Sunday, November 17, 2013

Community: Flesh and Blood

Community: Flesh and Blood
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
November 17, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

If you were here last week, you’ll recall that the Thessalonians, the people of Thessalonica who received this letter, were one of the early churches. Thessaloniki, as it was originally called before the Romans took it over, was a walled city, founded in the second century before Christ, and named after the half-sister of Alexander the Great. It was an important city for ocean-going ships, and its deep harbor, built by the Romans, was used until the 18th century.[1] It was also an early outpost of Christianity.

Also important to remember is that this letter was written to the church probably around the year 52-54, so the Gospels were not yet extant. That means that the early church in Thessalonica was composed of people gathering in homes to worship on the Lord’s day. They were operating from what they had learned from the Hebrew Scriptures, our “Old Testament,” but their Bible, as well as oral tradition of the stories of Jesus. Their other significant source of guidance was what they received in letters.

One more reminder about this reading – the people of this Christian community are having some troubles. One of them is that there is a belief among them that the Day of the Lord has already come. And there is apparently another group who believes that Jesus is coming back any minute. Since they believe that, they have stopped contributing to the church, stopped doing their work, and they are causing problems. Big problems.

Let’s listen for God’s word to our Christian community today:
6Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

Our word for today, our final Sunday of Stewardship Season, is community.
Since we’ve been talking about words for several weeks now, I want to start by unpacking that word, “community.” Probably we have some shared understanding of what community is, or what community should be. Probably we also have some very divergent definitions of community.
To quote Inigo Montoya from “The Princess Bride:” “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

So, let’s start with a definition from Dietrich Bonhoeffer,  whose book Life Together is, in my opinion and that of many others the best possible writing on Christian community. Bonhoeffer said that Christian community is characterized by Christ! No surprise, I suppose – but the emphasis, the first emphasis, is on Jesus Christ – on what makes a Christian community Christian. Normally I avoid long quotes in sermons, but I think this is worth hearing:

“Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us.
This is true not merely at the beginning, as though in the course of time something else were to be added to our community; it remains so for all the future and to all eternity. I have community with others and I shall continue to have it only through Jesus Christ.
The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, for eternity.” [2]

Our first definition of community is not geographic, or even denominational, but spiritual: we are a community only through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is our connection point. Notice, it is not “our belief in Jesus Christ” that makes us community. It is he, himself, that makes us community. But community, now and in the church in Thessalonica, is composed of flesh and blood – of actual people, who have actual lives.

And actual people with actual lives will have divisions, from time to time. Real flesh and blood people – even Christians – don’t always agree. So then, what is going on in this first century Christian community that is cause for this warning from the apostle who writes to them?

As I said earlier, there is division over whether the Day of the Lord has come, and there are some who believe that Jesus will come back at any moment. They are using this belief to justify their idleness. Although it has been used that way, this is NOT, I repeat NOT a scripture that lets us off the hook for feeding those who are hungry. Jesus was very clear about what he intended for us to do about hunger. This is an admonition to those people in this Christian community.

In fact, the writer of this letter does a kind of a pun, in the Greek. To describe those who are working,  he uses the word ergazomai,  from the root word ergon - that’s the basis of our word ergonomics, that describes objects designed for work. Then, to describe those who are not working he uses the word periergazomai - they are literally, “working around” So they not only are not busy, they are busybodies!

They are not just not working, they are working mischief. And this is not acceptable.

The final verse of the reading sums up what is acceptable: Do not grow weary in doing what is right. Do not grow weary in doing what is right.

It is all too easy to grow weary in doing what is right. For one thing, we are busy people.
We have jobs, and volunteer work, and families. Some of us have children to raise, others have aging parents to care for. All of us have demands on our time, our resources, and our energy. Sometimes, just looking at our calendars makes us grow weary.

For another thing, it is often quite difficult to figure out “what is right” and whether we are the person who ought to do it.

Should we help the person who is begging on the street? Or is that just enabling them?

Do we create more programs that give away food and necessities?
Or does it just create unhealthy dependency?

Is it better to take a group of people to do a little bit of work for a week or should we send a check to a disaster aid agency?

Do we insist that the kids must get up and get dressed and come to church, or are we just going to end up with young adults who hate church?

I wish I could give you a bunch of clear cut answers to these dilemmas, but the truth is, we each have to answer those questions for ourselves, based on the particular circumstances with which we are faced.

We don’t have easy answers. But we do have community, the community formed for us in Jesus Christ. And we do have the guiding principles that help us to know what Jesus would have us do – those words which have been our focus:

  •         Gratitude: thanksgiving to God for all that we have been given.
  •          Persistence: we are confident to pray, and to persist in our prayers for others, because we know that God loves us.
  •          Humility: we do not think of ourselves more highly than others; instead we put others ahead of ourselves.
  •          Reconciliation: we are always willing to offer forgiveness and to seek reconciliation – not only with one another but with those outside our community.
  •          Justice: we seek justice for those who are oppressed, and work together toward restorative justice for all the world.
  •          Community: we are the body of Christ, who is the head. All we do is because of him, and for him, and the glory of God.

In the 1600s, a man called Nicholas Herman, gazing at a tree made barren by winter, understood in a flash of revelation that the tree was awaiting a resurrection that would come with the spring, “grasped deeply the extravagance of God's grace”[3]

From that moment, Nicholas felt a deep and unending love for God. He was poor, poor enough to first join the army, where he knew he would have three meals a day, and where he knew he would have a place to sleep. After some time working as a footman, at the age of 25, he entered a monastery in Paris.

He was not a learned man, so he was assigned to the monastery kitchen. He wasn’t a chef.
He washed dishes, swept the floors, and peeled potatoes. Mountains of potatoes.

He took the name Brother Lawrence, and he became a center of the monastery community – the person to whom the brothers came for advice, for consolation, for prayer and spiritual guidance. He was not idle, not a busy body, but exemplified the heart of Christian community: the willingness to give himself wholly to God.

He said: “We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him, and that done,  if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before him, who has given me grace to work;  afterwards I rise happier than a king. It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God.”[4]

The center of our community is Jesus Christ, and the core of our stewardship is commitment to him so that all that we do, all that we earn, all of our talents, belong to him, and we give them gladly, freely, joyfully. We do not grow weary in doing what is right, because Jesus Christ himself, a flesh and blood human, the bread of life and the cup of salvation, is the foundation and formation and the continuation of our community.

We have received everything through him; our stewardship – in every part of our lives -  is how we thank him. As Brother Lawrence observed, it is “quicker and easier just to do our common business  wholly for the love of him”[5]

Thanks be to God for this community formed by Christ, to bring glory to God!

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community

[4] The Practice of the Presence of God” Brother Lawrence
[5] ibid

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