Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 29, 2017
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 Commentary
Was there ever a time in the history of the church when some did not accuse Christians and pastors of bad motives? Was there always the sneaking suspicion on the part of some that preachers are just slick hucksters, charlatans who use smooth talking and seductive rhetoric as a way to line their own pockets? Apparently it has always been so. As was noted in the previous sermon commentary article on 1 Thessalonians, if this is the very first of Paul’s epistles, then we can see that the need to fend off accusations of manipulation and greed goes back to the very beginning and to the earliest days of the church.
We are always reading someone else’s mail when we delve into the epistles in the New Testament. As such, we have to infer a lot of things, read between a lot of lines because we have only one-half of a larger correspondence and our knowledge of the things that get alluded to and referred to is not first hand as would be the case had these letters really been written specifically to us. The Thessalonians knew why Paul was saying what he did in ways we can but dimly guess at.
Still, it’s pretty obvious what is behind Paul’s rhetoric here. He’s been dismissed by some as nothing but a smooth talker who used his rhetorical skills for personal gain. This whole “Jesus thing” was just a pretext for fraud. Promises of a better life in some far-off kingdom by and by was just a way to swindle little old ladies out of their pension money. Invest in heaven today by giving me your money and it will pay sweet dividends in the hereafter. Trust me. You’ll see . . .
Of course, addressing this would be a whole lot easier were it not for all those preachers—past and present and broadcasting on television to this day—who were guilty of exactly this kind of chicanery. From gluttonous friars and monks on the Canterbury trails to Elmer Gantry and so many other self-promoting, dishonest, women-seducing preachers on the sawdust revival trail to the Jim Bakkers and Joel Osteens of today who promise “your best life now” even as their own lives are clearly doing very nicely on the economic front thank you very much . . . well, we cannot pretend the things of which Paul was accused already way back in Thessalonica never existed. They have. They do.
But not usually and certainly not always and most certainly not with Paul. Here in 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul takes pain to point out that as a matter of fact, he is not that smooth of a talker to begin with. His rhetoric was not only not slick, it even made no sense by worldly standards. The Gospel paradoxically points to a cross of all things as the source of hope. And far from being a message that was readily accepted by people, Paul’s words led to his “worst life now” as the Gospel was resisted, rejected, scorned. And the Gospel’s spokespersons got beat up, humiliated, jailed sometimes. If Paul was in this just for himself, then explain all those scars on his face, those scourge scars that made Paul’s back resemble ten miles of bad road. People who are in it for themselves don’t get their nose broken a half-dozen times, don’t get a tooth knocked out now and then. Nothing but God’s own truth compelled Paul and others to preach what they did. “You think we are trying to please people and curry favor with the authorities? If we were, we would be saying very, very different things than what in fact we do preach!”
What’s more, Paul and his colleagues did honest work with their hands when they stayed in cities like Thessalonica. Far from being money grubbers and far from wanting to appear to leach off the goodness of others, Paul worked hard to earn his own keep. Yes, as apostles called by God, they could have asked for help, for a little extra. They would have claimed it was worth everyone else’s time and money to let them devote themselves full time to Gospel ministry, to Bible study, to sermon preparation. But no, to keep things honest and above board, the apostles took Jesus’ advice and became the servant of others. They earned their own pay and pitched in to demonstrate they did not expect to be coddled or catered to like some VIP in the midst of the city.
As elsewhere in the Pauline corpus—though most notably in 2 Corinthians—Paul works overtime to put daylight between himself and any charges of his being a flatterer, a people pleaser, a leach, a money grubber, a charlatan. And the reason is clear: Paul wants people to know that he genuinely loves them. It is all about Christ-like love. That is the heartbeat of the Gospel, of course, but since you cannot truly love people whom you are manipulating for personal gain, these charges against Paul cut him to the quick. Paul was perfectly willing to be chalked up as a fool, a weirdo for Jesus, a lunatic, a freak. Criticize his character all you wanted if the reason was simply because the Gospel is such an other-worldly, upside-down, foolish-looking message. As Frederick Buechner once put it, you can sum up the trajectory of Paul’s life as simply “Paul set out to be a hatchet man for the Pharisees and returned a fool for Christ.”
But what Paul could not cotton to was any notion that he did not love the people in the congregations he helped to establish. Because that then would gut Paul of his core identity as someone who lived “in Christ.” That endangered Paul’s ability to be transparent to the Jesus whose grace blew away Paul’s lifetime of religious striving and whose ability to love Paul despite his horrid track record as a persecutor of the church changed Paul forever. You could say all kinds of things about Paul and he would not bat an eye. But suggest that it was all a deceptive ruse as Paul preyed on the innocent and the naïve for personal gain and . . . well, Paul could not let that stand for two seconds. The love of God is too important. Jesus is too important.
No doubt it remains a challenge for all of us preachers today—and perhaps for all Christians just generally—to remember that whatever else people think of us or of the Gospel, above all we must be known for our love. Above all we must want to let the love of Jesus exude from us at all times and toward all people with such obvious fervor that no one can miss it. What’s more, that has to matter more to us than anything else: our reputation, our status in society, our intellect, our looks, our bank accounts. The question we have to face is whether that is so. Or do we find ourselves getting more upset about a bevy of other slights than we do about whether or not people can feel Christ’s love coming through us? Do the people to whom and with whom we minister know clear as day that we love them—that we love each other—because this cuts so very close to the heart of what it means to follow Jesus in the first place?
For Paul, little if anything else was more important. His example remains both lyric and daunting to this very day.
From Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who by Frederick Buechner, Harper & Row, 1979, pp. 129-30.
“’Those boys in Damascus,’ Jesus said [to Saul on the Damascus Road], ‘Don’t fight them, join them. I want you on my side’ and Paul never forgot the sheer lunatic joy and astonishment of that moment . . . He was never the same again and neither, in a way, was the world. Everything he ever said or wrote or did from that day forward was an attempt to bowl over the human race as he’d been bowled over himself while he lay there with dust in his mouth and road apples down the front of his shirt. Don’t fight them, join them. He wants you on his side. YOU, of all people. ME. Who in the world, who in the solar system, the galaxy, could ever have expected it? He knew it was a wild and crazy business—‘the folly of what we preach’ he said—but he preached it anyway. ‘A fool for Christ’s sake’ he called himself as well as weak in bodily presence, but he knew that ‘the folly of God was wiser than the wisdom of men and the weakness of God was stronger than men.’ There were times he go so carried away that his language went all out of whack. Infinitives split like atoms, syntax exploded, participles were left dangling. ‘By grace you have been saved,’ he wrote to the Ephesians, and grace was his key word.”
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