1 Thessalonians 2.1-12
[This sermon was preached during 'preaching class' at Wycliffe Hall. It was aimed to an audience of ordinands, people training for Priesthood in the Church of England. But what it says, I believe, applies to all people - because Jesus died for us all, He calls all of us to live in humility, honesty, and to acknowledge our sin. Furthermore, in the Kingdom of Heaven, of the New Covenant written in His blood we are all 'priests' - it is a kingdom of priests. Every Christian has a duty, and what should be a joy, to preach Christ crucified and to minister to their friends.]
Paul’s Ministry in Thessalonica
2.1 You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, 2but though we had already suffered and been shamefully maltreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. 3For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, 4but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. 5As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery nor with a mask to cover greed; 6nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, 7though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were as babes among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. 8So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.
9You remember our labour 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. 10You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was towards you believers. 11As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12urging and encouraging you and pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
As future ministers of God, this passage should speak to the very core of who we are, it should resonate with our very souls, our passions, our purpose, and our lives. When I was younger I remember one Christmas being given a Darth Vader mask, it even had a voice transformer so I would sound and breathe like the Sith Lord himself. When I wore that mask I was no longer Adam Young, I was Anakin Skywalker, Darth Vader. I did the things he did, I said the things he said, and I mimicked his demeanour. But of course I was not Darth Vader, and as much as I may have protested, eventually the mask had to come off – even if only to eat.
The challenge to all of us at the core of this passage is to discover who we truly are, why we act as we do, to inspect ourselves in the mirror that is Christ broken on the cross and discern where our masks begin and where they end. The masks we wear probably do not portray us as Darth Vader, more likely a Jedi immersed in the light side. But is that really who we are? Or is it who we want people to think we are? Perhaps even who we need people to think we are?
Throughout 1 Thessalonians Paul calls on the Church to remember – as they themselves know - what he taught them, what he showed them, to remember who they truly are: citizens of heaven - as absurd as it may sound - citizens of heaven loved by none other than the Most Holy, All Powerful, All Knowing, Sole, Ultimate, and Only Creator of all that is – God, the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit. And we too must remember. We must remember who we are, who called us, what we know, and how we should live. We of all people must remember and have before our eyes at all times the knowledge that God is Good, that God Loves all people, and that God wishes all to be saved – and to that end died upon a Roman Cross at Calvary that whoever accepts Him as Lord might have eternal salvation.
And the reason for this? There are far too many for me to list here, so let me state one: because we are called to follow Jesus, to live as people ever desiring and ever being conformed into His image and likeness. Furthermore, not only are we are called to follow Him in all things, but also to herd His flock, tend His sheep. The first mask we must peel away is pride and self-confidence. We may be called to tend His sheep, but no person can possibly accomplish this task, even if we try with all our might we will only find ourselves burning out – indeed in trying with our own might and power all we do is sin against God. For Jesus is the true Shepherd of His sheep, and without Him there sustaining us at every moment, without recognising, that we of all people, need Jesus and His Cross more than anything – we are liars, we are fakes, we are actors in tragic play.
Only when we are truly honest with ourselves, only when we have the guts to look in the mirror and see that we, those called by God to lead, are just as broken, as fragile, as sinful, as everyone else, only then are we of any use to God. Because unless we recognise that, then God cannot, or rather will not, enter every aspect of our hearts, He will be forever put into different boxes, shelved here and there but never in the ‘restricted section’ of the library that is our lives. I don’t think it needs to be said that that is no way to treat the God who loved us so much that He suffered agony, humiliation and death that we might live – the least we could do is show Him the same: to agonisingly search our souls, humbly ask for His Spirit, and put to death the demons we all carry around each day. It is a task we will often fail in, but He is a God we can always trust in.
And it is only if we do this that we will be able to hold the true courage to face the humiliation, the resentment, the hardship, the pain, the fatigue, the persecution that we will face; which is very real. And we won’t need to wear a mask; Christ will stand before us and bear it all – for His load is light and His love is endless and He has already taken it all and with the hammer of Hrace nailed it to the Cross..
Paul exclaims to the Thessalonians that what he had the courage to teach, and to live, did not come from empty deceit, from dubious and sinister motives, from flashy trickery for cheap kicks or fat cheques. And how do the Thessalonians know that he is not simply playing them in saying this? Because they saw how he was among them. How despite all he had previously suffered he never hesitated to proclaim the Good News that he was entrusted – that we have been entrusted. He did not speak to please the Thessalonians; indeed I would wager that he said a lot that did not please them in the slightest. But the Thessalonians saw that we all must bear our cross if we desire to have Christ in us, if we desire to not act ourselves, but for Christ to act in and through us.
As future ministers, and from my own experience, the truth can be one of the hardest things to speak. Paul did not speak words that would please, he did not use false flattery, he simply preached Christ crucified, taught what Christ taught, lived as Christ lived – and made very clear in, and by, his example that as Christians we must lead a life worthy of God – the God who calls us into His kingdom and glory. We all have masks, we all wear makeup, and when washing away heavy makeup, especially around the eyes – the things we see the world through – it can hurt, it can sting, it can be sore, but nothing, nothing, is more beautiful to God than us as we are, flaws and faults and all, we are all His little children. Seen like this is it any wonder mothers tell off they young daughters for sneaking away to try on their makeup?
Near the centre of this passage Paul uses two interesting metaphors. That of his being like a babe among the Thessalonians and that of being like a wet-nurse or mother caring for their children. So what was Paul among them, what are we to be? Like babes or like mothers? Some scholars choose a far less likely reading and replace the word ‘babes’ with ‘gentle.’ Paul was like a gentle mother. But to ignore what critical scholarship has revealed concerning Scripture simply to make it easier is no ethic for spiritual edification.
Was not Jesus the Lamb of God, an innocent, helpless animal, reliant on its mother to survive? Yet was Jesus not also the Lion of Judah, the White Rider of Revelation 19 who is the Word of God, named Faithful and True, the one who judges and who makes war!? Is Jesus not also the True Vine, the one that gives life and nutrients to all His seed, his fruit, till they have ripened? In Christ we can be all things to all people, and we must be as humble as babes, acknowledging that we are indeed infants, that we have needs, and yet we must also feed the flock, care from them, teach them and love them.
For me verse 8 forms the crux of this passage, and it is a passage that defines what true ministry is. So deeply does Paul care for the church, his brothers and sisters in Christ, that not only did he share with them the Good News – but his very self, all because they were dear to him. To share the Good News and give his very self. That reminds me of another person who did exactly the same. His name was Jesus of Nazareth, known as the Messiah, He shared the Good News with all the people, and He demonstrated it too in His life, and He shared that life, shared it to the grave for those He loved – and this Jesus had a big heart because He loved every one that ever had been, was, or would be. Personally I can’t think of a better role model to follow than that, and Paul certainly couldn’t.
Of course the risk of sharing our very selves is that we have to know who we are – to share a masquerade would be a farce, an insult. So once again the theme of masks is found. Of course there is a fine line to be trodden. There are things to be shared with your parish, things to be shared with friends, things to be shared with family, and likely things to be shared only with Jesus. Where that line lies will just be one of the challenges we shall have to face as we step into ministry, a ministry that deals with real people, that affects real people, which can change the lives of real people.
Just because you don’t wear a mask doesn’t mean you have to be open to read like a book. We are not on the Truman Show with those around us; they do not have to tune in to every aspect of our lives. But as Paul makes perfectly clear in this passage, whilst we should not act and live to please people, we must live and act in a way pleasing to God. Paul in this passage exhorts those who read it to imitate him, to be pure, upright, and blameless in conduct to all, to deal with others with familial love, to urge and encourage them that they and we may live lives worthy of God. We will fall, stumble, trip, just as Paul did, but one thing Paul never, ever, did is give up, he kept on running the race, keeping his sights on Jesus and by desiring to have Jesus in Him – not as a mask – but actually as part of his very being, so he became what he was called to be. And so I pray that we may do the same.
And at the last what is left to be said? There are a few points to conclude concerning the teachings of this passage. Firstly, we must take off our masks and wipe away our makeup, in all we do, even if it is not done perfectly, it must be done honestly, genuinely, humbly, and for Christ alone. Sound character produces credible results. Secondly, as ministers we are called, as indeed are all people, to follow the Good News – and the Gospel is not just an announcement made from a pulpit, it is a response to God’s divine initiative, it is a way of life. We are called to live lives worthy of God, called to live holy lives here and now. And just thinking of all of that, I can only thank my God for the things He has done – for coming down to this rock to live and breathe and die as we do – on fact to die in agony on a blood stained Roman Cross, that we may be forgiven, reconciled to Him, and picked up once again, if, or rather when, we fall.
Which just goes to show that God is Good, and that is fact.