Friday, September 23, 2011

Sacraments: Channels of God's Grace

    Roughly one sixth of the world does not have a reliable supply of clean drinking water.  More than 3.5 million people die every year because of water related illness.
    Scientists and community organizers have tried to solve this problem in a variety of ways, but one of the most creative is atmospheric water generators.   AWG’s take water from the air around us.  In most environments, there is enough water in the air to provide clean drinking water for several families with a single AWG machine.  This is an amazing technology.  The water is already there.  We just have to tap into it.
    However, we also have to recognize that this is not the normal way people get water.  Normally, people go to one of three sources for their water: rivers, lakes, or wells.  For many thousands of years, most people in most places have gotten most of their water from these reliable sources - rivers, lakes, and wells.  This water is much easier to reach.

    That’s kind of how grace works.  God’s grace is all around us.  We can experience God laying in our beds or walking on a mountain or riding a subway.  Grace is in the air we breathe.  We just have to tap into it.
    This is beautiful and profound, but we are also wise to recognize that there are some “normal” ways to experience God’s grace.  There are some normal channels of grace that have proved effective means of grace, and our spiritual ancestors have been coming back to these basic channels of grace for thousands of years.
    Theologians call these “means of grace.”  Down through the years, the Church has recognized two means of grace as being especially deep and meaningful for Christians: baptism and communion.  These are often called the sacraments. 
    A sacrament is a living drama of God’s gracious action.  It is a sign pointing to grace.  In a sacrament, we remember what God has done for us through Jesus.  But in this remembering and re-enacting, we are also opening ourselves to God’s gracious action again.  It seems that we humans need to experience these very physical things - water, bread, and wine - to help us experience the fullness of God’s grace.  The physical is somehow connected to the spiritual.  The sign pointing us to grace also becomes a channel bringing grace to us.

    Let’s talk about BAPTISM first.  Baptism is a sign of God’s new covenant of grace through Jesus.  The water is a sign of God’s cleansing, washing away our sins, purifying us, marking us for God’s Kingdom and service. 
    We are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  The Father created us, loves us, and calls us all.  The Son gave his life so that we can be forgiven and set free.  The Spirit actually does the work in our hearts, filling us with the Father’s love and Jesus’ life. 
    The Church of the Nazarene is a diverse community.  We were formed from people of many different traditions, and we still represent many different cultures and traditions around the world.  We accept baptism by sprinkling, pouring, or full immersion, and all of these have some points of reference in the New Testament. 
The author of Hebrews connected baptism with the Old Testament practice of sprinkling temple furniture with blood to purify it: “For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22).
The apostles often talked of God pouring his Spirit on us like water:  “He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit.  He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6).
In our church, we usually baptize believers who are old enough to make a conscious choice, and we usually baptize by full immersion in water.  We had a big, beautiful party baptizing nine people earlier this month.  The classic text explaining this kind of baptism is Romans 6:
 3 Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? 4 For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.
 5 Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was. 6 We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. 7 For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin. 8 And since we died with Christ, we know we will also live with him.

    Baptism is a sign of dying with Christ and dying to our old sinful life.  When we go down into the water, it’s like being buried.  When we come up out of the water, it’s like being raised with Christ to a new life in Jesus.  For me, this is the fullest and most powerful way to do the sacrament of baptism.
    But baptism is a sign of God’s New Covenant of grace.  We know that God loves us and chooses us before we can love God or make any choices for ourselves.  God’s love for us is pure grace.  Nothing is earned.  As a sign of this limitless, unearned love, Nazarenes also recognize infant baptisms.  It’s the parents’ choice to baptize their babies or to wait for them to grow old enough to choose for themselves.
    Both forms of baptism show a side of God’s grace.  Infant baptism shows God’s love for us from the beginning before we can do anything to earn it.  Believers’ baptism shows God’s love for us after we’ve walked away, sinned, and returned home for forgiveness and new life.  Both are windows to the same grace.

   The next sacrament is THE LORD’S SUPPER.  This is the meal of bread and wine that Jesus started with his disciples on the night before he went to the cross.  Sometimes, it’s called communion because it’s a way for us to commune with God.  Through communion, we spend time with God, or draw close to God, or even in a way become one with God.  And other times, this meal is called the Eucharist, which is Greek for thanksgiving.  All three names are used in the New Testament in connection with this meal.  But the roots of the Lord’s Supper go back to the Old Testament. 

    Earlier today we read about the prototype of the Lord’s Supper, with a mysterious priest named Melchizedek (Genesis 14:17-20).  Here is this early representative of God, who comes to Abram (later called Abraham) as Abram is just coming from a battle, and he brings him bread and wine as a sign of God’s blessing.  Then, he speaks God’s blessing on Abram and makes the connection that God has brought Abram the victory.  Abram responds with a sign of submission by giving him a tithe (a tenth) of all the loot from the battle. 
    These images overlap with the Lord’s Supper today.  We are in the midst of a life battle, and God comes to us with bread and wine and blessing.  God reminds us that God brings the victory and the strength.  God blesses us with his own life, and we show our submission to God by giving God a tithe of our income. 

    The other deep root of the Lord’s Supper is the Jewish Passover meal (Exodus 12).  The Passover was a special meal God taught Israel to eat celebrating their Exodus from Egypt.  The Exodus was the single most important event in Israel’s history.  God set his people free from slavery and oppression, formed a new nation, taught them his ways, and gave them a homeland of their own. 
    Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples was part of the Passover celebration, and Paul says, “Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7).  Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are sometimes called the “Second Exodus.”  Through Jesus God sets us free from slavery to sin, forms a new people, teaches us his ways, and gives us citizenship in heaven - our true homeland. 

    So, now that we have these historical roots in mind, let’s read Paul’s description of how to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11.  You’ll notice right away that Paul is talking to a church with some problems, but those problems can become very instructive for us.

17 But in the following instructions, I cannot praise you. For it sounds as if more harm than good is done when you meet together. 18 First, I hear that there are divisions among you when you meet as a church, and to some extent I believe it. 19 But, of course, there must be divisions among you so that you who have God’s approval will be recognized!
 20 When you meet together, you are not really interested in the Lord’s Supper. 21 For some of you hurry to eat your own meal without sharing with others. As a result, some go hungry while others get drunk. 22 What? Don’t you have your own homes for eating and drinking? Or do you really want to disgrace God’s church and shame the poor? What am I supposed to say? Do you want me to praise you? Well, I certainly will not praise you for this!

 23 For I pass on to you what I received from the Lord himself. On the night when he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took some bread 24 and gave thanks to God for it. Then he broke it in pieces and said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this to remember me.” 25 In the same way, he took the cup of wine after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood. Do this to remember me as often as you drink it.” 26 For every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are announcing the Lord’s death until he comes again.
 27 So anyone who eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily is guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 That is why you should examine yourself before eating the bread and drinking the cup. 29 For if you eat the bread or drink the cup without honoring the body of Christ, you are eating and drinking God’s judgment upon yourself... 34 If you are really hungry, eat at home so you won’t bring judgment upon yourselves when you meet together. I’ll give you instructions about the other matters after I arrive.

    The Lord’s Supper is a window to the Trinity.  God the Father is the Host and Invite-or, calling us to the meal.  Jesus provides the food and drink through his life, death, and resurrection.  The Spirit makes it real, alive, and meaningful for us and in us.
    When we celebrate this meal, we are celebrating all that God has done for us through Jesus.  Because of Jesus’ body and blood, our sins are forgiven, we have new life now in this moment, and we will live forever with God in heaven. 
    Baptism is the sign of our entrance into God’s family through Jesus.  Communion  is the sign of our continuing dependence on Jesus.  Jesus gives us the spiritual food and drink to continue this Christian journey.  Only through Jesus can we be saved.  Only through Jesus can we stay saved.  Only through Jesus can we be made free.  Only through Jesus can we live free. 
    OK, now let’s answer a few FAQs about the Lord’s Supper.
1. What actually happens to the bread and wine?  This is the subject of great debate within Christianity.  As far as I can tell, the most common Christian opinion is also the one closest to the Bible.  The bread doesn’t literally become Jesus’ body and cup doesn’t hold Jesus’ actual blood.  You can’t find his DNA here.  This is a mysterious sign of Jesus’ body and blood.  However, God does something mysterious when we celebrate communion.  This is one of those deep rivers of grace.  Somehow, the experience of grace through sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound can do something deep in us.  Jesus can be hard to experience.  God can be hard to define.  The Spirit is like the wind.  But this bread and cup - this we can touch.  This we can hold and put into our body as a sign of our faith and dependence on Jesus.    If God blesses this moment with his Spirit, and if we are open, this can change us.

2. What kind of stuff are we supposed to use?  For this, I find Paul helpful again.  He said, “When we bless the cup at the Lord’s Table, aren’t we sharing in the blood of Christ? And when we break the bread, aren’t we sharing in the body of Christ? And though we are many, we all eat from one loaf of bread, showing that we are one body” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).  Communion is a sign of our unity in Christ, so as much as possible, we should use a single loaf of bread and a single cup.   How many of you grew up doing communion with those little Styrofoam wafers?  I don’t really get that.  The point of those is that the Jewish Passover meal was celebrated with bread without yeast, so that’s probably the kind of bread used at the Last Supper.  But it’s my humble opinion that the first Christians probably used whatever bread was available since they weren’t always celebrating the Passover.  Now, in our church, we use grape juice not wine.  That’s for two reasons.  First, the Church of the Nazarene started in the time of prohibition in the USA, so we’ve had a long standing resistance to alcohol.  Second, some Christians here in our church think that alcohol is always wrong, so we don’t want create disunity through this meal which is supposed to strengthen our unity.

3. Who can participate?  Here I’ll quote John Wesley (one of our spiritual fore-fathers): “Is not the eating of that bread, and the drinking of that cup, the outward, visible means, whereby God conveys into our souls all that spiritual grace, that righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost, which were purchased by the body of Christ once broken and the blood of Christ once shed for us? Let all, therefore, who truly desire the grace of God, eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.”  Anyone who truly wants God’s grace through Jesus can come.

4. What’s the deal with participating in the Lord’s Supper unworthily?  Paul said, “So anyone who eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily is guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27).  Remember that Paul was writing to a church that was having problems.  Back then the Lord’s Supper was kind of like our potluck dinners, but they didn’t all sit at one table.  Friends kind of sat together, and rich folks were mostly friends with rich folks, and the same for the poor. So the rich people would be having this feast of great food and lots of wine - without even realizing that their poor brothers and sisters at the next table didn’t have enough to eat.  Paul said that was the exact opposite of the unity Jesus intended through the Lord’s Supper.  In fact, the Christian Church soon corrected this problem, and part of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was bringing food for the poor as well.  So today, if you want to participate in the Lord’s Supper in a worthy way, make sure you share with the poor.  That’s one of the reasons we have the offering basket here.  We aren’t buying admission or paying membership dues or bargaining for grace.  We are submitting to God and sharing with others.

5. If we celebrate the Lord’s Supper too often, doesn’t stop being special or reverent?  Again, let me defer to John Wesley.  He explained that the newness may wear off, but a deeper truer significance will deepen over time.  Think about the communion of marriage.  Should you only say “I love you” a few times a year so that it still feels special?  And all the women said, “Forget special! Let’s have communion every day.”  Or how about this: should you only have sex a few times a year so that it still feels special?  And all the men said: “Forget special!  Let’s have communion every day.”  The Lord’s Supper is one way of communion with God.  It’s a deep channel of God’s grace, so Wesley said, “Only see that you are duly prepared for it, and the oftener you come to the Lord's table, the greater benefit you will find there.”

6. So how do we prepare well for the Lord’s Supper?  Here are a few basic steps. 
  • Quiet your heart.  Spend a little time in silence waiting before God.  Maybe you’ll think about the sermon.  Maybe you’ll just be quiet.
  • Leave your sin.  When you stand and walk, imagine leaving your old life behind you.  Leave your failures.  Leave the wrongs done against you.
  • Come to Jesus.  You are walking away from selfishness into love.  You are walking away from sin straight into Jesus’ life.  Claim that.  Have you had a hard week?  Have you sinned or failed or been betrayed?  Leave it, and walk to Jesus.  Put your trust in the body and blood of Christ to give you new life through the Spirit.

   Remember those machines that get water from air?  You can get water anywhere.  It’s all around us.  It’s in the air we breath.  God’s grace is like that.  You can find grace in a tree or a flower or a movie or a bowl of rice if you have your spiritual eyes open.   But there are some channels of God’s grace, like deep rivers that have stood the test of time.  Generation after generation, God’s people keep coming back to these means of grace -- because they work.  God really does meet us here.  God really does use baptism and communion to open us to his grace.  They are signs of the living Gospel.  Come and let God make you new.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Scripture and Preaching

2 Questions for Discussion
When have you really felt God speaking to you through a sermon? 
What were the main points of the last 5 sermons you heard?

    Raise your hand if you could remember at least one of the last five sermon topics?  Keep your hand up if you could remember two?  Three?  Four?  Five? 
    But I expect that almost all of us could point to at least one sermon that was a powerful spiritual event for us.  Somehow, sometimes, sermons become miracles.  Reading the Bible and talking about it becomes a transcendent event when the words on the page become the Word of God for us in our hearts. 
    This is our topic today - the role of scripture and preaching in the worship service.  You can read the Bible at home.  You can listen to sermon podcasts or read them online, but something special happens when we gather to hear from God together.  What is that?  How does that work?  How can we have more of those special, supernatural, God-filled moments when we gather on Sundays? 

    Our primary text for today is in 2 Timothy.  Timothy is Paul’s ministry student.  Paul has been training Timothy for years.  In our series on 1 Thessalonians, we saw part of this training period with Timothy serving as Paul’s assistant.  Timothy is out on his own now, in Ephesus.  Timothy is the Christian leader of the island, kind of like a bishop or lead pastor for a network of house churches.  Paul is giving his final advice to Timothy, charging him with his most important tasks as a minister.  Again and again, Paul comes back to one fundamental task: “Preach the Word of God.”  Let’s read part of Paul’s advice starting in 3:14.

Chapter 3: 14 But you must remain faithful to the things you have been taught. You know they are true, for you know you can trust those who taught you. 15 You have been taught the holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. 17 God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.
Chapter 4: 1 I solemnly urge you in the presence of God and Christ Jesus, who will someday judge the living and the dead when he appears to set up his Kingdom: 2 Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching.  3 For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will reject the truth and chase after myths. 5 But you should keep a clear mind in every situation. Don’t be afraid of suffering for the Lord. Work at telling others the Good News, and fully carry out the ministry God has given you.

    Let’s focus in on verses 16-17 to help us understand the Bible and preaching.  We’ll just take these verses a few phrases at a time.

All Scripture is inspired by God.
    All Scripture is God-breathed.  The words in our Bible were written and recorded and edited and maintained by a wide variety of people over a long period of time.  Their various personalities, cultures, and contexts are clearly present in the words of our Bible.  However, we believe that God has guided and inspired the whole process related  to the Bible.  God inspired the writing.  God inspires the reading.  God inspires the hearing. 
    All Scripture is inspired by God.  This is not a dead book.  Hebrews 4:12 says: “For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.”  Somehow this book is alive.  God’s Spirit lives and breathes - not so much in the ink and paper - but in the words and the message.  Somehow, these words become scalpels and x-ray machines, stripping away our defenses, and revealing who we truly are.  Somehow, this book, written thousands of years ago, never loses its power to change people and to carry the message of God for our world. 
    All Scripture is inspired by God.  That’s why we read the Bible when we gather for worship every Sunday.  And that’s why we read from several parts of the Bible.  The whole Bible is the inspired Word of God - not just Paul’s writings, not just Jesus’ teachings, but the whole Old and New Testaments.  That’s why we use the Lectionary - a schedule of Scripture readings throughout the year.  This forces us to read and to discuss the whole Bible, not just our favorite parts.
    All Scripture is inspired by God.  That’s why the reader says “The Word of the Lord” and the people say, “Thanks be to God.”  We believe in the mystery that God still speaks through this text, and therefore this reading is always worthy of our thanks.

All Scripture ... is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives.  It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.  This is the New Living Translation, and it’s easy to understand, but the translation in the NIV is easier to talk about: “All scripture is ... useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”  This describes the task of preaching: teaching, rebuking, correcting, training, and (if we pull a word from chapter 4 verse 2) encouraging. 
    These days, some people are saying that we no longer need preaching.  Some say this one-way mode of communication lecture-style is outdated and obsolete.  You can study the Bible at home or in small groups.  That’s true.  I’m all for discussion and interaction and questions and feedback, but submitting ourselves to the Scripture when we gather to worship is an ancient spiritual practice for God’s people. 
    The entire book of Deuteronomy is basically a sermon, reviewing the previous words and actions of God.  When the Israelites rediscovered the Scriptures in Nehemiah and Ezra’s time, “The Levites ...  instructed the people in the Law while everyone remained in their places.  They read from the Book of the Law of God and clearly explained the meaning of what was being read, helping the people understand each passage” (Nehemiah 8:7-8).  Jesus and the apostles often went to synagogues on the Sabbath, and when the people gathered, they preached by explaining the Bible.  The Christian Church continued this tradition, with preaching being a key part of most worship gatherings. 
    Something profound happens when we stop moving, stop talking, take a position of humility, and submit ourselves to God’s Word.  Sometimes we learn something important about God or life.  Sometimes we are corrected or rebuked.  Sometimes we are trained in how to live well.  Sometimes we are encouraged.  Something mysterious happens when a preacher adds her breath to these God-breathed words.  If the Holy Spirit is working in the preacher and the listener, then a Spirit-filled event can take place.  God’s Spirit can breathe in us and inspire us toward God and godliness.

    God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.  The point of preaching is to help people live well.  The point of preaching is to help people respond faithfully to God.  James said, “But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves” (1:22).  The point of preaching is to move us from hearers of God’s Word to doers of God’s word.  The highest goal of preaching is to help God work in our hearts and minds to transform our lives, to transform the way we actually live day to day.
    Preaching is not just to make converts.  Preaching is not just to keep the church in line.  Preaching is not just to make us feel good or encouraged.  Preaching is not just to give us a little spiritual boost to help us get through the week.  We read the Bible and preach so that God can work through his Word to transform our daily lives by his grace.  In our church, our vision breaks this up into three points.  The point of our whole church - but especially our preaching - is that we will be made new by God’s love, gathered in multicultural community, and sent to cause global change through local action. 

    But preaching is complex.  Let’s spend a few minutes talking about some of the complicated issues involved with preaching.
First, preaching is both words and the Word.  When I get up here to preach, I’ll say a lot of words - maybe too many.  Not every word that I say is the Word of God.  I am not an infallible messenger.  My words will never become Scripture.  You can’t equate my sermons with the Word of God.  However, somehow, mysteriously, sometimes God does speak to people through preaching.  In, around, beyond, behind the preacher’s words, the Word of God often breaks through to our hearts.
Second, preaching involves both certainty and uncertainty.  One of the Nazarene articles of faith is that the Old and New Testament Scriptures are inspired by God and reveal all things necessary for our salvation.1  On one hand, that’s great.  The Bible tells us everything we really need to know for life in Christ.  On the other hand, that’s kind of a bummer.  The Bible doesn’t tell us everything we want to know.  Some things in the Bible just aren’t clear.  So as a preacher, part of my job is to be clear about what is clear and to be honest about what is not clear.  What is clear is more than enough to guide us faithfully into God’s grace and peace through Jesus.
Third, preaching is interpreting the Bible and the people.  Part of my job is to understand the Bible, and part of my job is to understand you.  Good preaching not only reveals God more clearly.  Good preaching also reveals you to yourself.  Good preaching helps us understand ourselves more clearly in the light of the God’s Word.
Fourth, that means preaching is both timeless and timely.  Good preaching embeds the timeless message of God’s love within the time and culture and language of the people in the congregation.  There is no culture-less preaching.  All preaching always exists within a cultural context.  Good preaching breathes God’s message in the indigenous context of the people listening.
Fifth, that means preaching is more complex in a multicultural setting.  If good preaching is culturally embedded, what do we do when we have a lot of cultures all together?  I don’t have a perfect answer, but I think about it like this.  Jesus said he would make us “fishers of men.”  Preaching is kind of like fishing - trying to help God’s message catch peoples’ hearts.  A good fisherman uses different techniques for different fish.  Sometimes he uses a net; sometimes a trap; sometimes live bait; sometimes a smaller fish or a frog or a cricket or a piece of meat.  You can’t catch all fish with the same method.  (We were talking about this in Greenhouse Worship, and Tim said, “Yes you can!  Use dynamite!”)  Preaching is kind of like that.  Unless, I’m going to use dynamite, I’ll have to use different sermon styles and topics to reach different people.  It’s almost impossible to connect with everyone at the same time.  A few months ago, I preached a narrative sermon using a Flannery OConner story.  I knew would be difficult, maybe even offensive for some, but afterwards, a young man told me that was the best sermon he had ever heard me preach.  That’s how it goes in our church.  So, if a particular week’s sermon doesn’t catch you, maybe it wasn’t intended for you.  Maybe it was for someone else.  Come back next week, and see if God catches your heart with that one.
Last, effective preaching depends on the preacher, on God, and on the listener.  Once, a pastor had a crazy week - three funerals, seven people in the hospital, a million emails, an exploding toilet in the church bathroom, and a complaining deacon.  When Sunday he came, it was almost time for him to preach, he prayed and said, “God, this week has been so busy, I haven’t had time to even think of a sermon.  You’ve got to help me.  What should I say?”  Then, the voice of God came clearly into his heart, Tell them you are not prepared.  I’m guessing that sermon didn’t go so well.  As a preacher, I have to do my homework.  I have to study and pray and think and practice.  There’s no way around that, but the simple truth is that even if I do all of that, when I get up here to talk it might just be me talking - blah, blah, blah, blah.  If God doesn’t show up in me and in you, this is all just words.  One of my greatest prayers is that God’s Spirit will work a miracle and that somehow through what I say, we will all be drawn closer to God.  But there’s another part of this whole preaching thing.  Part of this depends on you.  I can pretty much guarantee you that God is not going to speak to you through the sermon if you are asleep. You have to engage the process.  You have to be open.  You have to be ready.

    With that in mind, let’s talk about your participation in reading of the Bible and the preaching in the worship service.  There are some very specific things you can do before, during, and after the worship service to make you a better sermon-listener.  If you do these things, you are more likely to have more of those powerful moments of hearing from God during the worship services.  So here they are - 10 ways to be a better sermon-listener.

  • Go to sleep earlier on Saturday.  I know Saturday is a fun day for many of you, but don’t stay up until 2 or 3 working or playing or watching a movie.  If you stumble in here with your eyes half open, the chances are really small that God will do something significant in your heart that day.
  • Wake up earlier on Sunday morning.  You don’t want to be rushing around to get breakfast and get the kids out the door.  If you arrive all stressed out, that doesn’t put you in a good mode to give God access to your heart.  If you arrive late, you miss the beginning of the story.  Every service is like a story.  The songs, the call to worship, the greeting time, all of that is preparing us to submit ourselves to God during the reading and preaching of the Word.  If you miss that part, it’s like walking into the middle of a movie or running a race without warming up.
  • Study the Bible.  At home and with a small group, honestly engage the text of the Bible.  A sermon usually works from one key text, but it is flavored with the whole of Scripture.  To really get a sermon, you have to spend time getting to know the rest of the Bible.
  • Pray for your pastors and for the worship service.  Pray that we as a church will really meet with God when we gather.  Pray that the pastors will be full of God’s Spirit.  Pray that the people will be open and ready.  Pray that God will change lives.  Somehow, in the mystery of God’s grace, prayer makes more of those deep spiritual moments happen. 

  • Expect discomfort.  Sometimes we expect our pastors to keep saying the same things in the same ways, just with a new illustration or a catchy alliteration to help us remember his five points until we forget them again.  Sometimes we have built up these internal defenses to God’s message so that we think we’re really listening, but actually we are just keeping it at the surface, not letting it get to those deep places in our hearts.  Sometimes, an unusual style of sermon will allow God’s message to enter through a side door in our hearts, surprising us and allowing God to touch a place in our hearts we had been hiding.  Other times the problem is that we want sermons that are full of rebuke - full of rebuke for other people.  Good preaching will eventually involve correction and rebuke for everyone - even the preacher.   Be ready for that.
  • Listen for the quiet voice of God.  God may speak to you through what I say, or God may speak through something else - a song, a phrase in the Bible, an image on the screen.  You may be hearing my words with your ears, but in your heart there is that little nudge or voice that says, “That is for you” or “What about this in your life?”  Pay attention to those whispers.  That could be God calling.
  • Take notes - not just about what the preacher says, but about what God is saying to you.  Bring your journal to church, and if you feel that little nudge of God’s Spirit or the quiet voice of God, start writing about it.  Bring your calendar, and add something to your To Do list.  Highlight a meaningful verse in your Bible.  If God starts talking, do something to help you remember.

  • Talk about it.  In the snack time or wherever you have lunch, spend a few minutes talking about the worship service.  This gives you a chance to remember and a chance to hear from others about what they heard.  They might have heard something different, or they might have understood it in a different way.  “As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend” (Proverbs 27:17).
  • Pray and study.  Some of our people take the sermon copies home and study them during their QT (or quiet time) during the week.  Maybe reviewing the difficult English words will increase your understanding.  But for all of us, spending more time with the text or with connected texts will open us to more of what God wants to say to us.
  • Do it.  Remember the words of James again: “Don’t just listen to God’s word... Do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves.”  Don’t fool yourself by coming to a worship service and going home without taking action.  When was the last time you DID something because of what you heard on Sunday morning?  If you aren’t making any changes in your life because of the sermons you hear, then there is a good chance that you are a hearer not a doer.  There is a good chance that you’ve grown cold, stopped changing, stopped growing, stopped living in connection with the Spirit.  Each week, try to do at least one specific thing in response to the sermon. 

16 All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. 17 God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.

    May God breath his Spirit into his Word as we read and preach and hear so that we will all be corrected and guided and encouraged to live his goodness in our broken world.  May God inspire our preaching and hearing so that we truly become a loving community that changes our world in his grace.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Life's Fast Moving Opportunity - 1 Thessalonians 5

    First of all, I want to thank you for all of your care and support for our family over the past week and a half.  Many of you came to visit us.  Several offered to help or brought us meals.  John David is a blessing, but you have also been a blessing and an encouragement to us.
    Second, I want to let you show you some pictures of the newest member of our family, and this is not John David.  Let me introduce you to Elliana Renae Palmer, or Ella for short.  Ella was born on Tuesday - three weeks early.  Michael and Elizabeth went to our hospital for a check up and were holding her in their arms three hours later.   John David and Ella were born 4 days and 32 minutes apart.  Sarah and Elizabeth were in the same hospital, on the same floor, just across the hall from each other.
    These are special times - full times - full of love and meaning and opportunity.  We couldn’t have planned it like this if we tried.  This was a beautiful, serendipitous blessing.  
    But these days will not last forever.  These moments are passing.  We can only experience them now.  You know what parents say to each other: Cherish these moments.  Before you know it, he’ll be riding a bike.  Blink twice, and she’ll be entering college.  They grow up so fast. 

    This is not far from our text today.  This week, we are finishing our study on 1 Thessalonians, so we’ll read all of chapter 5.  It’s pretty long, so we’ll take it in sections.  Let’s start with just verse 1.

1 Now concerning how and when all this will happen, dear brothers and sisters, we don’t really need to write you.

    You can’t catch it very well in English, but Paul actually uses two different Greek words for time here: chronos and chairos.  Chronos is for the simple progression of time - tick, tock, tick, tock.  One second after another, one hour, one day.  Chronos is the kind of time when you say, “Their plane arrives Friday September 2 at 1:05 pm.” 
    But Chairos is a different kind of time.  Chairos is focused on the quality of time rather than the quantity of time.  Chairos is closer to the idea of an opportunity or when we look back on a particular period in our life and say, “Those were good times.”  Chairos is like that moment of opportunity when there is an opening in a horse race, and the rider has to go fast before it closes.
    To help explain the nature of Chairos, the ancient Greeks depicted Chairos as a young man moving fast, with wings on both his back and feet. He is tipping the scales in one direction for now, right now only.  One scholar explains, “His hair is long in front and bald behind; he must be grasped, if at all, by the fore-lock.”  If you want to catch Chairos, you have to get ahead of it, or it will get away.
    I played American football in high school, and I played defense.  My job was to tackle whoever had the ball.  Everyday in practice we did tackling drills.  Everyday, my coaches would shout, “Get your head in front!  You’ve got to get your head in front!”  When that running back is coming your way, you only have one chance.  If you don’t get our head in front and wrap up, he’ll probably get away.
    This is how it works with Chairos.  You have to get your head in front because it’s moving fast.  You have to tackle it with both hands and wrap up.  If you want all the Chairos moments in life, you have to be very intentional about how you live.  If you want real life, you can’t get lazy, or life will pass you by.
    The next several verses describe the this charios moment. 

2 For you know quite well that the day of the Lord’s return will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. 3 When people are saying, “Everything is peaceful and secure,” then disaster will fall on them as suddenly as a pregnant woman’s labor pains begin. And there will be no escape.
 4 But you aren’t in the dark about these things, dear brothers and sisters, and you won’t be surprised when the day of the Lord comes like a thief.

    The first part of this chairos time is that Jesus is coming back, and we don’t know when.  Paul says, twice that Jesus will come “like a thief.”  No one can plan it or predict it.  It could be today, tomorrow, or 10,000 years from now.  We don’t know, but when he comes, it will be too late to make changes.  When Jesus comes again, it will be wonderful for everyone who is ready and terror for everyone who is not ready.  The simple message of Jesus’ second coming - the ultimate chairos - is: Live ready.  Always be ready.

    The second part of this chairos time is in the next few verses.

 5 For you are all children of the light and of the day; we don’t belong to darkness and night. 6 So be on your guard, not asleep like the others. Stay alert and be clearheaded. 7 Night is the time when people sleep and drinkers get drunk. 8 But let us who live in the light be clearheaded, protected by the armor of faith and love, and wearing as our helmet the confidence of our salvation.
 9 For God chose to save us through our Lord Jesus Christ, not to pour out his anger on us. 10 Christ died for us so that, whether we are dead or alive when he returns, we can live with him forever.

    It is as if our world is singing us a lullaby, trying to get us to go to sleep.  Our world is passing out the liquor, trying to get us perpetually drunk.  So many things in this world are mere distractions.  Money, entertainment, fashion, houses, cars, work, success, travel, test scores, self-righteous condemnation of others, email, Facebook, IPods, music, cynicism - don’t get drunk on this stuff.  Don’t let this stuff lull you asleep.  All of these things can get in the way of the One Real Thing - Jesus Christ, and Life in him. 
    Paul’s message to us today is: Don’t live like everyone else.  Don’t work like everyone else.  Don’t play like everyone else.  Don’t talk like everyone else.  Don’t let the darkness consume you.  Instead, be awake.  Be alert.  Be sober.  Live a life of light.  Hold on to faith, love, and hope.  The final truth about you is that God loves you and saves you through Jesus.  Hold on to Jesus, and you will live with him forever.

    Then, Paul gives the Thessalonians a long list of commands - 19 commands to be exact.  Paul is telling us how to get ahead of this chairos opportunity of life in Jesus.  How do we tackle this life in Christ thing?  Paul spins off the commands in three basic breaths. 
    First, he talks about community.

11 So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing.  12 Dear brothers and sisters, honor those who are your leaders in the Lord’s work. They work hard among you and give you spiritual guidance. 13 Show them great respect and wholehearted love because of their work. And live peacefully with each other. 14 Brothers and sisters, we urge you to warn those who are lazy. Encourage those who are timid. Take tender care of those who are weak. Be patient with everyone. 15 See that no one pays back evil for evil, but always try to do good to each other and to all people.

    So this chairos opportunity - this life with Christ thing - is a team effort.  We can’t do this alone.  We need each other.  My football coach used to say that we should be gang-tackling every play.  Pile on.  Load up.  Every victory is a victory for the whole team.  Don’t let each other go it alone. 
    Give strength to each other through your words.  Build each other up.  Be the kind of friend who adds to your friend’s character and life.
    Honor your leaders.  Sure we’re going to make mistakes, but nobody gains by taking hits on our leaders.  Respect them, but don’t just respect their position as leaders.  Love them deeply as brothers and sisters.  Because whether you see it or not, they are working hard for you.
    Don’t be afraid to tell people they are slacking.  Encourage those who are shy or don’t think they have much to offer.  Encourage them to get in the game and use their gifts.  Be tender with the weak - whether they are weak physically, emotionally, or spiritually.  Be patient with everyone - everyone!  Hold each other back when they seek revenge - whether it’s in word or deed.  Work together to do good for everyone - inside and outside the church - inside and outside your ethnic, social, economic, political, theological group.
    Basically, this section is a deep affirmation of our mutual dependence.  The God-Life is a fast moving opportunity, and we’ll never catch it by ourselves.  We need each other’s help to live in the fullness of the chairos time.   We need each other’s help to keep awake to the Spirit.

    Next, Paul tells the Thessalonians to live with prayerful gratitude.

 16 Always be joyful. 17 Never stop praying. 18 Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.

    Easier said than done, right?  Always be joyful ... uh huh.  Never stop praying ... most of us are doing good to start praying.  Be thankful in all circumstances ... even 3am poopy diapers?
    Yet, this is God’s will for all who belong to Christ Jesus.  Go back to verses 9 and 10: “God chose to save us ... Christ died for us so that ... we can live with him forever.” This overrides all our current circumstances.  Sure, sometimes life sucks.  Sometimes you’ll lose your spouse or your house or your job or your self-esteem or your friends - or in the worst times - maybe most of those all at once.  But through it all, God still chooses to save you ... and Christ still died for you ... and you can still live with him forever.  Choose to focus your attention there.  Let Christ be your joy.  Cultivate an attitude of gratitude, and amazingly you’ll find that there is so much to be thankful for.

    Paul finishes his commands with a challenge to go all out for real life.

19 Do not stifle the Holy Spirit. 20 Do not scoff at prophecies, 21 but test everything that is said. Hold on to what is good. 22 Stay away from every kind of evil.

    Paul is warning against two extremes here.  On one hand, we can miss the Holy Spirit because the Spirit is unpredictable and uncontrollable.  We can stuff down those holy urges to do the possibly inappropriate but wonderfully good thing.  We can scoff when people speak the truth.  We can live all tied up in knots.  But on the other hand, we can accept anything and praise anything.  We can become gullible Christians who believe everyone who puts on a good face and say amen - no matter what the preacher is saying. 
    Instead, Paul says, go for what is real.  Really let the true Spirit out - even if it’s disruptive.  Listen to what the prophet says - even if it’s uncomfortable.  But, don’t be duped.  Don’t let someone give you fools gold.  Don’t let your boss or your society or your friends or your boyfriend define life for you.  They’ll sell you a counterfeit.  They will tell you, “This is real.  This is what life is all about.  This is the path to success and happiness and satisfaction.”  Test everything.  Go for the Real Life.  Ditch the garbage.  Go for the Christ-life, no matter the cost.

    So, let’s review.  Like any good preacher, Paul is happy to tell us what to do.  With hardly taking a breath, Paul says:
  • Encourage
  • Build up
  • Honor
  • Respect
  • Love
  • Live at peace
  • Warn
  • Encourage
  • Take care
  • Be patient
  • Prevent revenge
  • Do good
  • Be joyful
  • Always pray
  • Be thankful
  • Give the Spirit freedom
  • Avoid cynicism
  • Test everything
  • Hold on to good
  • Trash the bad.

    Is anyone else tired?  Wow!  Seriously, can you believe those preachers?!  Paul is like, “Look folks, you’ve got to get serious.  Chairos isn’t going wait around.  When the chairos comes, it comes.  You’ve got to be ready.  You’ve got to get ahead of it and tackle it as a team, and that takes effort.  You can’t be lazy or careless.  Get up, and wake up, and go get this Christ-life!”

    To be honest, I really jive with Paul here.  I get what he’s saying.   Living well takes hard work and intentional effort.  Life will pass us by.  Living Jesus’ way doesn’t happen by accident.  Life in the Spirit happens through practicing the good spiritual habits.  I get it.  I want to tighten my shoe laces and flex my muscles and do this thing!
    But then Paul starts praying, and he throws off my balance. 
 23 Now may the God of peace make you holy in every way, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again. 24 God will make this happen, for he who calls you is faithful.
 25 Dear brothers and sisters, pray for us.
 26 Greet all the brothers and sisters with Christian love.
 27 I command you in the name of the Lord to read this letter to all the brothers and sisters.
 28 May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

    Paul says, “Time is going fast.  Christ is coming suddenly.  Be ready.  Be holy.  Be peaceful.  Don’t mess up.  Do this.  Do that.  DO, DO, DO, DO, DO, DO!  Make sure you DO IT!”
    Then, Paul says, “God, you do it.  God, you are the God of peace, so make them thoroughly peaceful.  Give them your shalom wholeness and holiness.  Make them like you.  Keep them in the Chairos moments until Jesus comes again.  God, you do it.”
    Then, Paul returns his attention to the Thessalonians and says, “This God who calls you to holiness is faithful, and God will do it.”  The holy, faithful God will do the holiness.  We just have to let him do it in us. 
    This is one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith.  We have things we have to do.  We have to participate in our own salvation.  If we just lay down on the couch or go about our regular work, nothing will happen.  We have to get involved.  We have to stay alert and attune our minds to God.  But we can’t actually do all of this.  We actually can’t be the people God calls us to be.  We can’t just lace up our shoes and run this race.  God has to do it in us.  We have to participate, but our participation is to stay open to God’s work in us. 
    It’s like the difference between a rowboat and a sailboat.  On a rowboat, there is only one way the boat moves.  You have to row it.  You are the sole source of power for that boat.  You have to pull and push and move the oars, and it is hard work.  But on a sailboat, you are not actually the source of power for the boat.  The wind provides the power.  On a sailboat, your job is to catch the wind.  You move the sails and adjust the rudder and let the wind move you. 
    Life in Christ is life in the Spirit.  The Wind of the Spirit is always blowing all around us.  Our job is to put down our oars and to work the sails.  It feels a little awkward at first, but it gets better.  We still have things to do.  We still have to sense the direction of the wind.  We still have to work our sails, but it is so much easier than rowing.  God does the real work, and we just let God work through us. 
    This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We are sinners, but God loves us anyway and chooses to save us.  Christ died for us.  Now we have a choice.  Will we go it alone and try to do everything ourselves?  Or will we trust in God’s grace and let Jesus transform us from the inside out?
    Life - the eternal chairos moment - is all about living in God’s grace through Jesus.  In the beginning, grace.  In the middle, grace.  In the end, grace.

    Time is moving quickly.  Is is it passing you by?
    Jesus will come again.  Would you be ready if he came today?
    We have work to do.  Are you doing your part?
    We can’t do it alone.  Are you helping others?  Are you letting others help you?
    God does the real work.  Are you living open to the Spirit?

23I pray that God, who gives peace, will make you completely holy. And may your spirit, soul, and body be kept healthy and faultless until our Lord Jesus Christ returns. 24The one who chose you can be trusted, and he will do this. (CEV)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Stronger Through Sharing (1 Thessalonians 3)

       Tomorrow is 광복절 (Korea’s Liberation Day).  For more than forty years, the Korean people resisted Japanese colonization.  Sometimes, this resistance was public as in the March 1st, Declaration of Independence in 1919.  More often though, the resistance was through guerilla warfare, covert meetings, secret newspapers delivered at night, and hidden educational gatherings.  
Throughout the resistance movement, one thing remained constant.  The resistance became stronger when people bound together.  Isolation led to weakness, but communal sharing led to strength.  As long as people felt that they were alone in their desire to be free and alone in their faith that freedom is possible, then their courage to resist grew weak.  But when people realized that they are not alone, that others stand together with them, that others also share the faith that freedom is possible, then their courage to resist became stronger.  
Isolation leads to weakness.  Communal sharing leads to strength.  This is the message under the text of 1 Thessalonians 3.  Let’s read it now.
 1 Finally, when we could stand it no longer, we decided to stay alone in Athens, 2 and we sent Timothy to visit you. He is our brother and God’s co-worker in proclaiming the Good News of Christ. We sent him to strengthen you, to encourage you in your faith, 3 and to keep you from being shaken by the troubles you were going through. But you know that we are destined for such troubles. 4 Even while we were with you, we warned you that troubles would soon come—and they did, as you well know. 5 That is why, when I could bear it no longer, I sent Timothy to find out whether your faith was still strong. I was afraid that the tempter had gotten the best of you and that our work had been useless.
 6 But now Timothy has just returned, bringing us good news about your faith and love. He reports that you always remember our visit with joy and that you want to see us as much as we want to see you. 7 So we have been greatly encouraged in the midst of our troubles and suffering, dear brothers and sisters, because you have remained strong in your faith. 8 It gives us new life to know that you are standing firm in the Lord.
 9 How we thank God for you! Because of you we have great joy as we enter God’s presence. 10 Night and day we pray earnestly for you, asking God to let us see you again to fill the gaps in your faith.
 11 May God our Father and our Lord Jesus bring us to you very soon. 12 And may the Lord make your love for one another and for all people grow and overflow, just as our love for you overflows. 13 May he, as a result, make your hearts strong, blameless, and holy as you stand before God our Father when our Lord Jesus comes again with all his holy people. Amen.
Five different words or ideas are repeated again and again in this passage.  If we look at them one by one, that will give us a pretty good understanding of what is happening here.
First, Paul talks a lot about troubles.  Paul sent Timothy to keep the Thessalonians “from being shaken by the troubles” they were going through.  But “we are destined for such troubles,” and Paul warned them “that troubles would come” (3:3-4).  Even Paul, Silas, and Timothy are “in the midst of troubles and suffering” (3:7).  
When I was growing up, often on Sunday morning before we left for our church, our family’s TV would be tuned in to Robert Schuller’s Hour of Power - the televised worship service at the Crystal Cathedral in California.  One of my dad’s favorite books was Schuller’s Tough Times Never Last, Tough People Do.  I’ve been reading this book recently, and some of it is cheesy and dated, but one part near the beginning really struck me as profound.  There was a section called, “The Myth of the Problem-Free Life.”  Schuller says we go through life thinking, “If I can just solve this problem, then I’ll be OK.  If I can just get past this problem, then my life will be easy going.”  That’s a myth.  We never get to the point in life where we don’t have problems.  Even success brings a new set of problems.  We will always have problems.  We will always have trouble.  The question is not: “How do I get rid of all my troubles?”  The question is: “How do I live well in the midst of trouble?”
Paul said, “We are destined for such troubles” but I want “keep you from being shaken by the troubles” (3:3).  Jesus said, “In this world, you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).  Paul and Jesus are realistic but hopeful.  They know we will have trouble.  We are in a resistance movement against Evil.  This battle will cause pains and wounds.  That’s just how battles go.  But we are not alone.  We are not hopeless.  Paul gives us four other words that point to our hope.
Again and again, Paul uses the words like strength and encourage.  “We sent him to strengthen you, to encourage you in your faith” (3:2).  “I sent Timothy to find out if your faith was still strong” (3:5).   “May he make your heart strong” (3:13).  
A very interesting thing happens in this passage, Paul sends Timothy to encourage the Thessalonians, and then the Thessalonians send Timothy to encourage Paul.  If you read under the text, you get the idea that Paul was starting to feel pretty discouraged.  Last week, we discussed the very uncomfortable chapter 2, where Paul’s leadership was being questioned.  This week, Paul says that he was “afraid that the Tempter had gotten the best of” the Thessalonians and that “our work had been useless” (3:5).  Even missionaries get discouraged.  Even apostles and pastors get discouraged.  
Then, in verse 6 Paul uses an amazing word.  Paul says, “But now Timothy has just returned, bringing us good news about your faith and love.”   That’s not just “good news” like “Oh, I have something good to tell you.”  Paul uses euangelizomai - the same word for preaching the good news of the gospel, for evangelism.  The Thessalonians’ faith and love had become part of Jesus’ Good News to Paul.  Paul says, “So we have been greatly encouraged ... because you have remained strong in your faith.  It gives us new life to know that you are standing firm in the Lord” (3:7).  
Pastors need encouragement, too.  We do a lot of encouragement and hope giving, but sometimes we kind of run out of strength.  We need help from you to keep going.  Sometimes we wonder if what we’re doing is really working, if we’re really making a difference, if God is really working through us.  Nothing encourages a pastor’s heart like faith and love in the people he serves.  If you want to encourage your pastor, tell her how God is working in your life.  If you want to give strength to your pastor, tell him how God is giving you more love for others.  If you want to give new life to your pastors or Bible study leaders or worship leaders, let us know how we are helping you to stand firm in the Lord.
The next two words we need to look at are love and faith.  In a letter to the church in Galatia, Paul says, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6).  For Paul, these two - faith and love - are the center of the Christian life.  He sent Timothy to encourage the Thessalonians in their faith (3:2) and to find out if their faith was still strong (3:5).  Timothy brought back the good news about their faith and love (3:6).  Paul prays night and day that he can return to Thessalonica so that he can “fill in the gaps” in their faith (3:10).  
Then, Paul’s prayer takes an interesting turn.  Paul prays that their “love for one another and for all people will grow and over flow” so that God may make their “hearts strong, blameless, and holy” (3:12-13).  For Paul, there is a definite cause and effect here.  More love leads to more strength.  More love leads to more holiness.  More love leads to more faith and more faithfulness.  Do you want more faith?  Practice more love.  Do you want more strength?  Develop your love.  Do you want more holiness and purity?  Cultivate relationships of love.  Love will strengthen you.  Love will change you, or, more correctly, love enables God to change you.
And that is the last word we need to see in this text: God.  For Paul, this is all about God.  Timothy is “God’s coworker in proclaiming the Good News of Christ” (3:2).  Paul has new life because they are “standing firm in the Lord” (3:8).  What is Paul’s response?  “How we thank God because of you!  Because of you, we have great joy as we enter God’s presence” (3:9).  He asks God to bring him to the Thessalonians.  He asks the Lord to make their love grow and to make their hearts strong and holy and blameless” (3:11-13).  
Paul is very clear that he sent Timothy to encourage the Thessalonians and that the Thessalonians have encouraged him.  But he is also clear that all of this is the work of God.  All of this sharing of faith and love and strength among God’s people is actually God’s work through the human beings who make up the Body of Christ.  When Paul sends Timothy to remind the Thessalonians of the Gospel of Christ, God is working through Timothy to strengthen their faith.  When Timothy comes back with the good news of the Thessalonians’ faith and love, God is working through that sharing to strengthen Paul.  God uses Paul and Timothy to encourage the Thessalonians.  Then, God uses the Thessalonians to encourage Paul and Timothy.  But it’s all God’s work.  
There is something deeply communal about this Christian life.  When we open ourselves to each other, that opens pathways for the Holy Spirit to work more deeply in us.  When we are honest about our struggles and pains and our victories and joys, somehow that opens us to more of God’s strength.  We are in this Christian life together.  We need each other.  We need each other deeply.  We need each other deeply to help us experience God fully.
This week, as I was researching strength through sharing, I stumbled onto a grief support network.  One article explained “Why We Tell Our Stories.”
  In the telling of our stories, we gain strength from each other.  First, the story teller gains a clearer understand of what her story actually is.  In the process of telling, we come to see more clearly what is actually going on inside of us.  Second, the listeners develop a shared sense of life.  They realize that they are not alone in their pain and that they are not alone in their hope.  The healing God has done in others can happen in them, too.  As Helen Steiner Rice explained, “Comfort comes from knowing that people have made the same journey.  And solace comes from understanding how others have learned to sing again.”
We become stronger through sharing.   Faith grows through love.  We experience more of God by experiencing more of each other.  Telling our stories opens us to more of God.  Sharing our lives with each other is one way God transforms us, strengthens us, and makes us more like Jesus.  
It’s a mystery, but it works.  It’s a mystery, but this is how God has been working for thousands of years.  We see it in Thessalonica.  We see it in a thousand different ways in our world today.  We see it here in our church.  
Lots of people said that one of the most powerful services they’ve experienced in our church was the Easter service this year, when five people told their stories of how God has transformed their lives.  Then, we took turns showing the two sides of our cards - showing how God has transformed us.  Telling our stories of how God has changed us made us all stronger.
Today, we’re going to practice this discipline of sharing.  First, we’re going to do some silent testimony.  
If you were baptized in our church, or if you are planning to be baptized in September, stand up.
We’ve actually baptized about twice this many people, but many of them have moved away to other cities and other churches.  Sometimes, we forget that people’s lives are being radically transformed here.  God is saving and changing people.  God is using our church to change people’s lives.  ... Thank you.  You can sit down.
Second, if God has done something significantly new in your life since you came to this church, please stand up.  Maybe you were already a Christian, but this church has been a big factor in helping you grow in Christ.  Maybe you aren’t yet a Christian, but you’re starting to think that is possible for you.  If any of that sounds like you, please stand up.
God is working among us.  Sometimes, that’s not always clear.  We don’t always see the results.  But God is working.  Be encouraged.  Be strengthened by what you see.  ... Thank you.  You can sit down.
Here’s the next thing we’re going to do.  In your bulletin, you have an insert called, “Share the Love!  Share the Faith!”  Right now, take some time and write down how God has been working in your life.  How have you grown in faith or love since you came to this church?  Write as much as you can.  Turn it over and write on the back if you need to.  How has God been working in you?  You can write in English or Korean.  Later, I’ll ask you to put these in the offering basket as a way to encourage our pastors.  Remember nothing encourages a pastor like hearing how God is working in you.  Please encourage us by telling your story.  Raise your hand if you need a pen or one of the cards.  
Now, get into groups of two or three and tell part of your story to someone.  Tell someone in about one minute how God has been working in your life.  
Now I want to ask a few brave people to come up to the front and tell us in a minute or less how God has been working in you.  I know you may feel uncomfortable, but remember that telling our stories is one way that God strengthens you and strengthens all of us.  Make us stronger by telling your story.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Questioning Our Leaders - 1 Thessalonians 2

My ministry here is not a failure.  You know that I have not been wasting my time and yours.  You may or may not know that sometimes I have been misunderstood, criticized, and treated unfairly.  Yet God has given me the strength to continue preaching God’s Good News boldly, in spite of those who may object.  
My teaching is not in error.  My motives are pure.  I’m not doing a bait-and-switch to catch people with a feel-good gospel.
I am called by God to be his messenger, his prophet.  God has entrusted me with his message, and you can be sure that I’m trying to please God not people.  God knows my heart.  God knows why I do this.
I’m not the kind of guy who flatters others or soft-pedals the truth or just says what you want to hear.  You certainly know that I haven’t taken it easy on you.  I’ve given you the truth even when the truth is difficult and unpopular.  Clearly, I’m not in this for the money or the glory.
As a pastor called and ordained by God and the Church, I could push my way.  I have that right, but I always try to side with gentleness.  I’ve cared for you like a mother nursing her own children.  And the truth is I haven’t just shared God’s Gospel, but I’ve been sharing my heart and soul with you.
Don’t you remember how I was bivocational - holding down two jobs so as not to be a burden to you?  Don’t you remember how I turned down pay raises to make room for more missional ministry?  You yourselves stand as witnesses - along with God - that I’ve been honest and faithful and above reproach here.
Like a father guiding the growth of his children, I’ve pleaded with you and encouraged you.  I’ve urged you - in every way I know how - to live in faithfulness to the God who calls you into his amazing Kingdom.  And I always thank God when you respond.  Somehow, mysteriously, God does speak through me.  Somehow, mysteriously, God uses me to work in you.  
It’s true that your faithful response has sometimes caused suffering for you, and some of that suffering comes from those who should love you best.  Unfortunately, that’s just how it goes.  When you suffer for following Jesus, you’re walking in the footsteps of the first Christians in Judea right up to the present time.  Some of the Jews rejected Jesus, just as they rejected the prophets before him and the apostles after him.  It seems that there are always those who try to protect God’s message but end up opposing God and everyone else.  Some will always stand in the way of God’s Good News moving out to everyone everywhere.
My brothers and sisters, I need you just as much as you need me, and I long for unity with you.  As much as I want for my heart to reach your heart, sometimes I feel like an orphan because I can’t speak through the mist.  The truth is we are in the midst of a larger struggle with the Evil One who wants to put divisions between us.
But in the end, what gives me hope and joy?  What gives me confidence that I’ll be able to stand with holy pride when Jesus comes back?  It’s you.  God’s transformation of your hearts and lives is my greatest reward.  God’s work in your life is the authentication of my life. 
That was a paraphrase of 1 Thessalonians 2.  I fit this chapter into my life and our context to help us hear the depth of emotions and the depth of issues in this passage.  Listen to it again in Paul’s words.
 1 You yourselves know, dear brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not a failure. 2 You know how badly we had been treated at Philippi just before we came to you and how much we suffered there. Yet our God gave us the courage to declare his Good News to you boldly, in spite of great opposition. 3 So you can see we were not preaching with any deceit or impure motives or trickery.
 4 For we speak as messengers approved by God to be entrusted with the Good News. Our purpose is to please God, not people. He alone examines the motives of our hearts. 5 Never once did we try to win you with flattery, as you well know. And God is our witness that we were not pretending to be your friends just to get your money! 6 As for human praise, we have never sought it from you or anyone else.
 7 As apostles of Christ we certainly had a right to make some demands of you, but instead we were like children among you. Or we were like a mother feeding and caring for her own children. 8 We loved you so much that we shared with you not only God’s Good News but our own lives, too.
 9 Don’t you remember, dear brothers and sisters, how hard we worked among you? Night and day we toiled to earn a living so that we would not be a burden to any of you as we preached God’s Good News to you. 10 You yourselves are our witnesses—and so is God—that we were devout and honest and faultless toward all of you believers. 11 And you know that we treated each of you as a father treats his own children. 12 We pleaded with you, encouraged you, and urged you to live your lives in a way that God would consider worthy. For he called you to share in his Kingdom and glory.
 13 Therefore, we never stop thanking God that when you received his message from us, you didn’t think of our words as mere human ideas. You accepted what we said as the very word of God—which, of course, it is. And this word continues to work in you who believe.
 14 And then, dear brothers and sisters, you suffered persecution from your own countrymen. In this way, you imitated the believers in God’s churches in Judea who, because of their belief in Christ Jesus, suffered from their own people, the Jews. 15 For some of the Jews killed the prophets, and some even killed the Lord Jesus. Now they have persecuted us, too. They fail to please God and work against all humanity 16 as they try to keep us from preaching the Good News of salvation to the Gentiles. By doing this, they continue to pile up their sins. But the anger of God has caught up with them at last.
Timothy’s Good Report about the Church
 17 Dear brothers and sisters, after we were separated from you for a little while (though our hearts never left you), we tried very hard to come back because of our intense longing to see you again. 18 We wanted very much to come to you, and I, Paul, tried again and again, but Satan prevented us. 19 After all, what gives us hope and joy, and what will be our proud reward and crown as we stand before our Lord Jesus when he returns? It is you! 20 Yes, you are our pride and joy.
Paul, Silas, and Timothy are on trial.  Paul’s leadership is in question.  And it tears into Paul’s heart.  
Remember the history of their trip to Thessalonica (Acts 17).  They had just come from Philippi where they were beaten and jailed.  In Thessalonica they preached boldly in the Jewish synagog.  This synagog had a lot of Gentile seekers.  They were non-Jews who recognized that there is only one true God.  A few of the Jews believed Paul’s message about Jesus, but many of the Gentile seekers believed.  This naturally created a lot of jealousy.  To the local Jewish leaders,Paul was stealing their converts.  So these jealous Jews started a riot in the city and eventually drove the missionaries out of town. 
You can imagine what happened after Paul’s missionary team left.  The local leaders - both Jewish and non-Jewish - started working to return things to normal.  They used every objection they could think of.  They discredited Paul as a fraudulent traveling preacher - something like a poofy-haired televangelist.  They said Paul was just using them.  They said the missionaries were just putting on a show, trying to raise a following of people, so they could feel good about themselves.  They said Paul was mistaken.  They said Paul was distorting the ancient Jewish faith.  They said Paul was immoral, rejecting the laws Jews had followed for generations.  They said you can’t trust someone who loves you and leaves you.  The whole time, their message was: “You can’t trust Paul.”
In 1 Thessalonians chapter 2, Paul gives three defenses of his ministry.  In essence, Paul says, “You can trust me, and here’s why.”
First, Paul says, “Look at our life.”  Obviously, Paul wasn’t in this for the money.  His team paid their own way.  They worked a side job so that they wouldn’t have to ask for money.  
Also, Paul points to their loving relationships as proof of his ministry.  Paul says, we were gentle among you - innocent as babies (2:7).  In fact, we loved you like a wet-nurse holding her own child to her breast (2:7).  We guided you like a father with his own children.  We held your hands and encouraged you and urged you toward a godly life (2:11-12).  Verse 17 has one of the most unusual images in the Bible.  The English says, “we were separated from you,” but the Greek verb is aporphanizo, or “we were made orphans”   When the apostles were forced to leave Thessalonica, it was like they were orphaned - ripped out of their loving family.
But most importantly, Paul says that his first loyalty is to God not people.  If they were just in it for the the money or the praise, they would have quit after the first beating.  They didn’t hold back on the difficult topics.  They didn’t cheat or cut corners or sweet talk anyone.  They simple told God’s message with love and honesty.  Paul, Silas, and Timothy lived with honesty, hard work, gentleness, and love.  The Thessalonians themselves can remember this and silence the critics.
Second, Paul says, “Look at our message.”  Again and again and again, Paul says he declared “God’s Good News” and “God’s word.”  He wasn’t preaching his own invention.  He hadn’t cooked up something new.  Paul was carrying forward the work God began in Israel.  Paul was continuing God’s promise to Abraham to bless the whole world through Israel (Genesis 12:1-3).  
The problem was that Jesus was a reformer.  Jesus was re-forming God’s people according to the ancient mold, the original intentions.  Lots of human dust and mud had been packed onto God’s plan and God’s design for the people, so Jesus and the apostles had to break off all of that extra dirt to see the stark beauty of God’s love for all of humanity. 
We can be pretty hard on the Jews and the Jewish Christians who resisted change, but we need to remember that, to many of the Jews, Jesus’ Good News sounded like a rejection of everything they had ever known.  Jesus was so different from their teachers.  Paul’s message was so different from the message of their rabbis.  They had a hard time seeing the faults with their old view of the Bible and God’s people.  Maybe they felt like believing Paul’s message meant rejecting centuries of teachers who had come before, rejecting the whole system they had grown up in, rejecting their fathers and grandfathers. 
What was Paul’s answer?  In Acts 17, when Paul was in Thessalonica, “he used the Scriptures to reason with the people.  He explained the prophecies and proved that the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead.  He said, ‘This Jesus I’m telling you about is the Messiah’” (17:2-3).  Paul’s answer was basically, “Go back to the heart of God’s word.  Go back to the heart of God’s action in the world.  You’ll find that, although this sounds new, it’s actually very old.  The Good News of Jesus that I’m preaching is actually the age-old message of God’s love for the whole world.”
Finally, Paul says, “Look at our results.”  When we preached, God worked in your hearts, and God is still working in your hearts (2:13).  You believed so deeply that you remained faithful despite persecution (2:14).  You yourselves are our reward.  You yourselves are our best argument for faithfulness.  God has used us to change your lives.  That is the final proof (2:19-20).
Paul’s leadership was questioned, and he gives an answer.  You can trust us because because we lived with honest and humble love, trying to please God not people.  You can trust us because we are preaching the ancient message of God.  You can trust us because God has worked in you through us.
Some things never change.  Leaders still get questioned.  We still wonder whether we can trust each other.  We still wonder whether our leaders are being faithful to God.  There are still false prophets in the world.  There are still teachers who lead people astray.  How do we know what is what?  How do we know who to trust?  We can start with Paul’s three basic arguments.
Look at their life.  Are they totally honest all the time?  Do they speak the truth even when it’s difficult?  Are they in it for the money?  Are they loving at all times?  Are they gentle and faithful?  Do they show genuine care for you?   Do they live what they preach?  Do you see evidence of Jesus in them?
Look at their message.  Are they faithful to the Word of God?  Are they proclaiming God’s Gospel and not their own?  Are they telling people what they want to hear, or are they preaching the truth boldly?  
Now this part can get really difficult because we humans have a bad habit of distorting the message over time.  In the Old Testament, God’s prophets often ran into trouble because they said justice and mercy are more important that orthodox sacrifices.  Jesus got into trouble because he said the religious leaders had misunderstood God and faithfulness.  Paul got into trouble because he said grace triumphs over law.  Luther got into trouble because he said we have to obey the Bible not the Pope.  Wesley got into trouble because he said God actually wants our day-to-day total loyalty not just Sunday attendance.  Bresee got into trouble because he followed Jesus to the poor instead of expecting the poor to clean up and come to Jesus.    The church is always in need of reform, and we have a bad habit of shooting our reformers.  
When we look at our leaders’ message, we have to be careful not to get on the wrong side of the Holy Spirit.  Yes, of course, reformers can take things too far.  Yes, of course, we have to be cautious and make sure we are still being faithful.  But, yes, we also need to remember that God’s prophets of reformation always contradict the teachers who came before them.  God’s prophets of reformation always sound wrong at first.  So we need to be careful not to ask, “Does their message sound the same as the message we’ve always heard?”  Instead, we need to ask, “Is their message in line with the Gospel of Jesus Christ?  Are they going back to the heart of what God wants?”
Look at their results.  Are they “filled with power - with the Spirit of the Lord” (Micah 3:8)?  Is God saving and changing people through their ministry?  Where is the fruit?  Are people becoming more like Christ?  Are people who didn’t know God coming to put their life-trust in God’s amazing love?  Is the Church becoming more loving and more faithful?  Do you and others hear God’s voice, confirmation, and conviction in your own heart when the leader speaks?  
When Jesus was defending his ministry against criticism, he said, “Wisdom is proved right by all her children” (Luke 7:35).  In everyday English, we might say, the proof’s in the pudding.  Give it time, and you’ll usually see if someone is faithful or not simply by seeing the results.
So if you find yourself questioning your leaders, that’s OK.  Some things never change.  But make sure you judge them by the right standards.  It’s not how they make you feel.  It’s not if you like them or don’t like them.  It’s not if their style or vocabulary suits you.  It’s not if you feel comfortable or uncomfortable around them.  As Christians, we assess our leaders based on their lives, their message, and their results.  
But we aren’t done yet.  God never lets us off that easily.  Any time we start talking about evaluating or assessing others, we also have to judge ourselves.  “For you will be treated as you treat others.  The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged.  And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? ... First get rid of the long in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye” (Matthew 7:2-5).  How can we check our own eyes?  Let me suggest a few questions.
  • How is your own life?  Is it possible that you are ready to criticize someone else to get the attention off your own faults?
  • Are you yourself practicing what you’re preaching?
  • How is your own understanding of the message?  How much have you studied this topic?  Have you considered all sides of the topic?  Who have your teachers been?  Were they people with a balanced view of the world today?  Were they people committed to truth but open to change?
  • What about your results?  If people follow you, will they become more like Jesus?  Are people drawing closer to God because of you?
  • Who is fueling this criticism for you?  Remember, some of the biggest opponents to Jesus and the apostles were religious leaders who were resisting change.  Also remember that some of Paul’s biggest opponents came from the other extreme - advocating a total abandonment of all ethics.   Who is whispering in your ear?
  • Are you really listening, or are you hearing a stereotype?  Is your leader “an old stick-in-the-mud” fundamentalist?   Is your leader a social-gospel liberal?  If you’re thinking in those categories, there is a high likelihood that you are actually listening to your own stereotypes instead of what the person is actually saying.
  • What do you have to gain or lose through this conflict?  Are you trying to protect someone or something important to you?  Is that thing really at risk or does it just feel  like it is?
  • Is this issue that offends you really at the heart of God’s message?  Or is it a side-issue and not all that important after all?
  • Are there larger forces at work here?  Is it possible that this conflict is part of a larger social change or spiritual battle?  If so, do you really have all the information you need to understand these complex forces?
Paul says three times in this chapter that he preached “God’s Gospel.”  What is God’s Gospel, and what does it mean for us today?  God’s Gospel starts with God’s unchanging love for every person who has ever lived.  God made us, and God won’t abandon us.  God came to earth in Jesus and lived among us.  Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins and to set us free from sin and death and selfishness.  God raised Jesus from the dead and sent people around the world to share this Good News of freedom and grace.  God invites everyone everywhere into his kingdom and glory, into his new life of love and peace.  
As God forms us into “societies of mutual aid” (a.k.a. churches), he gives us leaders.  But even leaders God chooses are not without fault or error.  As God’s people, we are all invested with the same Spirit of God.  We are all mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and children to each other.  In the body of Christ no one is beyond accountability - even our highest leaders.  
So, as people called by God to live like God, we look honestly into each others lives and call each other to greater faithfulness and love.  Sometimes that involves difficult conversations or hard work to understand each other.  But we do the hard work of love because we are one family.  We do the hard work of love because God has already done the hardest work of love - dying to include us in one family.  We do the hard work of love - with love and grace - because this is the only way to have a loving community that changes our world.  We do the hard work of love because this is the best life possible.