“Loving the Church”
13 March 2005
Texts: 1 Thess. 2:27-3:10
I begin with a picture of pastoral integrity, or a least a picture of what it might look like. We find this picture in Genesis 32: 23-32. Now before you object that this is a wrestling match, not a very likely scene from pastoral ministry, I’ll concede the matter. You’re right. It is a wrestling match. It takes place between Jacob and the angel of the Lord beside the ford in the brook Jabbok. But this match is about a number of things truly pertinent to pastoral ministry. It’s about the integrity of standing firm, holding one’s ground and determination. These, believe me, are crucial aspects of pastoral ministry. Jacob, in refusing to yield to the angel until he had obtained a blessing, manifests a determination of character which is wins him power with God. This, I would point out, is a match that he loses. Yes, indeed, he limps from that day forward because, having come to his limits and not given up, he won a new name for himself: Israel. He was no longer Jacob, the deceiver, the man who got ahead by using his wit and cunning. He is wounded in the struggle for his soul but is the better man for is struggle. The text informs us that Jacob had sent everything he possessed and everyone under his care ahead. He was resource-less, alone and frightened. That how he came to face the greatest test of his life--and, quite frankly, that’s how pastors sometimes find themselves emotionally, if not factually. Jacob felt he had come to the end of the road, but the other side of the crisis lay a new life, a new direction, his calling as the father of the nation Israel.
What are the points of contact between Jacob and the pastor? In my experience they are the wrestling with God--for personal clarity, direction, the blessing. Then we have the test of character, the ordeal that summons forth courage and determination. I find a similarity in the loneliness--even a married pastor has things that he must handle on his own. Sometimes it’s a matter of keeping confidence and other times it’s a matter of not knowing how to put things into words, but whichever, the result is loneli-ness. Another aspect of loneliness is the sense of abandonment--everyone seems to somewhere else when the crisis strikes. You feel needy, helpless and incompetent--all at once. These kinds of thought certainly occurred to the Apostle Paul as he labored on in Corinth and wondered about the congregation he had left behind in Thessalonica. I imagine there may have been some self-doubt playing into his concern that things may have been in vain. Pastors define themselves in terms of their congregation. The people are an opportunity, a place for ministers to develop in--their interactions through pastoral care, administration, teaching, counsel and spiritual direction. But above all this, the congregation is the place where pastors develop virtue, learn to love, advance in hope and actually become what they preach. I believe that I have been called to preach a holy gospel and to develop a holy life simultaneously and progressively. The same “more and more” I alluded to several weeks back--do we love the church more and more, are we more and more gentle, patient, kind and forgiving?--applies to pastors as to the people! It is a scary thing to admit, but we are risk-takers together. When I cultivate someone for leadership in the church, investing sometimes years of pastoral direction and it doesn’t work out, I have to believe that the risk was worth taking. Sadder and wiser, I hope, I begin over. Rejoicing when it works out, I try not to make the same mistake twice. I can hardly imagine what Paul was mulling over given that he had planted a church, worked with it for four to five months and then had to flee for fear of his life to Berea, and then, again, from there to another safe place in secret. Had he picked the right people for leadership? Were they going to hold when the testings came? The congregations pastors serve “grow them up” in every way and what we go through together humbles us all.
So, the first word that I have from our passage today is the word relational. Ministry is all about relationship. That is why we heard such profoundly intimate and relational language in last week’s passage: nursing mothers and nurturing fathers, each giving individualized parental attention and affection to their children. These personal interactions are the stuff of ministry. I know that these interactions can be “faked.” Task-driven and program dominated ministry can be so artificial. It is possible to learn group dynamics, to study how to look spontaneous, to go through sensitivity training so as to appear pastoral, to seem concerned and interested in others, but Paul, and no genuine pastor, would even think of faking it. Such behavior is sub-Christian and manipulative. It’s “religion.” The Jews apparently were suggesting that Paul had abandoned his converts, conveniently forgetting that they were the prime movers in his expulsion. What we learn here is that Paul is motivated by a primary concern for those he is responsible for before God. That is a heavy matter. His authenticity as a minister--and by extension the integrity of the gospel--are evidenced by his willingness to spend and to be spent for the sake of the sheep. If he is sincerely concerned for their growth as Christians in faith, hope, love and holiness, then these things will evidence themselves in changed lives. As he fulfills his calling, they fulfill their potential.
None of this can be accomplished apart from personal vulnerability. People know whether or not you are putting everything on the line. In Thess. 2:17-20 we hear Paul’s agonized longing to be reunited with his people. Torn away is the language of parents bereaved of their children--a painful, unnatural severance, one laced with shock and hurt--the verb commonly meant “orphaned.” We feel, in those circumstances, utmost consternation over the well-being of those left behind. Sleepless nights are the result of our uncertainty, dismay and ignorance. For the entire time of their separation, Paul indicates he has been trying to get back with them. “We made every effort”. . .we stirred ourselves excessively, with deep longing, to come to you. But “Satan hindered us.” We want to see the gospel work of the church go forward but Satan can and does hinder us--even though Satan was defeated on the cross, that defeat was not complete, or final at that time. The day is coming when that will be the case, but not yet. For now we have an opposition which is capable of stopping things in their tracks! This is a fact of life--we do not know how specifically the hindrances took place in Paul’s case, we might be more conversant with our own life together where leaders have stumbled, pride has interfered and rumor and gossip have disrupted things. We may suppose that similar things transpired in Thessalonica. God allows that opposition, but it is no less the work of the devil. Yes, we are to pray such opposition down. We are to remind ourselves that God is not the author of confusion, get clear and move ahead as the Spirit leads. Paul does not relate anything like taking authority over Satan to gain his earnest desires--he leaves to God those things which are best left in God’s hands.
Verses 19-20 reveal to us that Paul’s motivation is much deeper that merely wanting to get back and to get the job done. Or, we could say, higher because Paul makes peace with his present because of his imminent expectation of the parousia. The Thessalonians are not dear to him simply because of his time with them there, nor even because of his life investment in them; rather it is because of an eternal reason. They will be his hope, joy and crown in the day of his reward. Yes, Paul anticipates a reward for faithful service provided they faithfully persevere. I recently ran into a brother who I lead to the Lord some twenty years ago. Six years ago I was reunited with him and rejoiced to join him in marriage to a lovely woman. But that relationship dissolved in divorce. Worse still, my friend, beaten up and discouraged by the tumult and trouble of that marriage left the faith for a season. But, due to the witness of a common friend, another brother in Christ, he repented of his unbelieving choices and was restored to the faith. That gave me great joy. I would rather he hadn’t gone through all the pain and suffering of the past six years. I would rather he hadn’t fallen away. But the great news was that of a prodigal returned. He spoke appreciatively of deliverances restored, a walk renewed and we were glad together--right in the midst of a great, noisy crowd! Those are the kind of encounters pastors live for. Paul declares that the Thessalonians will be, literally, his “crown of pride.” This suggests a kind of self-interest to Paul--but only to those who ascribe to a kind of pseudo-spirituality. We know that Paul believe that the whole gospel work was God’s initiative of grace and we know that he saw his calling in the same God-honoring and humble fashion. So we have to keep this declaration in context. Here’s what Paul knows: he knows that his work will be judged--just as our works will be judged--in order to determine the degree, or level of reward he is to receive. The Lord Himself directs us to store up such treasure in heaven in:
Luke 12:33 "Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves purses which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near, nor moth destroys.
(and the parallel passage in)
Mat 19:21 Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me."
So Paul responsibly wants his work to be enduring, of quality, looking for an assessment of hope, joy and glory..
We should be like him in this. Why? We should be like Paul because if Jesus says this is how the world works, we should believe Him. We should see ourselves, regardless of the centuries in-between, as being on the same time-line to eternity--and, on the way, we shall with Paul pass through the day of the Lord’s appearing. We shall appear before the Lord’s judgment seat for the determination of our reward. Will it not be a great joy, on that day, in His presence to see gathered around us all those whose lives we have touched for eternity with salvation truth? I say, yes, the more spiritual children and grandchildren we can obtain the better! I already know that I am a spiritual grandparent many, many times over.
We do not live in heightened awareness of the parousia--a wonderful word meaning appearing, the royal visitation of our King Jesus--as did Paul. It’s a little like forgetting, due to casualness, what is it that we are saved from--namely, God’s wrath to the uttermost. Paul uses this word seven times in this letter and only in 1 Cor. 15:23 elsewhere. There Paul is addressing the resurrection of the dead at His appearing. Perhaps we are distracted by the understanding of Jesus second coming from the incredible impact of this thought to Paul. It means ceremony, honor, vindication and welcome all rolled into one. It would be a day to remember! Jesus’ first coming was in humiliation and suffering; His glory was indeed veiled and He died in shame and ignominy. The parousia was the event yet to come which would finally make sense of the first visit in front of the whole world--every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord at that time. Jesus would come openly as the King of Glory and it will not be a second incarnation! And on that day He will being salvation to His people, but judgment and condemnation to Is enemies. Remember what we heard in 1:10: how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, 1 Th 1:10 and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come. So, the parousia is not merely the end of the age, but is the fulfillment of all the ages. It is the event which makes sense of everything we have suffered since the fall of man. It is the motivator to keep us going in spite of all persecution and oppression. Indeed, the parousia is the show stopper. For it is Christ at His return who will overthrow the lawless one.
The lawless one will come up again in 2 Thess 2:8-12 in relationship to the parousia:
2 Th 2:8 And then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming; 2 Th 2:9 that is, the one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, 2 Th 2:10 and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. 2 Th 2:11 And for this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they might believe what is false, 2 Th 2:12 in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness.
And although such frank admission of the existence of Satanic influences may cause us to wince, it does serve as a helpful reminder of how powerful and active the Evil One will be up until the very end. We are being asked to consider real opposition to a real enemy whether we find it distasteful to our 21st century sensibilities or not. But our focus is not to be on the shenanigans of Satan, or his cohorts; rather our attention is to be fixed upon how everyone will bow in submission at the parousia. The enemies of God will be forced to confess Him as Lord and this should strengthen our knees, and spines for the journey.
In 3:1-5 Paul models transparency as he describes his pastoral fears and frustrations. They focus around the final word, useless--we are back to the concern about all his work having proved vain (2:1), fruitless, or empty. Because he didn’t know, because he had no progress reports, he was on needles and pins:
1 Th 3:1 Therefore when we could endure it no longer, we thought it best to be left behind at Athens alone; 1 Th 3:2 and we sent Timothy, our brother and God's fellow worker in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith, 1 Th 3:3 so that no man may be disturbed by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this.1 Th 3:4 For indeed when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass, as you know. 1 Th 3:5 For this reason, when I could endure it no longer, I also sent to find out about your faith, for fear that the tempter might have tempted you, and our labor should be in vain.
You may recognize in this apprehension the very accusation that Paul’s enemies were making: it was all a waste of time. Paul feared that the trials they had faced might indeed have led some of them to falter and it probably did draw a few away. (3:3) Paul’s pastoral concern, a concern rooted in love for the church, was that those who were unsettled would be tempted to leave the faith by believing the lies of Satan (these being the tempter‘s work). Verse 1 contains, “when we couldn’t stand it anymore” and verse 5 begins “when I couldn’t stand it anymore,” Paul is registering with us the very real pressure of genuine concern--that is, well-founded anxiety as opposed to needless worry. What if the church which had been so highly regarded faltered and fell from that high esteem?!
Another aspect to this period of waiting has to be the happy, but grim satisfaction which comes from having amply warned the people of God--so that when they came to trials, they were better prepared to meet them. I do not believe that these warnings were general in nature. God will reveal to those who wait upon Him the details--sometimes in heartwarming specifics what is coming upon the church. Indeed, this is one of the very clear exercises of prophetic office that remain functioning to this day. We, pastors, are not, praise God, on our own when it comes to leading the church. Through prayer, we can hear what God is saying to His church and act accordingly. But even then it is wonderful to have confirmation of that guidance in terms of experience and reporting. The course of church life, like true love, “never did run smooth.” (MSND--Shak.) So we end as we began with a picture of someone hanging on, holding on until the blessing comes through--in the first instance, it was Jacob and in the second it is the Apostle Paul. And the blessing does come, in the person of Timothy whose timely report arrives at this point in the correspondence.
Now we are not the Apostle Paul, nor are we Thessalonians, but we are invited by this passage into the value and necessity of loving the church. Love is difficult. Probably that is because there are people involved. I recall the famous misanthropic quip: “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.” But love is the issue. Christ loves the church. If we share His values, if we want to be like Him, we will need to follow Him in loving the church, too. In spite of past hurts, in spite of the weaknesses and faults that abound in our midst, we are to love the church. I do not mean the building--although that’s important--I mean each other--anyone and everyone who calls upon the Lord. That’s the church. Some pastors appear to have a love/hate relationship to the church--hate is a little strong for me, but I do resonate with some ambivalence. Why is it that some of our best friendships seem to be with those who are outside the faith? I am sure you are familiar with the story of Jonah. It’s grouped with the prophets, but along with Isaiah, the book of Jonah is about a successful preacher. Jonah is a successful preacher who is not quite so successful as a pastor. Consider his congregation: the Ninevites. Jonah hates his assignment to this congregation so much that he books passage to Tarshish--across the ocean in the opposite direction. Now this preacher man ministers profoundly to the sailors on board the ship where he has booked his passage of disobedience. In spite of his personal/pastoral disorder, they turn to and worship the one true God. This is, by the way, an enormous pastoral success! It is also reassuring for the folk like you to know that God can use whoever is in leadership for good regardless of their inadequacies. (I don’t put that out as an excuse for poor behavior--but as a reminder that God loves His church so much that He will not allow even a bad pastor to mess things up totally.) When Jonah gets about being obedient and hikes his way across the desert to Nineveh, he is angry, vindictive--he openly hates his congregation. Now this is a terrible thing. Jonah sees his parish as a most contemptible place, he loathes it. But this is wrong. It is wrong because he betrays the spirit of God with his personal issues, his anger. God wants to extend mercy to the hapless folk in Nineveh, Jonah wants them destroyed. He has no love for his church. Led by his racial prejudice, his historical bias, this unhappy little man pouts about the enormous multitude that has just become God’s people! However, he has in effect become irrelevant. His message of repent or else has done its work. And now he even resents his congregation’s new found hope and health. They choose to turn to God, they take things into their own hands--the poor people just can’t win! Conclusion: Jonah’s a mess. We really need to pray for pastors like that. Pray for me, I think I’m like that sometimes--not that I mean to be, but even pastors can get wrapped around the axle. Or, as my mother used to say, all unspoiled. Love the church, pray for the church, dream for her success and work towards her blessing. We will experience turmoil and difficulty in our life together--it’s normal, not abnormal--even if no one wants to talk about it. But love will get us through: 1 John 4:7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Amen.