Monday, October 24, 2011

Blameless in Holiness

Although Paul praises the Thessalonians for their exemplary faith, it is also very clear from the rest of the letter that their faith is not yet complete, they have not "arrived" in spite of their "faith that has gone forth everywhere."  Paul urges them on to something more.

In 2:12, Paul reminds the Thessalonians of his own presence along with Silvanus and Timothy among them.  "we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God who calls you into his own kingdom and glory".  "Walk" is used almost as a synonym of "live" in scripture. When Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to "walk in a manner worthy of God" he is saying that the Thessalonians whole lives should reflect the holiness of the God who has called them.

Throughout chapter 3, Paul is expressing his desires to be with the Thessalonians so as to continue to encourage them in their faith.  In 3:10, he says specifically that his desire to be with the Thessalonians is so that "we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith", again implying that there is something the Thessalonians are missing.  This chapter concludes with a prayer that God may make the Thessalonians "increase and abound in love for one another and for all... so that we may establish your hearts blameless in holiness".

In 4:3, Paul again urges this need for holiness upon the Thessalonians saying "For this is the will of God, your santification..." ("santification" coming from the same Greek root as holy, holiness).  Again in 4:7, "For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness."  Finally, in 5:23 Paul prays, "Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Clearly, Paul is concerned for the holiness/sanctification of the Thessalonians throughout his letter to them.  But what does Paul mean by these words?  To answer that question thoroughly would certainly take more than a single blog post.  But there are a few things that stand out about Paul's use of those terms in Thessalonians.

1)It is God who sanctifies and make holy....  Paul's prayer in 3:13 and 5:23 is not that the Thessalonians would make themselves holy but that God would establish their hearts blameless in holiness and sanctify them completely.  Holiness is not a human accomplishment but an act of God.

2).... but we also have a responsibility to our holy calling.  Even though it is God who makes us holy, Paul makes it clear in his admonitions to the Thessalonians that we have a responsibility to live in step with what God has already done.

3)Our sanctification is our salvation...  We often talk about being "saved" (by which we usually mean having our sins forgiven) and then later being "sanctified" (by which we usually mean being freed from the power of sin).  But Paul talks about sanctification as something God does as the beginning of our salvation.  To be saved is to be set apart for God's purposes (which is the most common meaning of sanctification in the Old Testament).  In 1:9, Paul describes the Thessalonians salvation as having "turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God", echoing the language of Ezekiel 36 in which Israel is cleansed from its idol worship in order to return to Yahweh.  Holiness is not something added onto salvation.  It is the very means and purpose of salvation.

4)...but it is also more than just having our sins forgiven.  Although our sanctification begins with the forgiveness of our sins, Paul clearly expects more than simply this for the Thessalonians.  Paul prays that the Thessalonians will be sanctified entirely, indicating that Paul expects that God can do something more in the lives of the Thessalonians than has already been done.

5)This sanctification is bodily....  Sanctification is often talked about as something God does in the heart.  That is certainly true.  But in saying it that way, we shouldn't miss the fact that this "heart-cleansing" has very physical implications.  When Paul describes sanctification as the will of God in 4:3, he immediately goes on to talk about sexual relations - the most bodily, physical of acts.  The point here is that if we think holiness is only about "good intentions" or "the spiritual" or what's "on the inside" to the neglect of what we do with and to our own bodies, the bodies of the others, or our material resources then we haven't yet understood Paul's (and God's) call to holiness.  Sanctification is a work of God in the heart but it is a work that leads to very physical consequences.

6) ...and communal.  Holiness is not merely (or even primarily) individual in nature. It is worth noting that as Paul is discussing sexual relations in 4:3-8, in 4:6 the reason he gives for abstaining from sexual immorality is so "that no one transgresses and wrongs his brother in this matter".   Paul's concern here is not merely inappropriate sexual relations in themselves but that such relationships will tear at the fabric of the community of faith.   Likewise, when Paul prays for the Thessalonians holiness in 3:13, it is intertwined with the prayer that their love would abound for "one another and for all".  While the call to holiness certainly has consequences for an individual's lifestyle, Paul's emphasizes that holiness concerns our life together.  The holiness and love of God is reflected in our relationships of holy love with one another.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Born out of Weakness

Paul begins his letter to the Thessalonians with great praise for what God has done among them.  He rejoices over the Thessalonians "work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ".  He also recalls how the Holy Spirit came among them with power and conviction; evidence that they had been chosen by God to receive the gospel.  Furthermore, the Church at Thessalonica appears to have been the model church of the region as Paul says they "became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia" and that their "faith in God has gone forth everywhere".

Remarkably (but not surprisingly if one is familiar with Paul's pattern of ministry), this incredible Church was founded in Paul's weakness and humiliation.  Paul writes in 2:2 that he and his co-ministers had come to the Thessalonians after suffering and being shamefully treated in Philippi.  It seems likely that this refers to the episode in Acts 16 where Paul is imprisoned, freed by God through an earthquake, baptizes the jailer and his household, and then demands to be escorted out of the city by the magistrates.  Acts 17 then tells us that Paul went on to Thessalonica only to face much opposition there as well.  The picture of Paul's preaching in Thessalonica, then, is one of a man who has been repeatedly rejected and humiliated but refuses to stop preaching.

And a church, a healthy church, an exemplary church is born out of that preaching.  No glitz.  No glamor. No big production or impressive display.  Quite the opposite.  The power of God's Word is made all the more evident by Paul's weakness.  Paul says his preaching among the Thessalonians was gentle, "like a nursing mother taking care of her own children".  This nurturing image continues in the next verse as Paul says "we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves."

Perhaps the second of these is the harder of the two for many Christians these days.  I know many people in my church are eager to share the gospel.  I'm not share how many of us are eager to share ourselves; to give up our free/family time to spend time with a neighbor, to get tangled up in our co-worker's complicated problems, to see the drunk down the street as a person rather than a threat.

To keep sharing the Word and sharing ourselves.  Can Church really be so simple?  It may be a testament to just how far we have gone astray to think that it had to be anything else.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Blessed Possibilities

Matthew tells us in chapter 5 of his gospel concerning Jesus "Seeing the crowds, he went up on a mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.  And he opened his mouth and taught them...."  This begins what is often referred to as The Sermon on the Mount.  It is in this sermon that we hear Jesus repeatedly say "You have heard that it was said....but I say to you..."; again and again Jesus references a command of Jewish law only to add to it an even more strict command.  "Don't murder?  Of course! But don't be angry either.  Don't commit adultery?  Don't even lust!"  Scholars tell us that Matthew's portrayal of Jesus ascending a mountain and speaking a new law is meant to remind us of Moses who ascended Mt. Sinai and received the Law from God.  Matthew is using the example of Moses to help us understand who Jesus is.  Jesus is the new lawgiver, or more precisely, Jesus is the lawgiver he has always been because he is the God who gave the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai who has now taken on human flesh.  He is the one who will "fulfill" the law as he says in v. 17.

But Jesus "fulfilling" of the law seems to take it to a level that is impossible to keep.  Not only does Jesus command us not to be angry and lustful.  He also says "that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery".  And later he says "You have heard that it was said 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,'  But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil.  But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well."  Jesus then sums up this new commands by saying "You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect."

Jesus can't be serious about this, can he?  Divorce and re-marriage is adultery?  Don't resist evil and violent people?  Be perfect?  Surely Jesus realizes that he is asking the impossible, right?

I actually think Jesus does realize the impossibility of what he is commanding in these verses... though probably not in the way we might expect.  Objections to the idea of living out the Sermon on the Mount almost always stem from the impractically of such a life.  "Lust and anger are just part of being human. How can two people who are miserable stay together?  Doesn't Jesus know what would happen if we didn't fight back against evil people?  That's just not how the world works!"  And so Jesus is written off as an idealistic dreamer (or in significant portions of the Christian tradition as the giver of the impossible law which drives us to his mercy).

I think Jesus knew quite well that his words in the Sermon on the Mount didn't describe the way the world works.  In fact, I think he knew it so well that he knew the workings of the world would result in his own crucifixion.  In the world as it stands, the commands Jesus gives would indeed be impossible which is why I believe Jesus is doing more in the Sermon on the Mount than giving a "new law".  Jesus is announcing a new world.  

I believe that is what Jesus is doing in the verses commonly called the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11).  We often approach these verses as if they are law as well.  We interpret them to mean that if we want to be blessed then we must be poor in spirit, mourning, meek, merciful, pure in heart peacemakers who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  So we make the Beatitudes a list of Christian virtues.  But these verses are not imperative.  They are indicative.  Jesus is not commanding anything.  He is proclaiming.

In fact, Jesus is proclaiming in these verses things that seem to be contrary to reality.  Those who mourn are blessed?  The poor, the meek, and merciful are blessed?  It seems those are precisely the kind of people who aren't blessed in our world; the kind of people who are constantly taken advantage of.  And again, that's precisely the point!  Jesus isn't describing the way the world works.  Jesus is describing how his renewed world will work.  Jesus isn't describing the kingdoms of the world.  He is proclaiming his own kingdom; a kingdom that turns power and influence upside down, a kingdom where those who mourn will be comforted and those who are merciful will be shown mercy.  This is not command.  It is promise.  The beatitudes are Jesus' promise that the world will not always be as it is now; that might will not always make right, that the weak will not always be mistreated but that one day Jesus will rule over a kingdom marked by genuine justice and peace, a kingdom where the not-so-blessed of this world will be blessed.

But in the meantime, in this time between the times, in the tension of the "Blessed are...for they will be...", Jesus calls upon us to to be a community where the impossibility of the Sermon on the Mount becomes a reality.  Not because we are especially moral people who try harder.  Not because we've discovered that Jesus' commands are really practical after all.  But because of the resurrection.  Because the one who gives this law is also the one who accomplishes our Exodus.  Because in the raising of Jesus from the dead, God has said "Behold, I am making all things new."  Because the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is able to make us new as well.  Because we believe there is a kingdom that is coming that doesn't play by the world's rules and that kingdom is already being made a reality in us.  Because we are by virtue of what we will be.