Living Messages

I Thessalonians 1:2-9

There was once a couple who were not able to have a child.  So, they went to their priest and asked him to pray for them.   “I’ll tell you what,” said the priest, “I’m about to go on sabbatical to Rome and when I get there I’ll light a candle for you.” Well, five or six years went by and the priest returned from sabbatical and he decided to visit the couple.  And wouldn’t you know it, upon entering their home he was greeted by a pregnant woman who was attending to a toddler and set of triplets. “Glory be!” exclaimed the priest, “where’s your husband? I want to congratulate him!”  “Well,” replied the woman, “he’s not here.  He went to Rome to put that cotton-pick’in candle out!”

In our text for today, Paul begins with thanksgiving. And like the couple in my story, God had blessed this church with an abundance.  Maybe not the abundance they were envisioning, but perhaps an abundance that was much, much more than they could have ever imagined. And perhaps the same is true for our church.  God has blessed us with an abundance, both as individuals and as a congregation. We have the beautiful and comfortable building to call home and we have been blessed with the resources to maintain it.  And on a deeper and more important level, each of us has been chosen by God to be in this place. We are the Church! So, whether you’re a life-long member or joining us for the first time, God has given you the ability, in one way or another, to choose to be here today.

That’s finally what all this “God’s elect” stuff is all about. It isn’t about God deciding before the beginning of time that some are in and others are out. Rather it’s about God choosing to offer us the gift of new life and coming to us in the person of Jesus to show us how to live-into that gift and live it to its fullest. But while the gift is free, we do have some responsibility here.  We must choose to accept the abundance that God is offering and then share that abundance with others.

So, how do we do that? Well, Paul has an answer for us today.  He said to his congregation in Thessalonica, “…because we remember your work that comes from faith, your effort that comes from love, and your perseverance that comes from hope;” because of these things he said, “you became an example” for others to see. In other words, the Thessalonians, in Paul’s estimation, became a “Living Message” of faith,  and of God’s love and hope. Your work, your effort, your perseverance, Paul says, stands as a beacon to others.

Now, as I was writing this week, I was struggling to think of an illustration of a person that I would consider a living message.  I mean, you can see the danger here.  To put someone on such a high pedestal, to raise someone to the level as being a living message of faith, love, and hope; that’s a fall waiting to happen. But then I realized that I was looking at this from the wrong perspective.  Being a living message of faith doesn’t mean one must be perfectly faithful all the time, just faithful.  Being a living message of God’s love doesn’t mean you’re going to be completely loving all the time, but rather that striving to be more loving is a never-ending, on-going process. And being a living message doesn’t mean you’re always cheery and hopeful, but rather, that hope, even when it seems like a tiny flicker of light in the distance, still burns. You see? Being a living example of the gospel doesn’t start when you finally become perfect; is starts today, just as you are, right where you are, warts and all.  That’s God’s calling to each of us.  We are challenged to share the abundance, whatever form that abundance has taken in our life, and share it with others.  We are called to be living messages of love, endurance, and hope by living and sharing our faith and, this is vitally important, accepting the faith of others and viewing them as a living message as well.

Which brings me to my illustration.  Jay.  I went to seminary with Jay and like all of us, he was far from perfected.  Serving not one, not two, but three churches as a student pastor, Jay really struggled to find the time to dedicate himself to his studies.  As a result, it took him five years to complete seminary. On top of all that, Jay also lost his mother in our first semester, often questioned his call to ordained ministry and he struggled with addition.  A real mess right?  Well, maybe, but despite all these stumbling blocks, Jay has become one of the most gracious and healing pastors I know. And I think it’s because he’s been there, and perhaps beyond.  He’s known pain and failure and the hopelessness that can dive one to give up. But he didn’t.  Instead, he’s a living message of embedded faith, of God’s love, and of enduring hope. And because of these qualities, Jay has also become one of the best evangelists around. Evangelist not in the sense of a TV snake oil salesman, but as an authentic servant of the Living God sharing the abundance of God’s grace that he received in his life and ministry.

And this is important.  It’s important because for all of us evangelism is an ongoing process. And again, please don’t be scared off by the word.  Evangelism is simply sharing the places where we’ve seen God at work in our lives and in the world with others and then inviting them to join us on our journey of faith. I fear sometimes that political correctness or an awkwardness about sharing our faith has caused us to shy away from inviting others to join us in church.  And perhaps with good reason.  Far too often I think Christians has used a stick instead of carrot to share their faith.  Too often we’ve said you’re welcome here …as long as you become like us; you’re welcome here …as long as you think like us; you’re welcome here …as long as you worship, and pray, and speak of God like we do, you know, the right way.

But that’s not how Paul, as he understood the teachings of Jesus, though evangelism should look like.  Instead, he praised the Thessalonians for their struggle to live the gospel faithfully, day in and day out, in every circumstance. And for Paul, and for us as well, sharing our faith with others is far less about making them become like us and far more about including their experiences of God and their understanding of faith into the mix.  And it’s this shared community; this shared experience that ultimately strengthens the church.

Theologian and historian John Dominic Crossan expresses this idea beautifully when he discusses Paul’s meaning of the word love. ” …the life of the community,” he says, “the assembly, is about a love that is expressed as sharing, but from want to want rather than from plenty to plenty.” And Crossan applies this understanding to us when he adds,”…divinely distributive justice [is] a necessary sharing of God’s stuff.”[i]

A necessary sharing of “God’s stuff.” I like that. Not out of our want, a place of scarcity, but from a condition of abundance. My friends, we as a church, and as the individuals that make up this congregation, have a whole lot to offer.  We are welcoming to all. We are authentic in the work of our faith. We seek to become even more loving in our relationships with God and neighbor and ask God for forgiveness when we fall short. And even when things are tough, we persevere in our struggles because the hope of Christ is alive and well in the place.

So, as you go forth from this service, know that God, through the presence of the Spirit, goes before you.  That my friends, should give all of us the confidence to continue to be “living messages” of God’s love, of God’s compassion and faithfulness, and of the hope that Christ demonstrated through his life, death, resurrection.  May we go forth from this place today, and share the Light of Christ with all whom we encounter. May it be so. Amen.

[i] John Dominic Crossan & Johnathan L. Reed. In Search of Paul: How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed the Roman Empire with God’s Kingdom. (Harper One 2005)

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