Proper 25A

October 20, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 22:34-46

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Deuteronomy 34:1-12

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    Just the other day a young minister emailed me to ask if he could meet with me to talk about his preaching.  It seems that after planting a church and nurturing its growth for 12 difficult years, he had been attacked by his now independent adolescent church.  “Your preaching is the reason we aren’t growing more,” said one.  “I’m not being spiritually fed,” said another.  He was blindsided.  After 12 years of loving labor, he was being criticized and he didn’t know how to react.

    It didn’t take nearly that long for the criticism to begin in Paul’s ministry. If I Thessalonians is Paul’s first letter (as most scholars think it is), we have here an insight into the early church that ought to encourage my disheartened young friend, and any minister who has ever been the main course for Sunday dinner.  As long as there have been preachers and congregations, there have been critics.  It’s nothing new.  But that doesn’t dull the pain.

    How should we react?  The reptilian response is “fight or flight,” fight back or run away.  What is the Gospel response?  That’s what we find in I Thessalonians 2.  Paul reacts not by attacking his critics or by threatening to abandon his church, but by defending himself in no uncertain terms.  Why does Paul make such a big deal of self-defense?  Isn’t that a self-defeating response?  Doesn’t such a response dignify or even empower the critics?

    There is definitely a risk in self-defense, and my young friend needs to be careful that he doesn’t spend so much time and energy on defending himself that he misses the opportunity to learn from his critics.  Maybe he does need to grow in his preaching.  But Paul leaps to his own defense because his critics were saying that he was nothing but a deluded heretic who for selfish reasons and with trickery was trying to exploit the congregation.  That sort of attack puts the whole Gospel at risk.  So for the sake of the Gospel itself, Paul had to defend himself.  If his (probably Judaizing) critics could discredit Paul, they could silence his Gospel of grace.  And that would be a tragedy.  So Paul leaps into the fray with a stirring self-defense.

    This text raises the whole issue of the connection between the message and the messenger.  Early in the life of the church, the Donatist movement claimed that the character of the priest affected the efficacy of the sacraments.  They were reacting to a terrible chapter in church history.  Under intense persecution, some ministers had betrayed the faith.  When the persecution was over, they came back into the church and began to minister as usual.  The Donatists said that their apostasy disqualified them from administering the sacraments.  Indeed, the sacraments were ineffective if administered by such men.  After great controversy, the church decreed that the efficacy of the sacraments was independent of the character of the priests.

    When it comes to preaching, the Gospel is the Gospel, no matter who is preaching it.  BUT, in this text Paul acknowledges that the character of the preacher can greatly impact the efficacy of the preaching.  So preachers must take great care with not only the message itself, but also with their motives and methods.  Who we are, why we preach, and how we do it matters a great deal.

    The great problem with this text is that it seems irrelevant to most of the people in our congregations.  It would be the perfect text for a preaching conference, in which the audience was composed of practicing preachers.  It provides what one commentator called a “Manual for Ministers.”  But what does it have to say to the ordinary man or woman or, even more implausibly, the ordinary child in the congregation?  Well, perhaps it would be helpful for congregations that are unhappy with their preachers.  Those wounded preachers could use this text to defend themselves.  “Maybe you don’t like my sermons, but at least I preach the Gospel with the purest motives and the most straightforward methods.”  Such a sermon would require more wisdom and pastoral sensitivity than most besieged preachers could muster, so I would advise against such an approach to this text.

    A better approach to this text would take off from Paul’s words in I Thessalonians 1:5 and 6.  “You became imitators of us and of the Lord…. And so you became a model to all believers….”  Though ordinary Christians aren’t “preachers” in the strict sense, all believers are prophets, priests, and kings who represent/model/embody Christ in the world.  And even as the character of the preacher is important, so is the character of the average congregant.  Though some of what Paul says in his self-defense is uniquely relevant to the missionary/preacher, a great deal of his message has application to the church as a whole.  We can preach this, then, as a call to imitate Paul as we speak and live out the Gospel in the world.  As the worship bulletin of my last church proclaimed every week, “Every member is a minister.”

    A key to understanding Paul’s self-defense is to remember that we are reading someone else’s mail here.  We are listening to one side of a conversation conducted in print.  In other words, Paul is responding to what someone else (his critics) said about him.  Remembering that will help us understand why Paul says things as he does.

    So he begins by appealing to what the Thessalonians already know.  “You know that our visit to you was not a failure.”  They would know that, of course, because his visit resulted in the birth of a thriving little church.  So, they have this hard piece of evidence of the effectiveness of Paul’s ministry.  Clearly, his opponents were saying that Paul’s ministry wasn’t effective.  It was a joke, a bad joke, a crooked attempt to take advantage of these new Christians.

    A little textual note may help us understand the accusation of the critics better.  The word failure is kene in the Greek, which can mean failure, but also vain or empty or, better yet, empty handed.  If that last meaning is legitimate, then Paul is saying that he did not come to them empty handed, that is, looking to receive something from them.  Rather, he came to them with something to give them.  He did not come to take advantage of them, but to offer them something precious.

    Paul then reminds them of how his ministry among them began.  He had come from Philippi where he had been shamefully and brutally treated.  But instead of limping into town licking his wounds and looking for sympathy, he boldly proclaimed the Gospel in spite of strong opposition there in Thessalonica.  The word translated “dared to tell” is almost a technical word; the rhetoricians of Paul’s day used it to refer to speaking with freedom, openness, and fearlessness.  The word for “strong opposition” is the Greek word agoni, which could also mean that Paul spoke with strenuous exertion and deep concern.  There was agoni/agony in Paul.  In other words, Paul reminds them that he didn’t come to them looking for an easy time.  He sure wasn’t in it for the rewards.  The message for our congregations is that doing ministry is often a tough, thankless, agonizing thing.  Don’t expect immediate rewards.

    The only way we can do ministry is “with the help of our God.”  Paul puts it even stronger than that in the Greek.  It isn’t just that we need a little help from God to be Christ’s body in the world.  We must be united with God.  The Greek is en to Theo, in God.  Or as Christ put it in John 15, “I am the vine; you are the branches.  If a person remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”

    In verses 3-6a, Paul speaks directly to the criticism he had received, point by point.  Long ago, John Calvin noticed that Paul is talking here about the content of his Gospel, the affections of his heart, and the manner of his conduct.  “For the appeal we make does not spring (as his opponents said) from error (content) or impure motives (affections), nor were we trying to trick you (manner).”

    Paul’s critics accused Paul of preaching error.  If these were the Judaizers who dogged his steps all over the Mediterranean basin, they were saying that his Gospel undercut centuries of Jewish custom and traditions and, worse, God’s own law, the Torah.  In doing that, they said, Paul is opposing God himself.  Not so, says Paul.  “On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the Gospel.”  This Gospel we preach comes directly from God.  We didn’t make it up; it is a sacred trust for which God will hold us responsible.

    The message here for our congregations is that we must be good stewards of the Gospel.  Though it is culturally conditioned in that it was originally written in Greek and Hebrew and was addressed to 1st century Jews and Romans and Greeks, it is not a product of human cultural invention.  And however we preach it to a contemporary audience, we must keep the trust and not change the Gospel to fit the times.  The desire to be relevant must not alter what God has entrusted once for all to the church.

    Paul continues to reply to this accusation that he is preaching humanly devised error.  His critics were saying that he was preaching this Gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in order to make it easier for the Gentiles to fit into the church.  He is removing God given rules and regulations so that Gentiles will have an easier time becoming God’s people.  (Think of the furor over circumcision resulting in the Council in Jerusalem in Acts 15.)   In response Paul says, “We are not trying to please men, but God who tests our hearts.”

    I can vividly recall the day one of my friends in my third church accused me of being a “people pleaser.”  He said that I was soft pedaling the hard parts of the Gospel in order to be popular.  I protested that I was trying to be pastoral, trying to take account of people’s weaknesses and wounds as I applied the Gospel to real lives.  Who was right?  Obviously, I was.  (Just kidding.)  But he laid his finger on a sore spot for every preacher.  We want to be liked, loved, adored by our congregations, and respected by an increasingly hostile world.  We must be very careful that we don’t blur the clarity of the Gospel in our efforts to reach a world that loves 50 shades of grey.  We do well to remember that “God tests our hearts,” and it is finally God we need to please.

    Closely connected to this last thought is Paul insistence that he didn’t act from impure motives.  His heart was right.  Some scholars think Paul had been accused of improper sexual motives.  (“Why is it that so many members of this single preacher’s churches are female?”).  But the evidence in this text points rather in the direction of a desire for fame or fortune.  “He’s in it for the money.  That offering for the poor in Jerusalem is a cover for his greed.”  “He’s just trying to make a name for himself.  He’ll say anything to be popular.”

    Paul’s critics were well aware of the travelling preachers of that day who knew how to take advantage of a congregation with their “love offerings” and their finely honed messages designed to garner the maximum “offering of praise to God.”  And they knew the human heart very well.   John Calvin summed it up very well.  “Human cunning has so many labyrinthine recesses that greed and ambition are often concealed in it.” It is frightfully difficult to ferret out our own greed and ambition, but we must because “from these two sources comes the corruption of the whole of ministry.” (Calvin again)

    Here’s another touch point for our congregations.  The power of ambition and greed can absolutely ruin the witness of the Gospel.  And we are not talking only here about sleazy TV evangelists.  I can’t count the number of times I have heard unbelievers dismiss the gospel because they had business dealings with greedy Christians or because they had witnessed the ambition of allegedly Christian celebrities?  Paul takes an oath that he never has and never will allow greed and ambition to damage the Gospel.  “You know we never used flattery nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness.”  Yes, he is.  God is our witness as we try to witness.

    Then Paul speaks about the manner of his ministry, countering the claim that he uses trickery to sell his erroneous gospel.  The word “trick” in verse 3 referred to the way fishermen use bait to catch a fish.  That image made me think of the “bait and switch” tactics of crooked businesses.  You get customers in the door with the bait of something really good for a cheap price, and then you switch and get them to buy something else at a higher price.  How often do the church’s promotional strategies and public relations campaigns violate the spirit of the gospel?   We must be careful that our desire to “sell” the gospel to a reluctant world doesn’t distort the plain truth of it.

    Finally, Paul speaks directly to the accusation that he was a cold hearted manipulator who used his ministry to get rich.  As an apostle, I could have asked you for pay.  I had that right and authority, but I didn’t do it, because I didn’t want to burden you.  Instead, I was “gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children.  We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the Gospel of God, but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.”

    There are a number of delightful and difficult exegetical points in these words.  For example, “gentle” is the Greek epioi, but some ancient manuscripts have nepioi, which means “infants.”  Was Paul claiming to be a baby among them, and thus harmless, or demanding, or what?  And how do we relate that to the metaphor of a nursing mother?  Further, the word “delighted” is often translated “being affectionately desirous of you.”  And “lives” is psyche, or souls.  Each of these little points makes the larger point with great poignancy.  Rather than hardheartedly taking advantage of them, Paul had spared no expense in giving himself to them.

    This serves as a helpful reminder to our congregations about the cost of effective ministry.  It’s not enough to communicate the message clearly and winsomely and intelligently.  We must give ourselves completely.  This raises all kinds of questions about boundaries in ministry and self-care.  But Paul’s over-riding point is that the cause of the Gospel is so important that it demands “my soul, my life, my all” (from “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”.)

    Illustration Idea

    This text calls to mind memorable portraits of duplicitous ministers, as in the novel, Elmer Gantry, or the movie, “The Apostle,” starring Robert Duval.  On a morning TV news show the other day, I saw one of the stars of a new reality series called “Preachers of LA.”  That “star” preacher was asked if he felt guilty about being rich.  He replied that he certainly didn’t, because most of his money comes from “alternative income streams,” like selling luxury cars.  I wondered what tent-maker Paul would think about that.