The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams – October 26, 2014 –
Proper 25, Year A: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-46
If I ever get to teach a course on evangelism . . . (I realize Episcopalians aren’t generally the ones they recruit for those classes so this might not ever happen!) BUT if I did get to teach such a class, I would start with this passage from 1 Thessalonians.
Which is sort of like a love letter to the people of this new congregation. I’ve never thought of Paul’s writings that way until recently. But they were love letters of sorts, exhortations, and proclamations, and theological reflections written to a people with whom Paul had fallen in love, a people for whom he wanted nothing more and nothing less than for them to experience an inspiring, healing and communally embodied Christian faith. So sometimes there is even an explicitly articulated, “I love you” running through these letters.
Which (just for the record) doesn’t mean that I agree with everything that Paul wrote. It just means that I appreciate his intent. I can hear genuine compassion and connection to the people in his words as he gave his life commending this faith to others. All of which is why I would use this passage in the context of teaching about what it means to be an evangelist.
Now this particular epistle, the First Letter to the Thessalonians is special because it happens to likely have been Paul’s very first such letter which means that it is actually the oldest book of the New Testament. It predates the gospels and every other book in this Testament too – it was written in about the year 52 AD.
This new congregation in Thessalonica was trying to figure out how to be Christian in the midst of a whole lot of things: their own diversity for one, the extremely divided and dangerous political climate for another, their own questions and struggles and hopes, their own grieving – they had recently lost some members to persecution, and to add one more factor to their pot of challenges there were the day-do-day challenges that the congregation of Thessalonica faced in meeting the needs of their growing and rapidly changing community of faith. Now Paul had already visited this community at least once and this letter is a follow up to that face-to-face time together. And while there is obviously more to this letter than what was read today, the core of Paul’s approach to them is in the verses we just heard.
“We were gentle among you,” Paul wrote, “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” Which is not the typical metaphor that we think of when we consider apostles and evangelists! Of all of the approaches that Paul could have taken as leader, as teacher, as one through whom the gospel was being shared, he chose “nurse caring for her own children.” One who nurtures and feeds and loves. That’s important for us to remember.
“So deeply do we care for you,” he goes on (and here it gets even more beautiful!) “So deeply do we care for you,” Paul wrote, “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.”
Maybe this is why Paul’s work caught on the way it caught on – not because his doctrinal theology was absolutely consistent throughout his entire ministry – not because he was the most powerful or wealthiest among the teachers of his day – not because he was perfected in the faith himself. I think it touched people and was absolutely true to the faith because of that last sentence, “We are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves.” By holding those two dimensions together – the gospel and people’s real lives and real selves – Paul helped create not only individual believers, but also communities that strived to embody Christian love. And if there’s an equation that makes for good evangelism, that’s probably it.
“What is the most important commandment?” they asked Jesus in the gospel this morning; it’s here in the gospel passage too. “What is the most important commandment,” they asked Jesus. So in other words, “When it comes right down to it, out of the 613 commandments in the Torah (that’s how many there were – 248 do’s and 365 don’ts) – out of all of them which of them is the most important?” the Pharisees wanted to know. And while the answer might seem obvious they needed to hear it and we too need to hear it again, and again, and again: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment,” Jesus said. “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
On these two commandments hang all the gospel. On these two commandments hang the life and well-being of the church . . . the church in Thessalonica, the church in Western Michigan and even the Episcopal Church that is Grace, Holland.
Because it is in love that we find hope, that we find strength, that we find renewal. It is in love that we find one another and those who are “other,” each and every one of us created in the image of this God who has commanded that we do this. It is in love that we find Christ and proclaim Christ to the world. And the flip side is true too – It is by love that they will know we are Christians. Because, truth is, “they” are watching. They are watching we who are church still.
And all of this is why I have a renewed and passionate hope for Episcopalians as evangelists! Because this love thing we can do. This combination of sharing the gospel and our own selves, we can do! We aren’t a perfect people. We know what it’s like to struggle in the midst of diversity; we too are trying to find our bearings in the midst of confusing, divided political times. Like the people of Thessalonica we have our own questions and struggles and hopes and we know what it’s like to grieve. We are working to make it day to here at Grace and as a congregation we too are growing and we are changing. As Episcopalians, some of our second layer sorts of theologies include inconsistencies as you travel from community to community and we’re even broken in places. But maybe, if we hold all of that like a nurse caring for her children, if we hold one another like a nurse caring for her children, all will be well. Or at least, all will be loved which is when a greater kind of wellness and health, perhaps even new life can come into being.
Over the next few weeks you will be hearing a lot about this year’s pledge drive. And you’ll be hearing about it because the world is hungry for the kind of church we have been called to be. A community dedicated to sharing the gospel and our own selves. A church committed to loving God and neighbor and welcoming all. As a theme we’re transitioning from last year’s challenging invitation to “Rise up Grace” into this year’s proclamation that we are “Grace on the Rise!” And I think that this movement, this numerical, but more importantly this spiritual growth as a community is related to God inspiring among us a renewed and passionate hope for Episcopalians as evangelists in the way Paul laid out for us today. We have so much to celebrate here! So much for which to be grateful. So much to share! We have much yet to grow into here at Grace. So many more to welcome. So many more to serve. We are stretching and we need to continue to challenge ourselves in lots of ways to be the good stewards God has called us to be. And running our experience of rising through this theme of sharing the good news in the ways in which God has called us to share it will allow us to experience one another, God, and this world in new and life-giving ways.
God so loved this world, and we can too. I believe that this is a spiritual gift that we as Episcopalians have been given. By sharing not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves – we will live into the most important commandment of all. And we can do it because, in the words of Paul, the children of God, each and every one of them, “have become very dear to us.”