You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.
These are some strong words from the Apostle Paul to the church at Thessolonica. Word had gotten back to Paul that the people of the church had been, frankly, talking about him behind his back and questioning his motives and methods, and in this passage Paul passionately defends himself and his ministry leaders. I get a charge out of this passage, especially on behalf of pastors and leaders in the room... I mean if the Apostle Paul's church misunderstood him and questioned his motives, what chance do the rest of us have?
Yet, this passage is more than just a defensive plea. Paul's letter emphasizes that his ministry to them should be an example (paradigm) for how they should serve each other. Last week we read the opening words to this letter, where Paul charged the people to become imitators of "us and Christ". He and his ministry leaders were modeling Christ-like behavior to the members of the church with the hope that they would show that same love to each other. in this passage the church hears what they should be doing- how they should act in what characteristics are found in a Christian Community. I appreciate that he stresses that these characteristics are not just to be found in the church's leaders, but to be embraced by every person who participates in the life of the church.
Since today we are celebrating our 180th anniversary as a church, it's especially timely, and can serve as a reminder for all of us in going forward. Our church is entering into a new season of ministry. I spoke last week about the accomplishments and changes that have taken place over the last 5 1/2 years, and how the church now, has both an opportunity and a responsibility to live out our call- to build strong relationships that will grow trust- for it is only in trusting one another that the love of Christ can dwell.
That's a big word- trust. All week I have been reflecting on that word and the implications it has for the church. I was thinking about the first group of Christians who, 180 years ago, came together to form First Baptist Church and the trust they had to have had in one another and in God. If you have ever been a part of beginning a new church, you'll instantly know what I'm talking about, but for most people in our congregation, that falls outside our experience. Fifteen years ago I was one of the founders of a new church. It was hands down the most difficult time in my life. Though we spent many hours meeting together, praying, planning, dreaming, incorporating, we missed one key element- we didn't take the time to build the kind of trust needed to stick together when times got tough. We thought we were fine. We thought that seeing each other at a mid week bible study and worshiping together on Sunday mornings was enough. We thought that the senior pastor planning events that people would or would not attend was enough to form a community who would not allow itself to fracture if/when something happened.
Not that there wasn't ministry happening... people were turning their lives over to Jesus, but the relationship of me and Jesus wasn't modeled in the community. So while people went to Christ with all of their "stuff" (you know what stuff is, right?) there was nowhere near that level of confidence in the members of the congregation. So when the senior pastor started having personal issues that, admittedly he was ashamed of, there was nowhere to turn... no trust meant he was left on his own to struggle- and you know the story, that lead to isolation, and eventually a fracturing of the church, especially since the church was in its infancy.
Then I reflected on FBCM- this church has managed to stay together 180 years. In those first years of meeting together, what must have it been like to be that small community of faith that met together in someone's home, and then a small building... how much sharing of hearts and faith must there have been in 1847 that lead to that small community wanting to become a church? Thing about it, they must have been like minded, and have felt the same way about their faith in Christ... I pray for the boldness they must have had and the vulnerability they must have show to each other in telling their faith story. Can you picture the moment when someone said "you know, we all seem to feel the same way- let's make it official." It gives me goosebumps!
And for the next several years I expect they developed and enhanced their relationships, and grew in numbers, and eventually got more corporate, and structured and wrote bylaws and policies... and none of this is wrong- there was excellent ministry being done by this church through the decades! But I expect with all of the policy writing and incorporation, and programming, some of the intimacy of those early days 180 years ago was lost... just as it was at the church at Thessolonica only a few months after Paul left... so much that he sent a reminder to love and trust one another.
The good news is that our church is at a place now where we have the opportunity to rekindle and build that kind of intimacy with one another. For some, it's already happening. Those are the people that you see, as we talked about last week, who are hanging out together, and growing relationships in and out of church. But as the church goes forward into the next 180 years, that kind of relationship and trust building will be the foundational piece of a strong community.
This morning, you may recognize yourself in any number of places in relationship with this church. You may be feeling like relationships are growing and you are getting to know people in a new, deeper way, and you know the time and intentionality it takes to make that happen. You know how vulnerable it feels to open your heart to someone for the first time, and to allow the Spirit of God to enter into that relationship. You know how scary it is sometimes to share your faith story- it's not something the world encourages, but you do it anyway- you know the risk of trusting someone with your heart. Bravo! You are on the path to Christ-like love and community.
Some of you may not be feeling any of those things, but wish you could... let me encourage you today- just take one small step this week. Call someone. Send a card. Open your heart just a little bit. Relationships and trust building take time- go easy on yourself, give yourself lots of grace, but be consistent- be intentional- don't give up. It may seem way outside your comfort zone, and for most people, it is... but lean on the strength of God in Christ to give you courage. Keep at it because trust is what will keep our community strong through the next 180 years.
And finally, some of you may be thinking "this pastor is nuts- Im fine how I am and there is no reason for any of this and we were doing just fine without all this change." And that's true you know.... I am nuts. I'm not ashamed of that because God has put this call on my life and gives me revelations to pass on to you that don't come from my own brain, and that process in an of itself, makes me nuts... so you would be correct. You're also correct in assuming that you can live just fine the way you are... and that the church can run (and even last) reliant on its by-laws and rules- all you have to do it look at churches or any corporation/institution which do just that for proof. But know this... without the kind of intimacy and trust that comes through Christ, and unless we open ourselves to it, we are only living out a fraction of what God can do in and through this church. Without it, we become, just another institution or corporation. Without it, we can't touch all of the things God has in store for us- we can never be the best version of ourselves that God has designed for us to be. We can't stay where we are and go with God at the same time.
My prayer for this church, as the next 180 years of ministry begin, is that we can learn from the past, honor those who have gone before us, the founding members who were bold enough to see they were being challenged to change- and honor those who kept on doing it... that we can honor our commitment to God and live out the ways and teachings of Christ- that we can learn to trust, and love and serve, with all our hearts and minds.. and with all of our strength.