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In the Meantime
August 19, 2012
Psalm 34; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-25
In a broken and fearful world
the Spirit gives us courage
to pray without ceasing,
to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,
to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
(The Brief Statement of Faith, lines 65-71)
Containing only 5 chapters, 1 Thessalonians is considered a short book by biblical standards. It is, nevertheless, an important one. Scholars believe that 1 Thessalonians is the oldest book in the New Testament, most likely written by Paul around 52AD, some 20 years after the death of Jesus.
When Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica they were in their infancy. He had spent only a few weeks with them before departing for Corinth, from wence he wrote the letter. Paul truly loved this young congregation, so he sent his delegate, Timothy, to visit them in his absence. Timothy soon reported back to Paul the news that the church was in a state of turmoil. They were growing anxious about Jesus’ second-coming, which they believed would happen in the very near future. Upon learning of this, Paul pens a very personal and loving letter to the church reminding them that he thinks of them often and keeps them in his prayers. But he closes his letter with an admonition: he tells them how to conduct themselves in the meantime. That is, he tells them how to live as a Christian community while patiently anticipating Christ’s arrival.
As 21st century Christians, it may be difficult for us to identify with those early Christians. For them, a “church” was a community of people rather than a building with an address and website. There were no denominations, much less written guidelines for church governance. Formal clergy did not exist. Ordination exams did not exist. There was no Christmas. No common lectionary planned years in advance. What need would there have been for something like that? The church after all was in a holding pattern, hardly resembling the institution we know it as today.
No, Christ’s return was immenant and their job as Christians was to wait. But as we all know, waiting is hard. Just ask any 5-year old on a road trip.
So, Paul, through his letter tells them how they are to live in the meantime:
“I urge you,” he said, “admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good, and abstain from every form of evil.”
I can picture Paul setting his pen down, dusting off his hands, and saying, “Well, that should keep ‘em busy for a while.”
If they were hoping for the equivalent of the Snicker’s ad: “Not going anywhere for a while? Grab a Snickers” they surely didn’t get it from Paul. What they got instead was an easier-said-than-done set of challenges.
1st and 21st century Christians do have at least one thing in common: we have both been ladened with the task of waiting for Christ’s return. We may approach and interpret the theological significance of what that means differently than the Christians in Thessalonica, but we are nonetheless still waiting and working for Christ’s reign of justice, freedom, and peace.
The Brief Statement of Faith offers a similar appeal to Paul’s on how we are to live “in the meantime.”
We who abide in a broken and fearful world are to pray without ceasing, witness to all people, unmask idolatries in Church and culture, hear the voices of those long silenced, and work for justice, freedom, and peace.
Like Paul’s appeal these are not laws to be kept or commands to be fulfilled. Rather, they are the work of the Spirit already at work in the midst of daily life. It is the Spirit’s work that awakens rejoicing, praying, thanksgiving; and it is the Spirit’s work that sustains witnessing, hearing, and unmasking. These are gifts of the Spirit—always and already manifest in the midst of life.
Both Paul and the confession credit the Spirit as the one that pursues us, inspires us, and gives us the courage to boldly exemplify what it means to live as a community who waits for the Lord.
Yet…if the Spirit is already present and at work in the community and in our very lives, why then does it often seem we lack the courage necessary to unmask idolatries, to witness, to pray, and to give thanks in all circumstances? Where is that courage lurking and how can we find it?
Growing up, my pastor would often say, “Courage is fear that’s said its prayers.” I’ve always taken comfort in that phrase because it implies that courage is not the absence of fear, but rather a transformed byproduct of it.
Marilyn Robinson, author of the Pulitzer-prize-winning novel “Gilead” was interviewed some months back, and was asked to explain a term she used in her book. The term was called “prevenient courage.”
“Prevenient courage,” she said, “means for a Christian person, that you understand that difficult demands might be made on you, and that you are furthermore obliged to be attentive enough to know when a demand is being made. The courage, then, is not triggered spontaneously by the moment. It is in fact something that, if you believe in God, will pre-exist the circumstance in which courage is required.”
I love the relationship she makes between being attentive and being courageous. Our responsibility, it seems, is to be attentive, aware, and alert to what is happening around us; while God’s responsibility is to supply the courage we need to respond.
It takes courage to unmask evils, work for justice, and listen to voices long silenced. But, I believe, it takes an even larger degree of courage to give thanks in all circumstances.
In a few moments, while John breaks the bread and pours the wine, we will hear the familiar words: “On the night he was betrayed, Jesus took the bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to them….” With an expiration date of less than 12 hours what does Jesus do? He gives thanks. Giving thanks in your darkest hour, that takes courage.
In the Greek, the words “he gave thanks” is translated as “eucharisteo.” The Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, while indeed a communion of the body of Christ, is at it’s very core a celebration of giving thanks.
The root word for “eucharisteo” is “charis”, meaning “grace.” Jesus, on the night of his arrest, took the bread and saw it as grace and gave thanks. Furthermore, a derivative of “charis” is the Greek word “chara” meaning “joy.”
Joy. Isn’t that what we all want more of? We who live in a broken and fearful world, a world of waiting and angst—wouldn’t a life of joy make our waiting a little more bearable? In his “Confessions” Augustine claimed, “Without exception…all [people] try their hardest to reach the same goal, that is, joy.”
Joy, buried in grace, buried in thanks-giving. Could it be possible, then, that the height of our joy is, in some way, dependent on the depths of our thanksgiving?
This table is the symbol for how we are to live as Christians. It reminds us to give thanks—even in our darkest of hours. The common elements—bread and wine—remind us that the Spirit is present even in the most ordinary of times and places. And it reminds us that the journey toward joy begins always in thanksgiving. This is, after all, the joyful feast of the people of God.
Stan Hall, from whom I was privileged enough to have learned the art of Reformed worship, once complained in class that too many Communion tables are inscribed with the words “In Remembrance of Me” when what they should really say is “Do this.”
Do this. Whenever and wherever you eat of this bread and drink of this cup. Do this. Do what? Give thanks. Always—even here, in the messy, piercing ache of now.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, and be nourished by the Spirit who will give you the courage to wait and work for God’s reign of justice, freedom, and peace.
O, taste and see that the Lord is good. Amen.