2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
“The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts,” as we read in Haggai. Wow, I could go to town on that in this Stewardship season, couldn’t I? But just like I refused to exploit last week’s “Sell all you have and give to the poor,”, so I am going to pass by the Haggai reading and instead look at this weird lectionary passage in Second Thessalonians. I hope you appreciate that we are doing stewardship differently, avoiding the clichés and the guilt trips—but maybe, at the same time, raising the stakes.
Paul here is dealing with the Second Coming, the return of Jesus Christ to judge the world. A few lines prior to our reading, he refers to the coming time “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” This is apocalyptic language, and I like that our lectionary around Advent revisits the often wild and disturbing stuff of apocalyptic in the Bible. We rightly recoil at the glorifying of vengeance and battle; but it’s easy for us to be of a more peaceful mindset, because we aren’t facing persecution like Paul and the Thessalonians were. Apocalyptic language about a dramatic end of the world, as I’ve said before, suffuses the whole New Testament. We can’t avoid it. But we have to interpret it so that we don’t end up falling into the popular and very bad uses of apocalyptic—the stuff of the Left Behind novels, which revel in a fantasy of portraying non-Christians in the worst possible light, and then gleefully watching judgment come on them. Shame on those who hock such stuff.
Indeed, the influence of biblical apocalyptic on our culture has been mildly harmful at best to disastrous at worst. In the 19th century, mainline protestants like our forebearers imagined the kingdom of God coming with the advances in so-called civilization being brought to the world by white Europeans and Americans. Nowadays most of us see a lot of racism mixed in with this optimism, and we continue to witness spasms throughout the world stemming from the colonialism of that era; and of course things no longer look so rosy for European and American civilization. I don’t think anyone today is deceived, as Paul worries, that the Day of the Lord is almost here—as if we’ve almost made it! We seem further away from God’s kingdom than ever.
Today, instead, the pessimism of apocalyptic is setting in again. People willfully exaggerate how bad things are, and getting worse all the time. The lack of evidence behind such claims suggests that apocalyptic ideas are behind their thinking. People gleefully go along with cryptic conspiracy theories about how our world is dominated by secret, evil alliances; and only a violent, manly battle against some shadowy, dehumanized opponent can deliver us. Some are stockpiling guns for that battle, one that will apparently be much more literal than what is described in the Bible. The distorted traces of apocalyptic are there, but clearly someone forgot about Jesus on the cross, choosing loving witness as a way to save us, over bitter violence.
So apocalyptic can go very wrong. Happily, Paul in this passage is trying to tamp down the Thessalonians’ apocalyptic excitement about the second coming. It seems that some in that community got the idea in their head that “the day of the Lord is already here,” as he says. Don’t be fooled, Paul says, “That day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed,” who “exalts himself” and “takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.” Whatever his coded and cryptic language precisely refers to, the gist is clear: Jesus won’t return until the power of evil is fully manifest. Paul says in effect, the end will come with a big showdown. Nonetheless, he seems to have believed that the second coming and end of the world was going to happen soon. If so, he was wrong; and indeed maybe the whole worldview of apocalyptic needs to be reinterpreted with a firm hand.
Now, I don’t want to carry out this reinterpretation right now; I’ll probably do more of that during Advent. But for us today, let’s take away this lesson from apocalyptic: the presence and power of Christ becomes all the stronger in the presence of what is opposed to the way of Christ. So we should attend to even small manifestations of genuine evil and sin in ourselves and our world with confidence and even joy, because that is where the justice of Christ will stand out with clarity and power. We can catch little glimpses of the dramatic coming of Christ’s Kingdom, here and now.
But recall that Paul is saying that the Big End is not here yet, so calm down. We can’t yet pretend that the line between good and evil is universally clear, and it’s time for battle. For a long time now we have been living in a world full of ambiguity, and we are a part of that world and its ambiguity: our faith and our righteousness are unsteady, we cannot count ourselves among the righteous and pure arrayed against Satan’s minions.
But even amid this ambiguity, there is plenty to celebrate and be thankful for. Paul gives thanks for what is already happening right now, in the church: “Because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth.” We will hear more in the coming weeks about the “first fruits.” In ancient Israel, everyone brought the first fruits of the harvest, whether grain or grape or animal, to the temple as a gift to God. But Paul is turning this image all topsy-turvey. Now we are God’s first fruits. God is the farmer, and he has chosen us as the pick of the crop of salvation. And instead of juicing the first-fruit grapes or roasting the first-fruit lamb, God is sanctifying us by the Spirit—transforming us into something pleasing to God. So Paul still looks forward to the Great Harvest, when the whole world will be judged by the return of Christ and salvation will be complete, but for now, God is harvesting just us.
We are saved through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in truth, he says. That in itself doesn’t tell us very much. It does suggest that there are two sides to our new life in Christ: the sanctification by the Spirit is more transformative and active: we are being changed by God’s Spirit and set to work. The other, belief in truth, is more receptive: we receive God’s Word and believe in God’s truth, lodge ourselves in it. In other words, we actively carry God’s truth and love out with us wherever we go, but we also gather here to quietly imbibe God’s truth and love, here in worship.
But still, Paul does not explain what this truth and love is. Fortunately, he refers his readers to “the traditions you were taught by us.” If we go back to Paul’s greeting and thanksgiving in chapter 1, we get a sense of Paul’s fuller message: “We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and afflictions….” Again, we see belief in truth and sanctification in the Spirit: your faith is growing, and your love is increasing. He is not picky here about what exactly they are believing. But the love side is clear: “The love of everyone of you for one another is increasing.” That’s the primary way that you know faith is happening here.
And that is our focus today. Next week we’ll talk about missions beyond our church community; but Paul’s fledgling churches weren’t ready for that. He is best at helping us see what it means for a church to have faith and be sanctified in love.
So today I’ve asked the Deacons and the Board of Christian Education to talk briefly about what they do now and what more they could be doing to create a vibrant communion of love and support here in this church community. But remember that all this is also mission. Mission is certainly helping others out there, but just being a community of faith and love is a mighty act in God’s name that glorifies God and should make us proud—if we are indeed being such a community.
On this eve of a terribly divisive election, where a common love between red and blue America seems to be utterly extinguished, and where no one knows how and where to find truth—at such a time as this, I should not need to explain why it is so utterly vital that we become the church Paul was talking about way back then. There are forces at work in the world that, a little like Paul’s “lawless one,” benefit from the opposite of love and truth. I wrote about this on my blog recently: the big, national media outlets and our two-party system both benefit from the obsessive attention we pay to this presidential race. The media want you to tune in—the Donald Trump phenomenon has created huge profits for CNN and Fox and the like; because love him or hate him, you can’t turn away. And the political parties encourage us to see everything hinging on their success; they seek more and more of our trust and commitment, and they promise deliverance to us, but only by vanquishing the other party.
So here we are, ready to see everything at stake in this election. And what can we do to participate? We can cast one vote. Does that make you feel empowered? Don’t you instead feel like the world is about to end, and all I can do is cast a tiny, single vote that certainly won’t change the outcome (we all know Massachusetts will go blue)? Isn’t that what is so disturbing and dissatisfying about this election? The great powers are telling us, “The fate of everything rests on this election,” but “Oh, by the way, your individual action means nothing except for the unlikely case of an extremely close vote in a swing state, or, of course, if you happen to be a big-money donor.” I hope we are paying attention to the significant ballot initiatives in Massachusetts, because they have been eclipsed by the media attention on the Presidency. I made my case in the Spire this month: we need to express our faith in political action, but centered on our local community, where questions of policy take on a humane scale, and we remember that real people are involved.
This election should remind us of how important our church community is as a place where we belief in truth and are sanctified in love. Paul wisely sees that sanctification in love and belief in truth go together. The trend today seems to be in the opposite direction (not to sound too apocalyptic!). People are breaking into groups whose very identity comes out of opposition to another group. So there is love out there, but if you flip this love over, there is hate on the other side. This oppositional love is made manifest in the pitting of urbane blue America against rural Red America. It is even more heinously clear in the persistence if not growth of racism and xenophonia. That’s only the start of our factionalization. But you probably have already heard about how the internet is helping to split us apart. And as an article in Thursday’s New York Times reiterated, the breaking into fractions on the web feeds our regrettable tendency to only hear the part of the truth we already know or like. We are not being encouraged to willingly confess our own ignorance, our own partiality and bias, our own need for a fuller grasp on reality. Factionalism leads to willful ignorance; bad love leads to bad truth, and vice versa. And so we see myriad little groups with misinformed or just utterly fabricated takes on reality flourish online. They feel secure and good, because they’ve found like-minded folk to back them up, and then go trolling online to harass their enemies. What a very different and blessed reality it is to meet people here and submit together to the truth that is beyond all of us—for God is our judge—and with that faith in truth, grow together in love!
We need to be a community in which the fuel of love is not hatred and dehumanization, but the Spirit of God. We don’t love each other because we are so right and ‘they’ are so wrong. We love each other because God loves us despite our unworthiness, and so there is no one out there who isn’t worthy of our love. We understand how absolutely critical it is for us to be welcoming of all—not that we are doing that as well as we could. But the other dimension of God’s love that sets it apart from love gone wrong, love with hate as its fuel, is humility and being honest with self-criticism. A community that loves itself and only itself, and secretly or openly hates others, will never be self-critical. Instead, we hear nothing but self-celebration: ‘We are awesome! Just look at how cool and great we are. Go us! Everything we do is going so well.’ That’s what you’ll hear from political parties, businesses, sports teams, just about every group out there.
You might think I’m a bit cynical, but organizations that shout self-celebration leave me cold. I don’t hear God in self-celebration. I am never as sure that I am really hearing God’s words until God’s wisdom penetrates my vain defenses and says, “Come on, you should know better.” Sometimes I rightly feel holy pride as a righteous servant of God, but I’m never sure that that pride isn’t my own ego imitating God’s voice. But when I hear, “You can do better than that,” I know it’s God, not my ego.
There is a time to celebrate what we have done and continue to do here. But this season of dedication, of rededication to God, of revitalization, is the time to hear God telling us, “You can do better.” We are still so far from being the church God wants us to be. But we can yet be like the church at Thessalonica, of which Paul says: “Therefore we ourselves (Paul and his colleagues) boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.” We’re not enduring persecution, even if Granby no longer beats a path to our door; but the more the world turns against us, all the better can our steadfastness and faith shine. We can now more than ever be the community of spirit and truth, of genuine love for one another and humble, hungry questing for truth that, as no one can any longer deny, our world and our community so badly need. We can shine with Christ’s light all the more in the darkness, and be the church that Paul would boast about.