One thing the Protestant Reformers and Roman Catholic churches could agree was their mutual hatred for Copernicus and his heliocentric theories. After five hundred years, do the organized denominations still gang up on those who challenge the the orthodoxy of the day? Yes. Copernicus’ life and the response of men like Martin Luther and John Calvin have much to teach churches in the post-modern era.
The fear of death is premised largely on one idea; what comes next. What happens after we die? We are afraid to die because we are afraid of the unknown reality or unreality beyond death. For many people this takes the form of black and white, either/or debate. Will I go to heaven or will I go to hell? At this time of year, the emphasis seems to be on hell (though in reality it never does stray far “the bad place”). Demons and ghouls emerge from the shadows to frighten our moral souls. Those opposed to the activities of persons who practiced witchcraft in the 1500’s and prevent their children from dressing in a witches outfit for couple of hours one night a year also fear the creeping and eternal influence of evil beyond death. Are such actions damnable? Could we be held eternally liable? Am I going to Hell?
If you’re afraid to die and go to Hell, it would seem that the people who held the information to keep you out of Hell and safe in Jesus’ loving arms would hold immense power. Those people with the access and understanding to talk about such things would have a vested interest in wanting to keep the idea of death, fear, and Hell burning forever. If people weren’t motivated by a fear of death, or even going to Hell, what would they do?
I think you would hear constant conversations about love. The words wrath and condemnation would never enter into the picture. The old clichés would fall by the wayside and people would be constantly looking up to God instead of lugging the guilt and fear they carry now; the guilt and fear we need them to carry because fear is part and parcel keeping people terrified of their need for God. We don’t want people terrified. We want people longing for a living, normal, healthy relationship with Jesus Christ.
A faith without a fear of death or Hell would be grounded in benevolence for everyone. We would possess such an unbounded love for people our most important message would be that God’s love is not limited by our own mortality.
Christianity without a fear of death and Hell would have total trust in God to handle the geography, furniture, and thermostat in eternity. We don’t have that kind of trust right now. We don’t trust God enough but we do trust our own fear to know more about life after death and God’s business than God does. We are comfortable with our fears. We love our fears. We know them. It doesn’t have to be this way.
If there is one thing we are afraid of it is death. You can’t help but notice it. We want to live forever. That’s what medical advertisements and the pharmaceutical industry say to us each day. You can and should want to live forever with the quality of life you have come to know and expect as “normative” at this moment. You should never have to live with any degree of diminished capacity in an assisted living facility or hospital. Those places are places of death. That is this message we received. The fear of death is further compounded, glorified, and commercialized through the celebration of this thing we call “Halloween”. Scare me to the point of death, dress yourself in something scary (yet provocative), unleash your deepest fears and anxieties about death for one night. We then justify all of this psychological and pent-up emotional weirdness in the name of “the children” having fun and getting candy. Because when it’s about the kids having fun, who can really mock the adults for only remembering what’s like to be frightened? After all, how will our children learn to be frightened of death and carry on these bizarre rituals unless we teach them that death stalks in these colder months with shorter days? Yes, we’re afraid of death and we’ve made it into a celebration. We’ve allowed “Big Death” to become an industry that rivals its subsidiaries Big Oil and Big Pharma.
My point is this: we don’t have to be afraid of death. We choose to be. We don’t have to buy into the fear laced, Ebola laden, Halloween infused, these side-effects might kill you propaganda trying to convince us that death is the only undeniable reality of the human condition. When people accept such propaganda as truth, hope is eroded faster than the sands of the beaches that surround this island. Hopelessness is the living legacy of people who’ve bought into fear as a way of life. There is another reality; one that transcends death itself. There is a reality which is rooted in hope. It goes something like this: death need not be feared because death is not final. It’s a promise, made to us by those saints who have gone before us. It’s what scripture says.
Do I understand the physics and mathematics of that promise? Do I want to? Do I need to? No. For one, I believe the promise. With each sunrise and sunset I see on this island the reality of God’s presence beyond this finite realm becomes clearer each day. Secondly, my work is here, not there. I’m not working for a ticket out of here. I’m working so when I’m asked, “did you feed me, clothe me, and visit me in prison?” I can say yes. Let Jesus worry about getting us “up there”. Our work is here. Our preoccupation is not to be with what will get is to the afterlife. When we get so preoccupied with talking about the afterlife, the rapture, and whose left behind it’s like we’re second guessing the work Jesus has done. Christ doesn’t call us to hunker down in apocalypse bunkers feeding on each other’s negativity and hopelessness. We are called to be outside, on the front-lines, modeling our hope for everyone to see.
1. I don’t believe there is a one size fits all version of Christianity.
2. I don’t believe all Christians should agree on 100% of everything.
3. There is strength in Christians holding a diversity of opinions.
4. Our faith journey is a work in progress.
5. Conversion is never a one-time event; God is always in the process of converting and reconverting our lives.
6. Love is more powerful than guilt. We learn this from Jesus.
7. Prayer is about listening and not about talking.
8. Scripture means more to us today by understanding the context in which it was written.
9. We have one story tell; the story of a world upended by the itinerant Rabbi from Nazareth.
10. Jesus teaches us to value people and relationships over processes and institutions.
What’s My Motivation?
“What’s my motivation?” I know you’ve heard that question before. It’s often asked by actors playing pretentious actors on television and in movies. It’s not a bad question. What motivates us to get up in the morning and be the person we are called to be? Why are we disciples? Why do we follow Jesus Christ? Why do we do “this”? I also see it as the underlying question behind these few verses Paul is writing to the Thessalonians in this morning’s lectionary reading.
1) Ultimately and always everything comes back to the Good News. We have one story to tell. It’s the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have to tell it, in the words of the BBC Radio 4 program “Just a Minute” without hesitation, deviation, or repetition. We can’t put words in Jesus’ mouth. Nor can we subtract from the words he said. We can’t make him out to be an icon of the religious right or the political left. He transcends any distinction. The kingdom of God is a place which operates beyond the conventional political boundaries created by the fall of the Roman Empire and the eventual rise of parliamentary democracy in Western Europe and representative democracy in the United States of America. Do we want to conform to his story or will we continue trying to mold him to our own story? Paul’s answer is clear. Conforming to Christ’s story is the only authentic answer.
2) Here’s where a direct quote comes in to play. “We aren’t trying to please people but we are trying to please God.” Who are we trying to please? Are we trying to please what our neighbors as to what constitutes a good Christian? Are we trying to please some kind of flawed internal standard that was warped when we were children or in a youth group as to what God really wanted from us and as a consequence we’ve always been trying to please other people? Pleasing God is our first priority. It always has been and always will be.
If we were in the business of pleasing people, we are in the wrong business. We are not in this for ourselves. We should be doing something else. Was Jesus in the business of pleasing people? If you look holistically, across the board, at his life and ministry, was it about pleasing people? No. It was about pleasing God. People’s lives were made better; infinitely better, through serving and pleasing God.
Is the message of the Good News ultimately about pleasing people or doing God’s will and reflecting God’s glory in our actions? In reflecting God’s glory in our actions and doing God’s will; letting people know the Good News (the one story), we are given the tools and the stage is set for their needs to be met.
3) Paul says, “As you know, we never used flattery.” There are two basic approaches (both in Paul’s day and our own) to sharing the gospel.
a) The “You sure to have a nice car, did I tell you that Jesus loves you?”
b) Or the “You dirty filthy miserable rotten no good sinner; you’re going straight to Hell.”
Paul says he neither flattered people nor did he unnecessarily condemn people outright and try to scare them into heaven. There is, with all good things, a middle ground. Jesus showed us this.
Jesus, Paul, (and you and I) showed us how to meet people where they are. If people are rich, poor, hungry, full, living in a shack, speaking English, or Spanish, they have the same spiritual and emotional needs. Jesus got that instinctively. If they were hungry, he fed them first. If they were sick, he made them better. Everybody was the same, a person searching for a better connection with God. Roman centurions loved their kids just like poor Samaritan widows did.
These are the things Paul says motivates us to keep going and do what we do.
Jesus never gives us more than we can bear. Are we sure about that? If we never had more than we could bear, why would we need Jesus in the first place? If we could bear everything, we don’t need Jesus. I prefer to have more than I can bear and need Jesus to bear the stuff I can’t do on my own.
Paul says some very important things in the opening of his letter to the Thessalonians.
The first thing that always strikes me each time I read this word and I must say that it impresses me that Paul wants his hearers, above all else to know this information, it’s this, “We (not I) give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remember before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
He begins by acknowledging the work, ministry, and prayers of those around him. Paul’s ministry was more often than not a team effort. He wanted the churches to realize and understand this. Their ministries also needed to be cooperative. Paul’s work was never just about Paul. In this case, Silvanus and Timothy were part and parcel of his success and known to the Thessalonians as missionaries and teachers. Acknowledging each other is an important action in role modeling an important behavior but it also lets the people you work with how much value and care for them. Paul knew this.
Secondly, Paul is living a life of gratitude. “We always give thanks to God for all of you,” Paul says. Plainly put, that’s called being grateful. He’s grateful for the people he knows, has come to know, he works with, his extended Christian family, and those he is in a relationship with. This is different from prayer. We’ll come to that in a moment. This is about living a life of gratitude and showing that gratitude in ways that let people know you value them and the contribution they make to your life. Those things which he’s grateful become the basis he build his prayers around.
Paul is always giving thanks to God for something. How is it possible to live that way? Do you put yourself on some kind of list for a happiness transplant?
What do we have to be grateful for (to the same degree that Paul is)? Where do we start if we want to live a life of gratitude like Paul’s? Here are five easy prompts to get you going each day when considering the things you are grateful for in your life. A word or two about any or all of these five is a great place to begin. Put them in a journal or some kind of place you can come back to. Remind yourself of your blessings. It sounds too easy to remind ourselves of something so obvious. But it is the obvious things we most easily overlook and ignore. That’s why it is good to remind ourselves of the basic and most important parts of our life-the parts that shouldn’t change.
1. Your life, your health, your well-being.
2. Your most meaningful relationships. (like your family or friends)
3. The fact you have food to eat and clean water to drink.
4. You are not homeless.
5. You have people who love you.
Then, as I mentioned, Paul takes these things he’s grateful for; the churches the people, the people he share mission and ministry with and lets them shape his prayer life. Do you see what happens there? If you move into this constant awareness of gratitude, you’re writing a few things down, you’re telling be how grateful you are, you always have a ready source of something to pray about; you’re never at the point where you say, “God, I’m just don’t know what to say or what to talk about.” You’ve always got somewhere to start the conversation.
The final point Paul makes is this, “our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit.” It came to them, as I like to say, “Beyond the quotation marks”. The word of God is so powerful in cannot be contained by this book alone. Nor can it be contained by what people say about this book, our quotes and explanations about the Bible, such as what I’m doing now. It’s hard for anyone to do justice to the Bible other than the Bible itself. We can try. We can and do help facilitate the conditions for understanding and growth. We do that each week but as Paul says, the message also come not by words but by the work of spirit, in the reality of the words, deeds, and actions of people prompted by spirit. I’m talking about us having the opportunity to see the scriptures and the ideas of the Bible go from being 2 dimensional theories to a 3 dimensional living reality where people are making Christ’s words and teachings come alive. In the case of the Thessalonians, they made it real. They were doing things that no one else was doing. Not content for classroom learning experiences only, they wanted to take it to the streets. That’s what they did. Paul thought it was important remind them of how far they had come in such a short period of time.
He ends up with this message. The Thessalonians story is telling itself. Their story has become its own missionary. In verse 8, Paul says, “For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia but in every place where you faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. When Paul, Silvanius, and Timothy arrive somewhere new, people have already heard of the great work and faith of the Thessalonians and their church. He doesn’t have to preach that sermon. It’s a “been there and done that” moment for Paul. Their gratitude and devotion to God has spread to church communities all around the eastern Mediterranean and people are inspired by their story.
Is our story going ahead of us? Do people know of our faithfulness, devotion, and gratitude to God beyond the place we call home? Is there no need to speak of us because our faith has become known? What can we do better to help our story become a missionary in and of itself this morning?
I am about an unapologetic assault on the mediocrity, boredom, and conventional wisdom that have come to define contemporary American Christianity (and my own denominational tradition). I want to call into question the theological and institutional inertia that seems to prohibit our congregations living vibrant lives rooted in an authentic Biblical vision. I want to aggressively challenge the norms which we’ve carved in stone to create sacred cows and the practices that have no basis scripture which date only to the recent past. This is a big part of what I am about.