Becoming the People of God 2: Called to Be the Church
October 23, 2011
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Last week, today and the next three Sundays we are examining five contrasting statements. One each week. Trying to understand how these pairs of statements differ will help us be clearer about the nature of God, who God has created us to become, and what difference that is to make in our lives. These will be simply provocative sketches, not full answers. I hope that you will give further thought to the topics we will consider and I invite you to ask questions and probe further as the weeks go on.
As I said last week: Some of you feel like theological sermons go over your head. But even so, your job is to reach up and try to catch it. You might not catch every all of it, but if you try, you are likely to catch at least some of it. So I again invite you to reach up this morning instead of giving up.
Again, as I said last week: If we do not intentionally try to understand who God is and how God is calling us, we will either head off in a direction away from God – or simply wander around in a fog of confusion being drawn this way and that by whatever calls loudest to us on any particular day. The people of God are NOT to wander around in a fog. We don’t have to. We can exercise our minds and understand. Theology is simply our faith seeking understanding.
If you have been coming to Fairport UMC for some time, you know that we usually use the Affirmation of Faith which was written for the United Church of Canada. It directs and instructs us in our journey together. Week by week it reminds us of the faith we share.
There is a scene near the beginning of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia story, The Silver Chair. Aslan, the great lion, who is the figure of Christ in the Narnia series, is giving instructions for a task that will belong to Jill Pole, who is about to be blown into Narnia. In order to help her fulfill her quest, Aslan tells her four signs that she must remember.
"I will tell you, Child," said the Lion. "These are the Signs by which I will guide you in your quest. First; as soon as the Boy Eustace sets foot in Narnia, he will meet an old and dear friend.
Then Aslan goes on to tell her three more signs.
After he had finished telling her the signs Jill said,
"Thank you very much. I see."
"Child," said Asian, in a gentler voice than he had yet used, "perhaps you do not see quite as well as you think. But the first step is to remember. Repeat to me, in order, the four Signs."
Jill tried, and didn't get them quite right. So the Lion corrected her and made her repeat them again and again till she could say them perfectly. He was very patient over this.
And as Aslan prepares to use his breath to blow her into Narnia he tells her,
"Stand still. In a moment I will blow. But, first, remember, remember, remember the Signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing tum your mind from following the Signs.
And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the Signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there.
That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the Signs and believe the Signs. Nothing else matters.
And now, Daughter of Eve, farewell.
The affirmation we say together week by week contains the basic signs by which we become the people of God. We do not become God’s people by accident. We become God’s people as we remember and attend to God’s call on our lives. Our affirmation of faith is one of the Signs that instruct us on our mission.
We are looking at it more closely and seeing how it contrasts with an alternative set of beliefs that have come to be known as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). This set of beliefs was constructed by researchers after a very large study examining what adolescents believed. They were able to piece together that the youth they interviewed had a fairly consistent theology that stretched across Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and other faith traditions. They also determined that they got this theology from their churches and their parents. The problem for the Church is that this theology is decidedly NOT Christian.
The Scripture texts for this series of sermons are the assigned readings from St. Paul’s letters to the Christians in Thessalonica.
Paul goes there because there is a particular message that needs to be transmitted. The Gospel – the Good News – calls us to a particular message, a particular way of life that we don’t get to know unless we particularly pay attention to it. As St. Paul says to the Thessalonians from our reading this morning:
As we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. (1 Thessalonians 2:4)
Paul has visited them and instructed them and now writes to them to keep them on track. He knows that they need to be taught, reminded, and corrected and guided to remain on the path to which God has called them.
We also need to be taught, reminded, and corrected so that we do not forget or become confused about how God continues to call us to become disciples/student followers of Jesus Christ.
Last week we contrasted the first tenet with the statement about creation from our Affirmation of Faith.
A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
True in some sense. But we affirm something much more robust, engaging, and energizing:
We believe in God: who has created and is creating, who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new.…
That is, in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, God’s purpose was to
reconcile and make new: Transformation of us and our relationships.
Not to judge and condemn us, but to renew us into a different way of life based on justice, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness.
God is not at a distance simply watching over. God is continually, always and everywhere creating and refreshing not only the world around us, but us. Refreshing us to be God’s people, student followers of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
This morning we contrast the second precept of MTD:
· God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
A word about this: Here again, it’s hard to just dismiss this as ridiculous. It has some truth to it as far as it goes. It is certainly a better rule of thumb than say, "Don't get mad. Get even!"
In fact, congenial life together could not exist without at least some semblance of the kind of fair cooperation that this precept envisions. We have various “social levers” to bring this about. Advice columns, etiquette, laws, court system, prisons that attempt to keep this minimal standard as a lowest common denominator. People don’t always behave this way, but it is a pretty uncontroversial standard.
We criticize people who don’t at least make an effort to be good, nice and fair. Or feel apologetic when they fail.
But again, this is a fairly minimal standard.
Now contrast this with how we affirm God calls us:
We are called to be the Church: to celebrate God’s presence, to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil, to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen. This is energizing and engaging! Not wimpy.
Called to be the Church:
· Called out assembly of God. We have been intentionally gathered by God. We are called to be God’s people, to be a sign, a living message showing God’s love and grace. We are not nobodies, we are chosen and blessed to be about God’s business in this world.
· This is true both for the international totality of the called out and the individual local gatherings here and elsewhere of those who are becoming God’s people.
· So this is important stuff.
Celebrate God’s presence:
· We worship. This is our central activity. This centers us and orients us to God.
· Refer back to last week. This is a miracle feast world
· We are living in a world that calls us to celebration because we come more and more to appreciate that God’s goodness is all around us.
· This is a matter of faith and confidence that God is at work in the world. We are called to adopt the positive attitude that God is at work. See through what troubles us with hope.
Love and serve others:
· To love and serve others is in stark contrast with “be good and nice and fair.”
· It means proactive attention to others. It means putting ourselves out for others. It means sometimes inconveniencing ourselves for the sake of others.
· To love others means that we will want their good and work for their good, even if it costs us something.
· Now, how we balance this with also needing to responsibly care for ourselves and those we have a particular responsibility for (like our own family) requires wisdom and counsel. It’s not always obvious, but to live as Christ has called us – to live as the people of God – goes far beyond simple good, nice and fair.
· We are intentionally living so as to be creating that kin(g)dom of God among us and pouring out into our neighborhood and our world.
Seek justice and resist evil:
· This is another case of God calling us to be proactive: Sticking our nose in
· Understanding that there is a problem that the strong may be dominating the weak and God’s people are about seeing that doesn’t happen. Whether through our own action, or working for social and political structures to keep those who are being treated unfairly will receive justice.
· Social holiness as well as personal. It means working to rid the world of social evil as well as personal evil.
· It may not always be easy to identify social justice and social evil, but we are called as the church to try to understand and act so as to seek justice and resist evil.
Proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen
· There is some clarity about who we have been called to follow. Jesus is our model. His teaching and his life are the central images to which we look as we understand how we are to live. As we said last time, Jesus is the Word made flesh – God living among us.
· Realistic about what can happen when we seek justice and resist evil. We do not ignore the fact that when God came to live among us, we turned against God and crucified Jesus.
· But at the same time we are confident about how the story turns out. We know that God’s grace and God’s power were and are finally victorious. We can live out our call with courage.
If we are to become the people of God we have to take notice and remember the signs of the people of God. It is one thing to hear them in church. It is another thing in the stresses and strains of our daily lives. As Aslan told Jill, we must keep our calling to live as God’s people before our hearts and minds in every moment, so that our calling to be the Church will not be in vain.
St. Paul says:
You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain (1 Thessalonians 2:1).
Gospel means a particular way of living. The people of Thessalonica caught on. Or were caught up. But in any case, they opened themselves up to become the people of God. The call of God on their lives was not in vain.
More next week. Stay tuned!