Sunday, October 26, 2008

Community Building 101

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

The small town in Kenya where I did my work as a student pastor was also the home of an African Orthodox Church, a congregation of the Orthodox tradition like Greek or Russian Orthodox churches we may have heard about. One day my mentor and I stopped by on some church business, and I had the opportunity to look around the sanctuary while they talked. As I looked at the icons, pictures of biblical personalities or saints that line the walls to guide and focus prayer, I noticed they were all signed in the bottom corner, but not with the artists’ names. Instead they said: “Given by the missionary society of Thessaloniki.”

I don’t know why, but it was so cool to see that! I mean, I know Thessalonica is a real place, but I guess I am used to seeing it in a Christian tourism booklet as a stop on “Journeys of Paul” tour as opposed to a real town, with real churches, with real ministries even to this day.

But long before their missionary society could send liturgical artwork around the world, some of Christianity’s first missionaries made their way to the Thessalonians. The church in Thessalonica was founded by Paul, and his first letter to them is actually thought to be not only the earliest of Paul’s letters in our Scriptures, but also the earliest of all the writings that can be found in our New Testament. It was likely written about 50 years after the birth of Jesus, or about 17-20 years after his resurrection.

Paul’s stay in Thessalonica was not as short as some of evangelistic stops. He actually settled down for a little while, practicing his trade and receiving financial help from Philippi, about 95 miles away. Eventually, though Paul was eventually forced out of Thessalonica, probably for teaching about a king other than Caesar. Unable to return, Paul sent Timothy to the church, who returned with a positive report. The letter of 1 Thessalonians was written a few months after Paul’s departure in response to that report.

While his work in Thessalonica was not Paul’s first work of evangelism, good news-sharing, it’s not like the next town over had a church up and running either. When the Thessalonian Christian community ran into confusion, or doubt, or trouble in their life or in their faith, it’s not like they had the next congregation over in the presbytery to call upon for help or a witness. Yet even without his immediate presence they were able to continue on in the faith. Paul’s praise of them in other parts of the letter tells us this is the case.

However, at the same time in this letter Paul is also addressing some doubts that have come up about his motives, although whether they are doubts of the church or the surrounding community we can’t be sure. But doubts are doubts and we all know that once those thoughts have been planted if not in our heads or hearts even just near our heads and hearts, it’s hard to just shake them away.

The Thessalonians are trying to live this new faith, to make sense of their new beliefs and relationship to a new God for the most part on their own. It was one thing to live this way when Paul was there, when there was someone, something, an energy, an excitement driving them forward in the Spirit. It’s another when Paul has moved on and the novelty has begun to wear off.

Without their leader, their founder anxiety starts to set in. Can we do this without him? What are we doing anyway? What if he was just trying to scam us, get us to love him, feed his ego? Without something (or in this case someone) to unite them, the fabric of their community starts to fray a little around the edges. They didn’t completely fall apart or anything, remember Timothy’s favorable report to Paul. But the edges started to get a little fuzzy; a little uncertainty started to crop up in their communal voice.

I can’t help but remember that this Sunday marks the one year anniversary of my family’s first “public” visit to _____, my first Sunday worshiping with you and preaching among you. I’ve been here “full-time” for 10 months now, and it has been a blessing to work with a growing congregation, in a growing community, with dedicated members committed to welcoming others. It’s a joy working with the staff you put into place before God even called me here. Ministry is thriving, I think. We have been running on the excitement of our new relationship, and the new page in the book of this particular family of faith.

Yet even in our excitement and our movement forward, or maybe because of it, we need to hear God’s Word through Paul in our church. It’s a warning almost, maybe more of a friendly reminded. The body of Christ can’t run forever on adrenaline.

Be assured, just like the Thessalonians, we are in NO WAY coming apart at the seams. I wouldn’t even go nearly as far as saying we’re anxious about who we are what this is all about. But at the same time, I don’t want us to even be tempted to go this direction. And when questions begin to arise about who we are and why we’re doing what we’re doing, I want us to be able to answer them thoughtfully, prayerfully, guided by the Spirit and Word of God.

Our fabric, too, could begin to fray at the edges if we lose sight of our unifying purpose, if we forget or maybe even refuse to discover the reason we have been planted in this place in this time. Paul is not our unifying purpose. I am CERTAINLY not our unifying purpose. Even you, our congregation, are not our unifying purpose. The gospel of Jesus our Messiah, the good news of God’s love, is what we are hear for – not flattery for building up ourselves or others, not greed for accumulating wealth or status, not bragging rights, nor praise from the city around us. None of these are our unifying purpose. None of these are our mission, our call from God.

Living and sharing the gospel of Jesus our Christ, that is our purpose and our call.

Unless we keep that at the center of our life together, at the center of the community we are continually building, the years of ministry and witness that have come before us WILL have been in vain.

Let’s be honest - - how many of us who were born and raised Presbyterian (I’ll only pick on us, since I, for the most part, fit in this category) got even just the slightest bit uncomfortable when I said that – “sharing the gospel”? I ask because I can admit it myself. Even as I spoke them, even as I typed them, I got a little bit nervous about what that means. It’s not language that has been used in our churches very much, probably to a fault. Or when we do say it, “sharing the gospel” has referred to missionaries of “ours” that we send to “them”, people in some other land, people who look very different, live very different, and sound very different than we do. Sharing the gospel is what someone else does, somewhere very far from here.

But Paul talks about sharing the gospel in a very different way. Certainly he was once in Thessalonica as that missionary who came from very far away to share the gospel with very different people, but his letter is to the church that continues on. His words, his encouragement, his urging in the faith is to people who are living the faith he shared not around the globe in places unknown, but in their homes, in their community, in their regular, everyday lives. And as people of faith, however new or however tenuous, they are people who are called to care a they have been cared for, to nurse others as they have been nursed in the faith, to share themselves as Paul shared himself with them, to share the good news of God’s love as it has been shared with them

Paul tells us this sharing is what builds the community of anxious, nervous part-believers/part-doubters/part-wonders into the community of brothers and sisters in faith, brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s sharing the knowledge and experience of the gospel, sharing the knowledge and experience of the love of God, it’s loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind, it’s loving our neighbors and ourselves, that draws us together in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I think sharing the gospel makes us nervous because we think there’s supposed to be some certain way to do it. We think there are right words to say to someone. We think we’re supposed to walk up to strangers and just start telling them what we know or what we’ve heard or what we believe. But the gospel isn’t captured in a particular set of words. The gospel is a formula of statements about Jesus and what he did. The gospel is good news. The gospel is a story about love, the love of God in Christ Jesus, the love of God that overflows out of God so freely that when we receive it, when it comes raining down on us, we just have to love ourselves and others as God has loved us. We have to share it and let it rain down on others to keep it from having been given to us in vain.

What we share when we share this gospel is not a checklist of beliefs, a list of doctrines, or creeds formalized millennia or even just decades ago. What we share when we share this gospel is a piece of ourselves that has been loved by God, piece of our lives, a piece of our faith that witnesses to the love we know in Jesus.

It may sound daunting, even scary to be this kind of evangelist (another one of those words that makes us nervous), this kind of good news-sharer, but the encouraging word of Paul’s letter is that this kind of sharing happens within intimate, well-tended relationships.

It happens when we tell friend or a neighbor we are praying for them in their daily living. It happens when we look into the eyes of those we serve at Grace Place or at community meals. It happens when we share an afternoon of fun, creativity, and laughter with our friends from Bridge like we did yesterday at Trick or Trunk. It happens when we make commitments to each other, to God, and to the church promising our time, our money, our energy, and our witness in the service of our Lord. It happens when we meet in small groups for prayer, when we deliver handmade prayer shawls, when we visit the sick or the elderly or the lonely in our community, holding their hands, and witnessing with our presence as much as our words.

Sharing the gospel doesn’t require graduate work in theology. It doesn’t assume we’ve all taken a class on the six steps to effective evangelism. Sharing the gospel means sharing ourselves, with all our doubts and all our imperfections, and all of the love of God that has been poured into our lives. When this kind of evangelism, sharing the love we know with the people we know, is our unifying purpose, then all we have received has not been in vain. Then we are building our community in Christ.

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