1 Thessalonians 2:9-20 You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers. For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last. As for us, brothers and sisters, when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face. For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again—but Satan blocked our way. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!
Today we continue going through some of Paul's letters to the churches- known to us as the Epistles. Today's passage continues the section we talked about last week when we focused on building trust and intimacy between us. I commented that as we walk toward the future of our church, we are in a fantastic place to be able to work on growing and deepening relationships with one another, and that those strong relationships will serve as a foundation for following God to become the best version of FBCM that can be.
Today, Paul continues in much the same format- he is still a bit defensive about the work he has done- "you all know we worked hard, and our conduct was pure and blameless, we cared for you, we nurtured you, we encouraged you to become the best you can be."
But then Paul moves on to talk about how happy he is about how the word of God was received in that community- he writes: "We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers."
This really struck me- that the people accepted what God was doing and saw it for what it really was... not in any human way, not as the world might explain it away, or use words to describe things God was doing as 'coincidence,' or, 'luck,' or 'a fluke. But the people of Thessolonica, whether they were able to recognize God or not, accepted the words of Paul as from God- and they began to see themselves and act in a way that propelled them to become a church body who really made a difference- so much so that we are still talking about them 2000 years later.
Again, I took Paul's words and thought about them as they might relate to our congregation. How do we see ourselves- how do we feel about who we are and for that matter, who are we? We have, as far as I can see, three ways of answering that question. We can answer in the way the world sees us, "them..." or in the way we see ourselves. And this is important to talk about, because what we think about ourselves and how we see ourselves, determines who we are, and dictates who we become. No vision statement can do it for us, and regardless of how many meetings we have, or what it says on our website, whatever we believe about ourselves, is who we are. As the saying goes, it's not what you think you are, but what you think, you are.
Let's unpack that. Because it may explain a little bit for the people I talked about last week, the ones who think I am nuts for always talking so positively, and pushing for us to go farther, and deeper, and (yes I am going to use the word) change... this might explain a little more where I am coming from. And before those from more evangelical backgrounds start thinking that I am talking about name it and claim it, theology, let me say from the get go, this is not that- this is not pulling some wild idea out of the universe and believing it into happening. This is about looking inward, and believing what and who God tells us we are, and living that out.
So again, what does it mean that 'what you think, you are'? Very simply put, it means that the way we see ourselves, under what we say, is who we really are. That's a tough nut to crack, and no doubt may throw some into a bit of a tailspin. Because, we're taught from a very early age to act in a certain way, to be polite, or good, no matter ho you feel. Many of us were told we didn't measure up in some way, or through various things that happened to us, that we were less than, or even broken. Our society tells us that every day. And sadly, many of our churches say that every week. Many churches even teach about salvation that way- we are so broken and so messed up that Jesus came, and died for our sins, or, the things you did, and continue to do- and you should be both guilty and grateful and if you give your heart to Jesus you can go to heaven because then you will be acceptable in God's sight. (sounds familiar to anyone here?) Let me say to those of you (myself included) who found Jesus that way, it's all good... I mean if its the way God could reach us then it has been worth it, however, let me tell you that theology can give you a very messed up view of yourself.
If we are continually looking at the things we do wrong, affirming our brokenness, affirming that we will never live up to some ideal God has in mind for us because we just can't stop sinning, then more often than not we go through a scenario that looks something like this: We pray, we sin, we feel guilt, we pray for forgiveness, we feel a little better, but still guilty because we are sure this wont be the last time we have to go an admit what we've done and be forgiven all over again. We reinforce to ourselves that we are can't get it right. So we try to do something better- we try to prove to ourselves, and to God, that God hasn't made a mistake in loving us- that we can get better- but next time we fall, the cycle repeats all over again.
And listen, lots of mission and good deeds have been done in the name of that theology since the 1040s and 50s when substitutionary atonement theology became popular. But the parts of it that are not so great, are the fact that it not only keeps people in this perpetual state of never hitting the mark, it also keeps people focused on their individual selves and behavior- it keeps people focused on "what I" do and "I feel", "I've done", "I'm saved."
When Jesus walked the earth, he ministry focus was not about the individual except in healing the individual in order to bring that individual into relationship with others. He affirmed and modeled the need for quiet time, and individual prayer time with God, and even confession- but those prayers were about pulling the focus from himself (or the individual) to others. Jesus wanted us to start seeing ourselves and others the way God sees us- not as messed up broken sinful beings, but as cherished creations. He encouraged us to believe this about ourselves, and knew that when we believe it, we start acting that way.. and the world can heal.
Why did he die then, you may ask?When you start preaching reconciliation, healing, and denouncing things like greed and selfishness, especially to people in power, that message is never received well. Consequences happen. You become an enemy of the ones who have, and a savior to ones who do not. And since the ones who have, also have the power.. well... the preacher is the one who pays with their life. Jesus paid the ultimate price for preaching the truth- that God's desire for us is to know that we are loved, and to share that message in order to bring healing.
Now that is perhaps a longer way of letting you know how important it is to internalize who we are the way God sees us- especially since God has brought us together into a community. Because the way we think about this community, is what will help us either live into God's call for First Baptist, or stay right here.
John Pepe and I used to teach marching band together. We were teaching in a small depressed, blue collar town and the kids there were convinced that they were second class citizens. One of the first things that we teach kids when they are learning to march is to stand at a attention. (position demonstrate) But it was amazing to me that as simple as that position is- many of the kids were unable to stand up straight. So we did this little exercize with them- instead to telling them over and over how to do it, we allowed them to feel it. SO we would ask the hcild to close their eyes, stand as straight as they can, and then ask them to remember a time when they did something they were proud of. ANd of course we gave them a minute because for some it took a while to think of something. But you could tell the moment they did. Their body immediately responded. All of a sudden you saw their shoulders go back, and their chest come out and their heads come up. Then we let them open their eyes and see the difference in the mirror. You can imagne the emotion that many of them felt seeing themselves in a new way. Thats when the band could finally turn around, because the kids began to see that they were not what they had been told their whole life- they could do more and be more than they thought they could- they started believing not just in themselves, but in the band... no more was it 'we never win' but it changed to we have a chance. They becamse who they thought they were!
One of my first pastoral calls was at a small church (and when i say small, I mean 7 people) in Union City NJ. The building was huge, and the church had a rich history of ministry and mission, but over the 80s and 90s, like many urban churches, started a decline. By the time I got there, the church had given up any thought of reaching out the ths community- they were doing all they could to stay alive. They called themselves, the faithful few. On the cover of their bulettin was the verse from Hebrews: no matter what, let us not stop meeting together.
The church had an air of resignation about it- of "our time is past and now just leave us alone." they had, what I call, low church esteem. And we i make some changes, but mostly people had to stop calling themselves the faithful few, and start thinking about their church in a different way. They were able to grow, change, and even start doing some community outreach again, but they had to believe that was who they were- their motto became "the church of the whole community" and they were able to transform because they transformed on the inside.
So I ask today, who do you think we are? We know what the world says about us, and about church in general- mainline denominations are dying the church is at the end of an era... no one wants to go to church. And we can latch on to that and say, yep, we are justl ike all the other churches, and its ok. Or we can start to see who God says we are- think about ourselves a little differently- as the church in the heart of the community with community at its heart- the church that is dynamic, and vibrant and growing, and continuing the ministry and work of Jesus Christ in the world. The church that is focused on healing and reconciliation, not just for ourselves but for the whole community- where joy and love overflow the pews and sill out onto the streets... my friends, if we believe this, because, btw, this is exactly who God says we are- who God says the chuch is designed to grow into, you won't be able to stop the work of the Spirit from bubbling up all over this place.... we will live out who we believe we are- we can receive the word of God, not in human terms, but for what it is! Yes, you are God's glory and joy!