I Thessalonians 2
David A. Davis
October 29, 2017
Today is Reformation Sunday. The Sunday closest to Reformation Day, October 31. Tradition has it that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. 500 years ago this week. There has never been a shortage of Luther material to read; both his own prolific work and from historians, theologians, psychologists, and biographers. Some will have noticed that this anniversary has generated quite a bit of new material as well. But when the New Yorker runs an essay on Martin Luther and the Reformation, we can now celebrate that Luther after 500 years, has now apparently “made it”, he is officially ‘in”, and maybe a bit “hip”. It is an interesting read as the critic draws on several of the new works inspired by the occasion, offers a sort of refreshing non-theological perspective, and uses some striking contemporary language. For instance. “the Reformation wasn’t led, exactly, it just spread, metastasized” and “guided by [his] convictions, and fired by his new certainty of God’s love for him, Luther became radicalized.”
Readers of this week’s issue of the New Yorker will most likely come away with the sense that Martin Luther was a product of the hard life of the 16th century. He was a man of argument and disputation. His use of language when arguing and talking about others could be robust at best, profane at worst. He had no trouble writing about various bodily functions. He wrestled with more than his own share of demons. He was, according to the author “ordinarily an enthusiastic self-dramatizer.” The title of the essay is “The Hammer.” The double meaning clearly intended; his tool of posting, him being something of a tool. Now, of course, scholars and students and Lutherans and plenty of you here this morning will have a wide range of thoughts, opinions, and responses to Luther, the New Yorker, the Reformation, and all of it. But allow me to dare to go out on limb here. I don’t imagine many would argue that Luther was gentle when it came to his calling, his work, his efforts, his arguments, his pamphlets, his writing, his posting: Bam! Bam! Bam!
To be fair, I’m not sure many have ever accused or congratulated the Apostle Paul for being gentle; except Paul himself. But when it comes to Paul’s defense of his ministry to the church of Thessalonica, in the verses offered for your hearing, Paul cites courage in declaring the gospel of God in spite of great opposition, and points out there was never any impure motives, or trickery, or greed involved with the rhetoric, the proclamation, the ministry shared among them by he, and Silvanus, and Timothy. And they were not there in Thessalonica looking for praise. Rather, as Paul puts it, “We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves.” And Paul again at v.12 “We dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into God’s own kingdom and glory.” They were, according to Paul, “approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel” and to share it, proclaim it, live it, witness to it…gently.
As we continue to move through I Thessalonians in the coming weeks we will read of the congregation’s fears and concerns about death and resurrection and distress and persecution and Jesus coming again. Eric Barreto, professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary and a part of our community here at Nassau, shared with me this week his new commentary on I Thessalonians. Dr. Barreto posits that this epistle from Paul to the Thessalonians, is one of exhortation and encouragement. As he writes, “The letter then, is not corrective in the same way as, say Galatians, or instructive as say, Romans, or as personal, as say Philemon. Instead it is a letter of exhortation, a letter to confirm and re-affirm the identity of a community in times of sorrow and concern.” That’s how Professor Barreto puts it. And the exhortation, the encouragement, the confirmation of the community’s identity comes in the nature, the quality, the standards, the authenticity, the nurture, the gentleness of their relationships, of their life together. “Before I get to your concerns and the reason for my letter, and your questions, before all of that” Paul seems to be saying, “let’s remember who we are together in light of the gospel of God entrusted to us.”
The gospel of God entrusted to us. Consensus among scholars is that I Thessalonians is Paul’s first epistle, and therefore, most likely the earliest of writings in the New Testament. So the gospel of God for Paul, couldn’t be the gospels as in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The gospel of God, to Paul it seems, would be the life, the teaching, the death, and the resurrection of Christ. As Paul would later write to the Corinthians: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received; that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve, Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, but some died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (I Cor 15:3ff) The gospel of God takes it shape beyond the words that form the canon of scripture. It is the arc of salvation history that wraps from the Covenant to the Law to the prophets and it bends toward its culmination in the death and resurrection of Christ. But it also includes lives and hearts transformed by God’s message, God’s spirit, God’s hope, and the lives and hearts just of those transformed like Paul himself. As Paul writes just a bit further here in chapter 2 of Thessalonians, ‘God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.” (2:13)
The gospel of God entrusted to us. It defines who we are. It shapes who we are. We are called to share it, proclaim it, live it, witness to it…gently. The first move, the first step, before texts, and before doctrine, and before institution, and before interpretation, and before application, and before discernment, and even before trying to make sense of all that swirls around us in our lives and in our world today, “let’s remember who we are together in light of the gospel of God entrusted to us.” We are called to be the body of Christ as gentle and nurturing as a nurse tenderly caring for her own children, as urging and encouraging as a father with his own children, yearning for all of us to lead a life worth of God who calls us into God’s own kingdom. The gospel entrusted to us…. gently.
It’s not difficult to find congregations, churches, faith communities that offer an advanced degree in judgment and finger pointing and shame and threats of heal and moral superiority and doctrinal purity. You and I could easily name congregations we know that elevated not getting along with each other to art form and destroyed any vision of the church being a place of peace and fellowship and love and care in their children’s imagination for generations to come. And every generation and every season has preachers and leaders to add to the list that must go back to Paul’s time; the list of those with impure motives, those who offer words of flattery and promise of prosperity, serving their own greed and seeking praise and for themselves; and pastors and leaders who have walked down that dark sinful path of sexual misconduct or abuse. But what about congregations, churches, faith communities, pastors, preachers, leaders, teachers, and theologians who major in gentleness because, in the name of , and for the sake of the gospel of God?
More than twenty years ago Anna Carter Florence, who teaches preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, published a sermon with the best and most memorable first few lines of any sermon I can remember. “You can tell a lot about a society by looking at its children”, she preached. “Children are more than wet cement; they are spokespeople for our values, our choices, our circumstances, our life-styles.” One of the most dream shattering realities for me of the current and ongoing episodes of racially tinged hatred and bigotry is that I fooled myself into thinking my children’s generation was going to be better at such things. Pictures of the youthful faces pretty much every weekend in the news and stories just this week from a few high schools here in New Jersey have corrected by own misguided delusion. “You can tell a lot about a society by looking at its children.” But you and I, we dare not look too far. For you can also tell a lot about the church by how she nurtures her children in the gentleness of the gospel, and tells her children about Jesus’ love, and how she urges them, encourages them, pleads with them to lead a life worthy of the God who calls them into God’s own kingdom and glory.
That New Yorker essay has the most remarkable testament to the impact of Martin Luther’s gentleness. I’m not coming off the limb. I’m guessing he was not all that gentle. But the author of that essay entitled “The Hammer”, points the reader to the remarkable impact of Luther’s translations of both the New and the Old Testament; translation in the German language. The argument is that in the early 16th century a third of all books published in German were written by Luther, that Luther basically created the vernacular of the country in his day. Nothing did that more, than his translation of the Bible. You will remember that essential Reformation affirmations of the bible in the language of the people and the priesthood of all believers and that lay people had as much access and privilege to determine what scripture said and meant as the clergy. The article quotes Luther on his desire and the method in his attempt to foster a new vocabulary for the bible. “We must ask the mother in the home, the children on the street” he wrote. His translations, his efforts, the printing press, the bible in the home to be read and shared with children, to serve as a primer for reading; all of it motivated by his wanting to share the gospel of God in the most nurturing of ways, the most accessible of ways, the most gentle of ways. The writer in the New Yorker suggests that if Luther hadn’t “created Protestantism, this book (this bible translation) would be the culminating achievement of Luther’s life.” But between us, it probably was the book. The greatest achievement of Luther the bible professor. Entrusting the gospel of God to the priesthood of believers. Entrusting the gospel of God…. gently.
What about a congregation that has a few pastors, and a handful of retired clergy, some theologians, and historians, and teachers, and doctors, and bankers, and administrators and fundraisers and non-profit leaders and business folks, and laborers and small business owners and shop keepers and great grandparents, and grandparents, and parents, and children, and babies and graduate students, and undergrads, and high school and junior high and elementary and pre-school students, a church full of believers, and doubters, and cynics, and questioners….a church of some teaching elders, ruling elders, deacons, really long time members and really new members, a congregation of the priesthood of all believers…what about that congregation that yearns for, prays for, commits to, who wants to major in gentleness because of, in the name of, and for the sake of the gospel of God?
You and me, let’s just try it!!
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