Willing Relationships (October 10-16)

Sunday, October 16
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Focus Theme
Willing Relationships

Weekly Prayer
You know each one of us by name, O God, and in your sight we have found favor, yet our minds cannot comprehend the vision of your glory or the vastness of your love. Grant that as we glimpse your greatness, reflected in your many gifts, we may always return to you the praise that is yours alone. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Focus Reading
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of people we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place where your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead-—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

All Readings For This Sunday
Exodus 33:12-23 with Psalm 99 or
Isaiah 45:1-7 with Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13) and
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

Focus Questions

1. Who are the people whose lives inspire your own, and the life of your congregation?

2. What is the effect of someone who speaks persuasively but with less integrity because of the way they live?

3. What message does your life, and the life of your church, express?

4. When have you seen actions speak more eloquently than words about faith?

5. What does it “look like” to embody the message of the gospel?

by Kate Huey

These introductory words to Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians are probably the oldest words in the New Testament. That statement might startle those who assume that the Gospels were written first, and then Paul went around sharing them with the churches that he planted. (That’s what I believed for many years, but then I also thought that Peter went to Rome to be the first pope, although I wasn’t sure how he could have built St. Peter’s Basilica!) However, scholars generally agree that Paul’s letters are the earliest of the writings we have from the very first Christians. As such, they provide invaluable insights into the life of the early church.

This first chapter of the first letter to the church at Thessalonica gives us a glimpse of what happens when people share their faith with others, as we read Paul’s words of deep appreciation for the powerful experience he and his co-workers, Silvanus and Timothy, have shared with the people there. The sharing that went on in that ancient city was a two-way street, as it should be in every age: “Paul and his co-workers found themselves to be different because of the relationship that was established,” according to Beverly Gaventa. “Because of their deep involvement with the people at Thessalonica,” she says, “Paul and his colleagues find themselves vulnerable.”  

Years ago, I read the writings of Paulo Freire about the “banking deposit” approach to learning, where one person in effect transfers a body of information to another person (see his classic book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed). In that case, “information” is a better word than knowledge, because in faith-sharing something much deeper happens, when you “know” something, really embrace and believe something so that it becomes part of who you are. That’s what this text describes: a true embrace of the gift of the good news brought by Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, but an embrace that was mutual, a sharing that transformed the teachers as well as those who heard the gospel they preached. Freire, of course, would consider this kind of learning and knowledge superior to the banking system we so commonly employ in our faith-sharing. Perhaps we need to trust the power of the Holy Spirit at work in every generous moment of sharing, even if it makes us, in Gaventa’s word, “vulnerable.”

Paul begins his letter with affirmation of the deep faith and exemplary spirit of the Thessalonians, who “get it” that faith isn’t just saying that they accept certain intellectual statements (an easy trap for us when we misuse creeds and statements of faith, or, for that matter, misunderstand faith itself). He affirms the “work” that they do because they embrace the gospel, their everyday living out of its message. And he affirms their endurance and steadfast hope in the face of opposition and persecution by a surrounding culture that has no use for fringe movements that undermine the program of the Empire. Thessalonica, after all, was a Roman city, and there were many benefits to being one of those: security, prosperity, enjoyment of “the good things of life.” The important thing, though, was to go along with the imperial program, to accept Caesar as lord, not some Jewish teacher who had been executed by that same Empire.

Who is lord, Caesar or Christ?

John Dominic Crossan has written extensively about this conflict between gospel and empire as the good news was received in cities and villages across the Mediterranean in those first centuries of Christianity. Two thousand years later, we may think we live in very different circumstances, far away from the Roman Empire and its demands and allegiances. (Thinking that empire is a thing of the past is not unlike thinking that idolatry is no longer a problem.) We would be mistaken, then, for our pharaohs and emperors are alive and well in the systems and values that claim our allegiance and even our whole lives. In the midst of consumerism, materialism, nationalism, rampant greed and self-centeredness, we too struggle with just exactly who is “lord” in our own lives. Paul’s letter, then, hits home for us, too. 

We are blessed with scholars like Crossan who can read between the lines for the subversive message we might otherwise miss. For example, these opening verses are full of anti-empire expressions, beginning with the word ekklesia, translated as “church,” which “originally meant the citizens of a free Greek city officially assembled for self-government decisions. Maybe that was perfectly innocent, but also maybe not.” Even the simple and beautiful word “peace” has hidden meaning, as “anyone familiar with Judaism would have heard in his ‘peace’ the content of the Jewish shalom of justice and not that of the Latin pax of victory.” In his excellent book, In Search of Paul (written with Jonathan L. Reed), Crossan illuminates the difference between these two kinds of peace, and our lives today are still lived in the tension between the two. Whenever we in the church succumb to the temptation of peace through victory instead of proclaiming, and living, a peace of justice, wholeness, and healing, we have fallen off our center. Worse, we have left behind us the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Crossan continues his word study by focusing on those beautiful and familiar words, “grace and peace,” which Paul uses so often in his letters that we may think they are simply conventions, like our use of “warm regards” or “sincerely.” On the contrary, Crossan says: in these two words we find “the core of Paul’s message and mission, faith and theology. The usual salutation in a Greek letter was chaire or ‘greetings,’ but in a novel, clever, and profound wordplay, Paul switches that to the similar-sounding but theologically more significant term charis, ‘grace’ or ‘free gift.'” While Paul affirms the call of the people of Thessalonica and all Christians, it’s a call to share this free gift with the world that God loves, for it “is a free gift that God offers peace to everyone, everywhere.”

Perhaps we’ve lost our understanding of discipleship as an ongoing process, like the Thessalonians, who long ago shared our own struggle to live the gospel faithfully, day in and day out, in every circumstance. Crossan expresses this beautifully when he discusses Paul’s meaning of the word “love”: “To love meant to share, a love assembly was a share-assembly, a love meal was a share-meal,” but “the sharing was from want to want rather than from plenty to plenty. And do not think of it as humanly extensive charity, a free giving of our stuff, but as divinely distributive justice, a necessary sharing of God’s stuff. For Paul, a Christian assembly of sisters and brothers was one that had committed itself to sharing together just as in an ordinary human family because it actually was a divine family, the family of God” (all Crossan quotations are from his book, In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom).  

A counter-cultural, and risky, message in every age

Could this be the truly counter-cultural message of a post-modern Christianity? Even to talk about “redistribution of wealth” in our very affluent nation makes many people uncomfortable, even many Christians, and no politician, even one claiming the name Christian, would dare support it. This is the tension, then, for Christians today who want to grow into more faithful disciples of Jesus, in spite of the pressures of the surrounding culture and what it calls “normal” and “right” and even “just.” As Paul and all Christians look forward to the day of Jesus’ return and a “new creation,” we might miss the new creation already happening in our midst because of Jesus Christ. Crossan asks, then, “What better deserves the title of a new creation than the abnormalcy of a share-world replacing the normalcy of a greed-world?” So it seems that sharing our faith is about doing justice just as much as it is about our words, and true conversion affects the world around us just as much as it effects a change of heart.

Abraham Smith’s excellent commentary on this text in The New Interpreter’s Bible is helpful for us if our church finds itself using the surrounding culture’s measuring-sticks to “assess” our church life (and “success”) by the culture’s own consumer-oriented, profit-driven, numbers-obsessed standards. There are churches in settings where this isn’t an issue, but for many of our congregations and our pastors, the pressure is intense and worrisome, and discipleship loses its joy. Smith, however, declares the chasing of numbers worthless: “The quality of our witness to the larger world, however, depends not so much on our numbers as on our nurturing, not on our statistics but on our stability as people of God. As with Paul and his leadership team, our greatest concern ought to be that of inculcating convictions, aiding spiritual growth, and helping people to develop endurance to deal with life under pressure.” Indeed, the pressures that the church feels are the same pressures that many of our members feel, even if their lives appear easy. Our faith walk, then, calls us to grow each day in a trust that eases the pressure and the burden of the culture around us and frees us to express our love by sharing not only ourselves and our stories but the goods that we have as well.

What center will hold?

Smith writes eloquently, even poignantly, about the plight of many people today, believers and non-believers alike, as they hunger for something to count on. He recalls the image evoked by W.B. Yeats in his poem, “The Second Coming”: “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Smith writes: “A meaningful life requires reliable resources–not a round of fads and fashions or words that fail to hold up under the heat of struggle. It is unfortunate that many people rest their fortunes and their lives on things that cannot hold: on beauty that fades, on perishable pharaohs who know Joseph, on antiquated perceptions, on supposed truths that last for but a season.” What is the “reliable resource” that we share in our evangelism? Smith replies, “For us today, the unfailing truth of God’s promises still provides us with a center that holds” (New Interpreter’s Bible).

There is, however, one awkward “catch” to this counter-cultural stance. We may be surrounded by pressures to conform to very anti-gospel values, pressures that tempt us to barricade ourselves figuratively from the world. And yet, can we in communities of faith assume that we are “better” or “ahead of” culture in every way? When the culture preaches consumption, excess, and prestige, it’s easy to contrast it with the gospel message of generosity, humility, justice and love. But honesty requires us to admit that culture is sometimes ahead of the church: for two thousand years, the church has often been called a “tail light” rather than a “headlight” in social progress, and at times has had to be dragged (kicking and screaming, perhaps) into a new day. Culture is also ahead of the church on justice for women, too (but only barely). Slavery is another example, as the pope apologized three centuries after the church participated not only in supporting the slave trade but actually owning slaves itself. How do we discern when the stillspeaking God is speaking through culture, and when we are called to offer, and live, a counter-cultural word?

For further reflection

William Blake, 19th century
Mercy is the golden chain by which society is bound together.

Jean Baptiste Lacordaire, 19th century
We are leaves of one branch, the drops of one sea, the flowers of one garden.

Michael W. Smith, 20th century
I think if the church did what they were supposed to do we wouldn’t have anyone sleeping on the streets.

Paul Wellstone, 20th century
Never separate the life you live from the words you speak.

Dakota/Lakota saying
May you walk in the center of your life in balance and abundance.

About Weekly Seeds

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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.