The text for this week’s sermon is I Thessalonians 2:1-8.
Back when I was in high school and college, the churches I went to made a particularly big deal about certain little things that weren’t such a big deal to other people. These churches were really concerned about what Christians were wearing, what they were drinking, the places where they would hang out, the people they were friends with, the TV shows and movies they were watching, and the music they were listening to. They spent a lot of time thinking and talking about this stuff because they figured that if Christians participated in any of these so-called “forbidden” activities, then people who saw them and weren’t Christians might somehow think less of Jesus (and therefore not want to become Christians themselves, thus condemning their souls to hell for all eternity… or so the argument goes). They called this process “protecting your witness.”
“Good Christians shouldn’t go out dancing,” they’d say, “because it might ruin your witness!”
Now, to their credit, there’s certain logic to this idea. Our actions, as Christians, certainly do reflect upon the God we claim to believe in. However, I think these churches focus on the wrong kinds of actions. When I talk to people who aren’t Christians and ask them why they’re not interested in Christianity, I’ve never once heard someone say, “Because I once saw a Christian dancing in a nightclub.” However, I’ve heard lots of people say, “I don’t want to be a Christian because most Christians I know are judgmental hypocrites and I don’t want to be like them.”
Sometimes, these folks will point to the headline-making scandals involving high-profile Christians. One favorite example that people mention is the infamous PTL scandal from the mid-1980s involving Jim and Tammy-Faye Bakker. For those who might not remember the story, Jim and Tammy-Faye built a huge faith-based media empire that combined evangelism with entertainment. They loudly proclaimed the power of the so-called “prosperity gospel”: that God would bless people with material wealth so long as they “planted seeds of faith” (which typically meant donating a certain sum of money to the organization in question).
After years of successful growth, the bottom fell out of Jim and Tammy-Faye’s empire when severe allegations of marital infidelity and financial malfeasance began rising to the surface. Jim Bakker went to prison for a number of years and the PTL organization went bankrupt. It’s stories like this that tend to put people off of Christianity in the long-term.
The Apostle Paul was aware of this kind of danger in his own day. In fact, people accused him of doing something very similar to Jim and Tammy-Faye Bakker. Paul’s apostolic ministry kept him on the road a lot, which was a bigger deal in those days than it is now. He came through the city of Thessalonica at one point and started some very meaningful relationships there. As we heard in last week’s reading, the Thessalonian Christians became known for their deep and open-hearted spirituality. But the Spirit moved and needs were pressing in other churches, so Paul eventually had to say goodbye.
After his departure, things continued to go (mostly) well for the new Thessalonian church. Their faith was strong, but doubts eventually began to arise about Paul himself. Was he just some fly-by-night preacher? Did he just blow out of town as soon as he had their money in the collection plate?
Word of these rumors reached Paul himself and he decided it was important enough to respond with this letter. He wasn’t just concerned about defending his own reputation. Paul knew that the life he lived would reflect upon the faith he preached. So he wanted to make darn sure that people were left with the right impression.
Paul wrote to the Thessalonians saying, “you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.” The others he mentioned were Silvanus (a.k.a. Silas) and Timothy, his associates in the mission field. Paul drew the Thessalonians’ attention, not just to the content of the message, but to the character of the messengers. He goes into detail, saying “our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery”. He continues, “As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed”. We’ll have to forgive Paul for tooting his own horn here, but he seems that he had a pretty clear sense of what he was trying to do in his ministry. He appeals to the collective conscience of those who knew him personally and saw him in action. We know from other parts of the New Testament that Paul had a side-job making tents. He used this trade to support himself while he traveled and preached. This, by the way, is why some pastors (like me) who support themselves with jobs outside the church are called “tentmakers” to this day. My “tent” just happens to be my classroom at Utica College. It’s not always easy, but it helps to know that I’m following in the footsteps of those who have gone before me. In our case, tentmaking allows this church to have a regular pastor. In Paul’s case, tentmaking protected his credibility as a minister of the gospel. In fact, the only time we have any record of Paul taking up a collection anywhere is for the relief of famine victims in Judea.
As we already said, Paul knew that the life he lived would reflect upon the faith he preached. So, what kind of message about God did Paul’s lifestyle send? Paul writes, “we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. 8So 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, because you have become very dear to us.” The message that Paul was trying to send through his life was that God is gentle with us, “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” God gives life, love, care, affection, nourishment, guidance, and protection. Isn’t that what a nursing mother does? That’s the message about God that Paul wanted the Thessalonians to absorb.
More than that, Paul said, “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”. Isn’t that also a statement about God? God shared God’s own self with us in the person of Jesus Christ. The Incarnation, which we celebrate each Christmas, is the remembrance of the time when “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” To paraphrase the same idea in Paul’s words, “So deeply does God care for us that God is determined to share with us… God’s own self, because we are very dear to God.” Paul meant for his actions to be a reflection of God’s love for all people.
There can be no doubt that the lives we live reflect upon the faith we profess. Regardless of the words we use, we should pay attention to the messages our actions send to others about God. Churches like the ones I used to go to send the message that God is demanding, uptight, and watching your every move to make sure you don’t have any fun. People like Jim and Tammy-Faye Bakker reinforced the idea that God is judgmental and hypocritical. Isn’t there a better message for Christians to send about God? I think there is.
Does anyone remember that Jim and Tammy-Faye Bakker had a son named Jamie? He was still very young when scandal brought the PTL organization down. Whatever happened to him? Well, you probably wouldn’t recognize him today. He goes by “Jay” now. He looks nothing like the clean-cut little boy in a sweater-vest on his parents’ TV show. These days, he’s completely covered in tattoos and piercings. As it turns out, Jay has followed in his father’s footsteps as a minister, but of a very different kind than his dad. Jay Bakker is the pastor of an unconventional church in New York City called ‘Revolution’. It meets in a bar and attracts all kinds of misfits who would never feel comfortable in a more conventional church. The Sundance Channel did a documentary on Jay’s life in 2006 called One Punk, Under God. It’s worth watching, if you get the chance.
What kind of message do you think people absorb about God from Jay Bakker’s life? I imagine they see God as unconventional, creative, and inclusive. I think they see God as someone who will travel outside the bounds of traditional religion in order to bring good news to outcasts and misfits. Doesn’t that sound like a God worth believing in?
When people look at your life, what kinds of conclusions do they draw about God? How does the life you live reflect upon the faith you profess? Through your actions, do people see God as uptight and hypocritical? Or do they see God as creative and nurturing? What do you think people see? What do you want them to see?
May God bless us all and continually guide our lives to be more and more like Jesus, whose life perfectly reflected the love of God in every way.