A Sermon preached by the
Rev. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, October 22, 2017
Text: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 (J. B. Phillips)
Jesus never went to church. Of course, that is primarily because churches didn’t exist in those days, nor, though he himself was the Christ, was he ever a Christian. Luke’s gospel tells us that, in the beginning, at least, “he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom” (Luke 4:16.) I guess that’s sort of like going to church. But we also note that that traditional congregation was so outraged by his proclamation that they ran him out of town, threatening to throw him over a cliff (Luke 4:28-29). So much for being a good, synagogue-going young man. He had learned his lessons so poorly, or so well, that they didn’t want to hear what he had to say or have anything to do with him.
In the 17th chapter of Acts, Luke tells a similar story about Paul. “After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This is the Messiah, Jesus, whom I am proclaiming to you.’ Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But [some of] the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.’ The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this…” (Acts 17:1-8). Meanwhile, Paul and Silas had fled to Beroea, where they also headed for the synagogue in which they were more graciously received.
This passage from Acts tells us the tale of the beginning of the Thessalonian church, or maybe it would be more accurately identified as a “community of Christ followers.” The tension that is obvious from these two tales is that both Jesus and Paul turned to conventional congregations of their day and did not find welcome or acceptance there. Their challenge was not from the Jews, it was from some Jews, from some of their own people, from some in their religious community, who were so caught up in a conventional understanding of their tradition that they could not see how Jesus had come to fulfill the law, to live out God’s shalom, to lead them into promised life in God’s Beloved Community. What was presented as good news was treated as an attack on everything that the traditionalists found comfortable and held sacred. Some of those who heard Jesus, and later, Paul, couldn’t wrap their minds around the new thing. It seemed like the Christ-followers were indeed turning the world upside down, at least their world, and that was more than they could handle.
But how can faith survive if it does not recognize and embrace the new thing when it appears. Not just any new thing, mind you. This is not about novelty. Rather it is what Isaiah proclaims when he speaks for God, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:18-19). This is a powerful word of promise that comes to a people struggling in exile, a people striving to find their way, a people longing for a better life. I think Jesus and Paul brought a similar word to their communities as they struggled with the exigencies of their day a word of hope and promise for a new day that is coming. Does God have a similar word for us? Are we listening? Do we have ears to hear?
In his book, Discipleship, David Watson writes, “If the church is to become a community of God’s people in the way that Christ demonstrated with his own disciples, it means much more than singing the same hymns, praying the same prayers, taking the same sacraments, and joining in the same services. It will involve the full commitment of our lives, and of all that we have, to one another” (David Watson, Discipleship, p. 43). So, the future of the church and of our own “community of Christ followers” has something to do with how we commit our lives and resources to caring for one another and for creation. This is essentially a word about compassion. Or, as Paul puts it to the Thessalonians, “…we never forget that your faith has meant solid achievement, your love has meant hard work, and the hope that you have in Jesus Christ means sheer dogged endurance in the life that you live before God, the Father-Mother of us all.” It’s not about how well you keep the traditions, it’s about how faithful, hopeful, and loving you are in bringing about God’s Beloved Community on earth, in the here and now, in your own backyard.
But, we also know that the practice of our faith can never be exclusively about how we commit ourselves to caring for one another. It may that the tension that Jesus and Paul had with their traditional communities was because those communities had become too inward-looking, too narrow in their point of view, too self-preserving. They were reluctant, maybe even fearful, to reach out to their neighbors, among whom were the poor, the struggling, the marginalized, the least of these, the enemy, maybe even the “spiritual but not religious.”
The challenge for the traditionalist is how to communicate the good news to the other, to those outside or on the fringe of the tradition. How do we communicate God’s new thing, Christ’s good news, the Spirit’s empowering new wind to people outside the church? It’s a huge challenge, one with no easy answer, one with which Christians have struggled ever since they began to gather in “communities of Christ followers.” Since Jesus never actually went to church or blessed the church in any particular form, what if we were to let go of that all too familiar word “church” for a moment and thought of ourselves as a “community of Christ followers”? What would be the crucial elements of such a community for us?
I wouldn’t be asking these questions of us if I didn’t love and care for this community and its future. Today’s text is a love letter to the ”community of Christ followers” in first century Thessaloniki. I could have chosen to preach on God’s promise to Moses of a great theophany, which would inspire him to keep the faith and continue the journey after he had become frustrated and discouraged (Exodus 33:12-23). I could have chosen Jesus’ brilliant response to his adversaries when they tried to trap by asking him whether it was “lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not” (Matthew 22:15-22). But I was caught up this week by Paul’s words of gratitude for the church in Thessaloniki.
Speaking for himself, Silas, and Timothy, Paul says, “We are always thankful as we pray for you all…” I don’t think this was empty rhetoric; I think Paul really meant it. He was grateful to the Thessalonians because, he says, ”…we never forget that your faith has meant solid achievement, your love has meant hard work, and the hope that you have in Jesus Christ means sheer dogged endurance in the life that you live before God, the Father-Mother of us all.”
Personally, I have some of the same feelings for you – for the solid achievement of your faith, the hard work of your loving, and the dogged endurance of your hope. I am now and will always be thankful that you gave the opportunity to serve as your pastor to an aging gay man who had never had a settled pastorate before. For good or ill – and there has been some of each over the past 11 and a half years – you took a chance on me, you chose to do a sort of new thing, you stretched beyond your comfort zone, and for that I am eternally grateful.
We know it is no easy thing to be a “community of Christ followers.” The way is often not clear, the road narrow and winding, the challenges stretch our resources, the witness calls us outside the safety of the familiar. Discipleship is risky business. But the promise of God’s Beloved Community gleams on the horizon and lures us toward its bright future. The rest of today’s Words of Preparation from David Watson suggest that “…it is only when we lose our lives that we will find them, so bringing the life of Jesus to others. In fact,” he writes, “this practical expression of love will speak more powerfully of the living God than anything else” (Watson, op. cit.). Will this be our story, will this be our song, that we “lost our life” so we might bring “the life of Jesus to others”?
Whatever lies ahead for us, whatever decisions we make, whatever road we choose to travel, we know “who holds the future” and for this we should be always thankful. Considering who we have been and what we have done as a congregation under God’s guidance over the past 125 years, there is much for which to be grateful. My beloved friend and mentor, David Bartlett, suggests that “Sometimes by looking back at what God has done we can have confidence in what God will do, in God’s own time.” Maybe that is a good word of faith, hope, and love to carry us into whatever future God has for us. Let us be open to God’s guidance, Christ’s good news, and the Spirit’s ever-amazing ability to empower as we move forward, and, in the midst of it all, let us be always thankful for what was, what is, and is to be. Amen.