Monday, October 30, 2023

Even So We Speak

I have not given up hope that one day I won't have to be constantly watching the clock when I preach and that I will be able to take the time I think it needs to preach on the reading in a relaxed way. That day is not yet!

Until it comes, it means making sometimes difficult decisions about what to say and what to leave out.  This week for the Last Sunday after Trinity rather than give a written transcript of the sermon, I have edited the transcript and expanded it a bit.

The sermon itself is available as a podcast. To hear it, click on the following link:

The Last Sunday after Trinity

Reading: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

St Paul, in chapter 1 of his first letter to the Thessalonians, has already referred to the persecution that the Thessalonian believers have suffered since becoming believers (1 Thessalonians 1:6). St Paul will refer to it again later in the chapter from which our reading is taken (1 Thessalonians 2:14). He will tell them that they are not alone and that the believers in Judea are also suffering severe persecution from those they live among.

In our reading for this week, St Paul begins by reminding the Thessalonian believers of the suffering and the opposition he and his team experienced at Philippi before coming to Thessalonica. Before that, St Paul had also experienced real opposition when he had gone to Galatia with Barnabas. Opposition that saw St Paul being stoned and taken for dead (Acts 14:19).

Suffering and persecution were to become the norm in the early church. St Paul in his letters tells believers to expect it, and Jesus had given similar warnings. We are, I think, generally aware that believers in the early Church faced opposition, but we tend to lump it all together and treat it as all being of the same kind. In fact, opposition and persecution came from different sources for different reasons.

Firstly, the early Church experienced opposition from the Jews. We know that the leaders of Jesus’ own people were responsible for his death, and St Paul will refer to the part they played in Jesus’ death, again later in this chapter (1 Thessalonians 2:15-16). While after our Lord’s resurrection many of the Jewish people became believers, there remained many who were opposed to the new movement. St Paul himself was originally one of the leaders of the Jewish opposition to the movement. Ironically, St Paul was himself to be on the receiving end of opposition from Jews, and it was Jews who violently forced him out of Thessalonica when he, St Silvanus and St Timothy first went there (Acts 17:5-9).

Secondly, the early Church experienced opposition from the pagans. At Philippi, for example, it had been from pagans that St Paul and his co-workers had suffered persecution (Acts 16:16-40). Pagans would not normally have worried too much about a new religion. The problem was the exclusive nature of the message that St Paul and his team preached. The demand that the pagans turn from their idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thessalonians 1:9) did not just have personal consequences for the individual believer, it had social, political, and economic consequences as well. That had been part of the problem at Philippi, while at Ephesus, people responding to the Gospel undermined a whole industry that was based on the worship of the goddess Artemis (Acts 19:23-41).

Thirdly, opposition also came from within the Church itself. The early Church was originally a movement within Judaism. St Paul was accused by people he describes as ‘false brethren’ (Galatians 2:4; 2 Corinthians 11:13, 26) of teaching Jews to abandon God’s Law and customs integral to Judaism (Acts 20:20-21). It was Jewish believers who caused so much trouble for St Paul within the churches in Galatia and then later in Corinth. It was the fear that St Paul was leading people to abandon God’s Law and Jewish customs that eventually resulted in St Paul losing his freedom.

So, all in all, the early Church found itself having to confront and cope with real opposition on several fronts. When St Paul talks in our reading, then, of having had courage in God, he is not exaggerating. The Church faced opposition on all sides. Faced with such opposition, we might have thought that St Paul and his associates would have been eager to make as many converts as they possibly could, and we might have expected them to tailor their message accordingly. But St Paul is anxious to stress how he, St Silvanus, and St Timothy sought to please God rather than to please any human audience. St Paul refuses to be deterred from preaching the Gospel he has been entrusted with and refuses to try to please those that he is preaching to by changing it in any way. St Paul and his co-workers did not preach what they thought their audience wanted to hear. They did not say what might be to their own benefit, nor did they seek praise or popularity.

Now this uncompromising attitude might have made them seem somewhat hard, cold, and detached. People who refuse to compromise can come across like this. But this was not the case with St Paul and his co-workers. They were so committed to the Thessalonian believers that they were like a nursing mother tenderly taking care of her children. St Paul and his co-workers were committed to God and to the Thessalonians, and it was this dual commitment that was on display when St Paul and his co-workers went to Thessalonica.

Three things, then, from this for us today. Three keywords if you like: opposition, orientation, and operation.

1. Opposition

If we preach the Gospel faithfully, we are going to meet opposition. We should not seek it or provoke it. In fact, St Paul says, that as much as depends on us, we are to live peaceably with everyone (Romans 12:18). And that's not easy, because it means compromising our own feelings and our own desires. But if we are to be faithful to the Gospel, then we, like St Paul, will not be able to compromise our message.

Jesus warned his disciples that if the world had hated him, it would hate them (John 15:18). In the world, Jesus warned them, they would have trouble and (John 16:33). As those societies that have traditionally been sympathetic to the Christian faith turn from it, they will increasingly turn against it. And that is what we are seeing at the moment, and it will only increase and get worse.

There are two reactions in the Church to this. Firstly, to try and hold on to the past, and, secondly, to embrace the changes that we see taking place in society in the hope of keeping our place in it. I think it is the second reaction that is gaining the most pace in the Church at the moment. We in the Church are facing demands from within the Church itself to change traditional doctrine and to embrace a progressive agenda, not least when it comes to sexual ethics.

We need in the Church to wake up to the fact that opposition is coming. We have seen some of the ways that that opposition might come to us in the so-called ‘new atheism’ of a few years ago. It is only going to get worse. And I have to say that most leaders in the Church are in complete denial about this. They hope that by holding on to the past or by becoming more like the world, we will win people back. It isn't going to happen! We in the church need to be prepared for the opposition that we are inevitably going to have to face.

2. Orientation

Opposition is not all bad. It shouldn't be sought, but as Samuel Johnson said in the eighteenth century:

‘Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’

The fact that we are going to face opposition, indeed are already facing it, should make us concentrate and decide what it is that matters to us. It should force us to determine just what our message actually is.

We need in the Church to accept that the past is past. There is no going back to where we were in the world and to the position we once had in it. The Church is not going to have the place, the role, or the influence that it had in the past. And it is not going to regain that place, role, or influence by seeking to be relevant.

As a Church, like St. Paul, we are not called to be either popular or relevant. We are called to have courage. Courage like that of two saints I have mentioned in previous sermons and talks: Saints Perpetua and Felicity. These were two young mothers in the third century who went to their death rather than compromise their faith in the Gospel.

We are to be like them. Their orientation was toward God and what he wanted of them and not to themselves and their own well-being. We are far too concerned with our image, with how we are seen, and with how people respond to us. St Paul knew that the audience he had to please was not the people he was preaching to, but God. The Gospel is a message that we have been entrusted with by God to pass on to people faithfully.

Now, if someone asks you to be a messenger and deliver an important message for them, what matters is that you get the message right. If, for example, someone is sent to tell a whole group of people who live in one particular street that the road is going to be closed or that for their own safety their apartment block needs to be evacuated, the important thing for the messenger is to make sure the message they deliver is accurate and correct. Whether people respond to that message or not is not the messenger’s primary concern. The messenger might hope that those they take it to will respond to the message, but it is getting the message right that they must focus on.

If you were sent with a message like this, you would not think, ‘Well, I'd better change the message so the people who live on the road aren't inconvenienced too much or those in the building are not offended by it.’ You would want to make sure that the message was actually the message you had been given.

God has given us a message, and we change it at our peril, and we fail to take it seriously at our peril. Of course, we hope people will listen. Of course, we will do all that we can to see that they do. But ultimately our concern must be to preach the Gospel faithfully. We must pass on to people the message of the Gospel and God has revealed it to us.

3. Operation

Opposition, orientation, and, thirdly, operation. How we deliver our message is important. Some years ago, Marshall McLuhan - I don't know if anyone remembers him, he was a Canadian philosopher - famously said, the ‘medium is the message’. In other words, how we deliver the message cannot be separated from the message itself. And St Paul makes a similar point in our reading this morning.

God is the one that we are to be orientated towards. God is the one that we are to please as we deliver his message, and as we deliver God's message, St. Paul writes, God will test our hearts. He will test our hearts to make sure our motives are right as we deliver his message and that the way we deliver the message does not change it or distort it.

St Paul stresses that he and his co-workers were anxious to ensure that in delivering the message of the Gospel that they got their motives and methods right. St Paul gives three examples of approaches they refused to use in delivering the message God had given them. They never used flattery, they were not greedy, and they did not seek praise, either from the Thessalonian believers or from anyone else.

Firstly, then, in preaching the Gospel, we too are not to use flattery. We are not to tell people what they want to hear and which makes them feel good about themselves. Again, our main concern is to be whether what we tell is the truth as God has given to us, not whether they will like it or not!

Secondly, we are to avoid greed. We may not be people who preach the Gospel for financial gain, although, sadly, we see examples of so-called evangelists who clearly do. Greed, however, can take many forms. Greed can show itself in ambition and a desire to get on and get ahead. Clergy, for example, are often encouraged to see their ministry in terms of career advancement. We talk about positions in the Church and whether they are senior or not. We discuss what positions clergy have in the hierarchy of the Church. St Paul would be horrified with such talk. He would see it as an example of greed.

Now you may say to me this morning, ‘Ross, that's just sour grapes on your part because you haven’t got very high in the hierarchy.’ Well, fair enough, but if you do not want to listen to me, listen to His Holiness Pope Francis who has said exactly the same thing just this past week!

Thirdly, we should not seek praise. We all like to be popular. It is always nice when people praise us, and we should indeed praise people for doing something good and right for God, but we should not do something good or right in order to get the praise.

Our desire for a response, to do well for ourselves, or to be popular can easily lead us to distort our message and to make ourselves the focus of the message. St Paul reminds the Thessalonian believers in our reading that when it comes to ourselves, we are not to worry about what we can get out of the Gospel; we are to worry about how much we can give for the Gospel. He and Saints Silvanus and Timothy gave their very selves to the Thessalonian believers. We must reject all false methods and motives and be prepared instead to give ourselves completely, so that people that may hear the Gospel.

St Paul writes:

‘… 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)


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