1 Thessalonians 1:8-10)

This really is a big deal. The pagan gods that the Thessalonian believers turned from were part of the social, political, and economic fabric of society. By turning from them, not only did the Thessalonian believers suffer persecution for doing so, they were also alienating themselves from the life of the city in a radical and costly way. Faith is something that each individual needs to have for themselves, but it isn’t only a personal and private matter, it has huge social consequences. St Paul is relieved and grateful that despite the opposition they have experienced from other Thessalonians the Thessalonian believers have, nevertheless, remained firm in their faith.

In the passage from the letter for this week, St Paul writes how his coming to them was ‘not in vain’. Now, given that the Thessalonians have responded so enthusiastically to the Gospel despite so much opposition, we might be tempted to think that it is the Thessalonian believers’ response that St Paul is referring to. In other words, that St Paul is saying that he and his co-workers’ coming was not in vain because the Thessalonian believers responded to their message. That is not, however, what he writes. He writes that their coming was not in vain, because they, that is, St Paul and his co-workers, had the courage to preach ‘in spite of great opposition’ (1 Thessalonians 2:2). St Paul puts the emphasis on the proclamation of God’s Word, not on the Thessalonian believers’ response to it. Their response was important, but that the Gospel was proclaimed far more so.

Following on from this, St Paul writes something that every preacher should take to heart:

‘ … but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please people, but to please God who tests our hearts.’ (1 Thessalonians 2:4)

When he preached, what mattered to St Paul in his preaching was pleasing God, not in the first-place winning converts, and his desire to please God affected how he preached the Gospel. If what matters to you is people’s response, then you will focus on the methods you use to get the best response, even tailoring your message to make it more acceptable. St Paul, however, refused to go down that path. He did not use words of ‘flattery’ (1 Thessalonians 2:5). He doesn’t appeal to what he knows his audience likes or wants to hear, but concentrates instead on what God wants them to hear - whether they want to hear it or not!

Not only does his satisfaction in preaching the word of God not come from getting people to respond, it does not come from any financial reward he gets for preaching either (1 Thessalonians 2:5). St Paul probably feels the need to say this because, then as now, there were plenty of people who acted, not out of a commitment to the truth, but out of a desire to make money. Sadly, we know of all too many in the Church today who have gotten rich on preaching the Gospel. St Paul makes it very clear, as did our Lord, that those who preach the Gospel should get paid for preaching the Gospel: ‘the worker is worthy of his hire’ (Luke 10:7; 1 Corinthians 9:14), as Jesus puts it. But the motivation for preaching the Gospel should not be money, and when it comes to the money ministers of the Gospel receive: enough is enough!

The fact that St Paul had to leave Thessalonica so suddenly may have left him open to accusations of being a trickster who had been after the Thessalonian believers money. It may even have been falsely rumoured that St Paul left when he was found out The fact that he didn’t take any of their money, but worked night and day to pay his way, as the Thessalonian believers know he did, effectively answers any possible criticism on that score!

It is God St Paul preaches to please. But that doesn’t mean St Paul couldn’t care less about the Thessalonian believers. Anything but. St Paul sees the fact that the Thessalonian believers respond to the Gospel as evidence that God has chosen them (1 Thessalonians 1:4) and that they are God’s children and, therefore, part of the family of God. St Paul repeatedly uses family language throughout the letter. He constantly addresses them, for example, as brothers and sisters. In our passage this week, he describes how he was simultaneously like a child, a mother, and a father when he was with them. He uses these images to stress how he was gentle like a child with them, how he nurtured them like a mother nurses her children, and how he guided them as a father.

St Paul, then, spends the first part of the letter going over his relationship with the Thessalonian believers. He establishes the priority of the Gospel, emphasizes the importance of remaining faithful to it, and of persevering despite opposition. He confirms the depth of his feeling for them and the relationship between them. It is only once he has done this that he goes on to answer the questions he has heard they have and to give them teaching about how they are to live for Christ.

So, what can we learn from what he has written so far? I want to highlight three things:

1. The Church is a family

Christ Church seeks to be a family Church. We welcome everyone whatever their age or background. We are blessed to have families with three generations belonging to the Church. We are especially pleased to see families with children coming to Church. But being a family Church doesn’t stop there. We want to be a family in how we relate to one another and how we behave as a Church.

I imagine that many would agree with this sentiment. It sounds nice, doesn’t it, and many Churches would share our aim. But wanting to be a family Church isn’t just a nice idea; if we are serious it has to affect how we go about being the Church. Being a family Church should determine how we relate to each other; how we organize ourselves; and how we make decisions about our life as a Church. St Paul writes:

‘So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.’ (1 Thessalonians 2:8)

As we have seen, the images St Paul uses to describe his relationship with them are all family images. In his other letters, he will use other images alongside that of the family to describe the Church. He will write, for example, of how we are the ‘body of Christ’ and the ‘temple of Holy Spirit’. The one image, however, he doesn’t use to describe what the Church is like is that of a business.

And yet, it is the business model, despite all our fine sounding talk using the Biblical images, that predominates in how we go about being the Church today. I remember when I first came to Christ Church. Just before the first Church Council meeting, I was chatting quite informally with one of the members. When the meeting started, however, he suddenly started addressing me, not as Ross, but as Mr Chairman. Thankfully, no-one calls me that now!

The business model is to be seen, for example, in the way we elect members to Church synods and councils, hold Annual General Meetings (when we are allowed to), and make decisions by formal motions. We even have legal canons and need lawyers to interpret them. Our structures and the way we do things are, in other words, no different to that of any business. If you organize yourself as a business, you will think like a business.

This is why, for example, we talk about promoting the Church rather than proclaiming the Gospel; getting members, rather than making disciples; and doing fund-raising, rather than giving generously. It is why we have mission statements. Why we are so obsessed with property and accounts. Why we judge success, not by spiritual growth, but by the numbers attending services. Why how much money church-goers pledge matters more than the spiritual commitment they make.

I love the Church, but I hate the way we do Church.

We desperately need to take seriously what it means to be the family of God, not as a nice idea when we meet for worship and chat over coffee on a Sunday, but as the model for how we go about being the Church.

This should affect every aspect of our church life including all the practicalities associated with it. Families need a place to live and families need to do their household accounts, but the way they do all this is very different to how a business will do it. We need to stop thinking of the Church as a religious business and take seriously what it means to be the family of God.

2. We must be true to our foundation

What is striking, in even a superficial reading of first Thessalonians, is how St Paul keeps reminding the Thessalonian believers of the word of God that he preached when he came to them. He uses phrases such as ‘as you know’, ‘you remember’, ‘you are aware’ frequently throughout the letter. St Paul will tell them in chapter 3:

‘For we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord.’ (1 Thessalonians 3:8)

In 1 Corinthians, he writes:

‘According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.’ (1 Corinthians 3:10-11)

Being a follower of Christ is not easy, as the Thessalonians were finding out. It is not easy simply keeping the teaching of Jesus; it is even harder when our culture is founded on ideas and attitudes totally at variance with it; and even harder still when we are mocked or attacked for our faith. We will soon fall if we don’t have a firm foundation. We need to be like the wise man who built his house on the rock Matthew 7:24-27). This means that all of us individually we need to know our faith and be committed to it.

The same is true for us as the family of God, that is, corporately as the Church.

One of my main concerns in my own ministry at the moment is the extent to which the Church is abandoning the foundations of its faith. This is happening quite consciously and deliberately. We are so anxious to be seen to be relevant and to keep our place in the world that we are adopting the values and attitudes of the world around us, rather than standing firm on the foundation of our faith.

The Creeds of the Church, for example, which were once seen as providing a basic summary of what we believe, are now often dismissed as simply being what some people in the Church believed at the time they were written. This might have some justification if the Creeds were being rejected as un-Biblical, but the reason for their rejection is often precisely because they are Biblical and state Biblical teaching in a succinct way.

All too often in describing how we should live as believers, we begin by assuming that what we now believe to be right must be right. Having made this assumption, when we come to interpret and understand the Bible, we can then take one of two approaches.

Firstly, we can say that the Bible is wrong if it doesn’t teach what we know to be right and simply ignore what it says. This, at least, is an honest approach.

Another approach, and one which is increasingly being used, is to read what we think to be self-evidently true back into the Bible.

If we today are sure we know something is right and true, and we believe the Bible to teach what is right and true, then, it follows, or so we think, that the Bible must teach what we believe. If it doesn’t seem to at first sight, then we assume that this must be because we have been understanding and interpreting it incorrectly. We then go to great lengths to interpret it in such away as to make it mean what we want it to mean.

And so, for example, when it comes to issues of human sexuality and gender, we begin with what we now believe to be true, and then seek to show how the Bible agrees with us, even if for two thousand years no-one has understood it this way.

There is a need for open and honest discussion of the issues that are facing us in the Church and world today. But we need to begin not with what we want to believe or think to be right, but with what the Bible teaches. There will be a need for us to ask all sorts of questions about interpretation and application, but we need to begin with what God has said, not with what we would have liked him to have said.

There is a wonderful hymn the first verse of which is:

‘How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
you, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?’

3. We need to be faithful in our proclamation

Our business-driven model of the Church means that we worry about Church attendance. This is not without some justification. We want people to come to know Christ. And to be entirely honest with you, I prefer a Church with people in it than one without. Sadly, church attendance in many parts of the world is declining drastically. Just this week, I was reading about how attendance in the Church of England seems now to be in terminal decline.

Paradoxically, however, the answer to such decline is not to think how we can attract more members. When we make attracting members our main priority we will, as St Paul puts it, engage in flattery. We don’t call it that, we call it trying make our message more relevant or appealing. Once we do that, however, even if it is for the best of motives, it won’t be long before we start to change our message. This often begins by leaving out of our proclamation those parts that we think will put people off. Certainly, telling people that they have to deny themselves, if they want to be a follower of Christ, isn’t going to immediately attract people.

But it doesn’t stop there: once we have left parts out, the temptation then is to change what we actually do say, so that what we say is what we think people want to hear. How God loves them, for example, just as they are; that it’s not their fault they have made such a mess of their lives; that it will all be OK in the end.

But here’s the thing: St Paul would challenge us to stop worrying about being liked and being popular. Of course, we want to present the word of God in an as attractive a way as possible. We want to make sure we are speaking in a way that people can understand. But we are to do all this knowing that the person we are seeking to please is not the person we are hoping will become a member of the family, but God himself. The audience we have to please is God.

At the end of a sermon, the question I have to ask myself is not what you thought of it, but what did God think of it. I hope you will find what I say interesting and will want to listen to me, but that cannot, or at least it should not, be my main concern. Each time I preach, I have to ask whether I have said everything that God wants me to say irrespective of whether you like it or not, or find it interesting or not.

Indeed, the reality is that very often people won’t find what we say interesting, and very often they won’t like what we say. Sometimes, not only will they not respond positively to our message, they will find our message deeply offensive and want to stop us from spreading it. Just as they did with St Paul and his co-workers; just as they did with the Thessalonian believers themselves; and just as they did with our Lord himself.

The good news is that the growth of the Church and who does or does not respond to the Gospel is God’s concern. Our concern is to please God in what we preach and then give ourselves completely to those that God gives to us. Numbers will go up and down. The size of our congregation is not what matters; what matters is whether we are faithful in our preaching of the word of God.

When I appear before the judgement seat of Christ, the question I will be asked won’t be about how many people came to hear me preach, but whether I was faithful in what I preached.

And so, like the Thessalonian believers, may we too learn from the example of Saints Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy. May we make it our goal to be the family of God, built on the foundation of the word of God, and to be faithful in proclaiming the Gospel of God, which has been entrusted by God to us, the chosen of God.


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