October 20, 2002
Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost

LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

[Underlined texts are links which  take you to sermons / meditations]


"Seven Characteristics of a Highly Effective Church"
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

There is a church that had an amazing impact on its community and region in spite of incredible odds. The church got its start during a three week period when one of the best known preachers and missionaries in the world came to town. His work was shoehorned between two other engagements of a much longer duration.

After three weeks of very powerful ministry, the preacher was forced out of town by a group of local dissidents who complained bitterly to city officials. "These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also," they grumbled to the city authorities.  These people were so enraged that his hosts had to led him and his assistant out of town under cover of darkness.

[Our world today could use some turning upside down!]

No one would give this church much of a chance to survive, much less have an impact on its world. Three weeks is hardly enough time to unpack a suitcase and even with a few committed people to keep things going, what are the odds that a handful of people brand new to the Christian faith could build a healthy church?

***

Actually, the church not only survived, it became a powerhouse of the earliest church. it is the church described in our epistle reading this morning. The city of Thessalonica was strategically located at the crossroads of East and West, North and South. It was one of the major sea ports in the world at the time of Paul's visit. The city was prosperous, a thriving metropolis. Even today, the modern city of Thessaloniki is the second largest city in modern Greece.

As well as being prosperous and cosmopolitan, Thessalonica was a religious mix with its citizens involved in a multitude of cults and worship of numerous deities. Most of the people who made up the early Thessalonian church had turned away from their worship of these deities. It is difficult for us to grasp today just how radical this response to the gospel of Christ was. Most people in Paul's world who worshiped the available gods simply added new deities to their repertoire when it suited them. It was no great thing to simply add another god to the list of those that appealed to their needs. It was kind of a religious form of, "The more, the merrier!"

When the believers in Thessalonica first heard the good news that Paul brought to them, they made a radical commitment of their lives to Christ and turned away from all other religious persuasions and practices.  Paul praised them with his words, "...you turned to God from idols..." They did not simply add Jesus Christ to their list of household gods. They completely turned away from one way of living and worshiping to another. And it cost them!

The people who hosted Paul and the fledgling community of faith were hauled into city hall to post bond for Paul and his entourage. The book of Acts does not tell us, but you have to think that the leaders of the church forfeited their bond since Paul and company left town at night.

Most of us have been raised in homes where Christianity was taken for granted or at least where there was no outward animosity toward Christian believers. We have, by and large not needed to turn away from idols.

And yet, I wonder. Unlike some pagan cultures, we don't add Christ to our lineup of household idols -- but is there a sense in which we have other things in our lives we could count as worship. Whenever Christ is simply one competing factor in the top priorities of our living, we may be close to idol worship. If everything we worship, or give ourselves to with deep commitment, was suddenly transformed into a physical statute of some kind -- would we discover a few idols in our lives?

The complete commitment of this new, unlikely group of Christians is the first clue to what it takes to be a powerhouse church. Having turned away from everything that had any spiritual/religious claim on their lives, they were available to the word and Spirit of God to become a vital and highly effective church at a strategic time. Paul's letter to this group is probably the earliest writing in the New Testament. His words are significant for leaders of the church in every age. "We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers constantly..."

This takes us to the very first characteristic of a highly effective church, namely:

A highly effective church has a leadership that is thankful for and continually prays on behalf of their church.

"We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly..."

There is a strong message here. The world we live in - just like the world the Thessalonians lived in - needs strong churches. Strong churches begin with leaders who give thanks for them and pray for them. They do not lead with criticism and complaint about their churches. What would it do to our religious landscape if church leaders, both clergy and lay, would lock step and make thanksgiving and prayer their first actions on behalf of the churches they serve?  What if criticism and negative talk about the church would suddenly be absent from her leaders?

An unchurched friend of mine said that he hears more negative talk about the church from church members than he does from non church people. Paul and his friends had the right idea. Prayer and thanksgiving do more to build up the church than criticism.

A highly effective church has a leadership that focuses on the strengths of the church.

"...constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ."

Paul commended the Thessalonians for their work and love and hopeful spirit in spite of difficult circumstances. Most of us could learn from the Apostle's approach of always lifting up the positive qualities of a church before he addressed their need for improvement. 

If ever a church needed some strong direction and serious discipline it was the church at Corinth. If you read carefully, this is a steamy church in a red light city. In spite of this, Paul begins with an affirmation of the strengths of the church:

"I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus,  for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind-- just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you-- so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ." [1 Corinthians 1:4-7]

A highly effective church is a community of faith characterized by faith, love and hope.

"...work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope..."

When Paul and his traveling companions prayed daily for the people of the Thessalonian church, they would hold up before God three central characteristics of faith, hope and love.

The main lesson here is that it is important to talk to God about those qualities you want to lift up and nourish in the lives of others. 

A highly effective church is a church where the preaching and teaching of the gospel are accompanied with power and conviction.

"...our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction..."

Some folks call this, "walking the talk."  When the good news of the gospel -- the word of God comes to us in a way Paul describes as, "...in power and in the Holy Spirit..." - the words become conviction in our hearts and action in our lives. The preaching and teaching ministry of the church is the center from which life is drawn and by which our actions are nurtured.

The critical issue here is that the family of faith - the local church - lives and grows by having its life ordered around worship and teaching. When the preaching, teaching ministry of the church is not a high priority there is a loss of  a sense of lively encounter with God in the life of the church.

A highly effective church is a church where there is a sense of joy in spite of obstacles and trials.

"...in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit..."

The sense of joy Paul speaks of here is more than jovial fellowship or happiness with the goodness of life. It goes beyond the surface to the fabric of the soul where the Spirit of God instills a deep sense of joy rooted in the strength of God's promises. The good news is that God is good, righteousness will prevail and nothing in life or in death can defeat the one who trusts in God.

It is this joy that attracts people to faith and nudges them towards the welcoming arms of Christ.

A highly effective church is a church that naturally becomes a model of faith for other congregations.

"...you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia."

It is no accident that congregations which reflect the characteristics we are examining today become teaching churches. Others come to visit and to learn what it is that makes successful churches tick. There have been hundreds of volumes published over the years that claim to point the way to success for the local church.

There is, however, no great secret or magic bullet that will make a church successful. Commitment to the simple principles Paul spells out in these few short verses are behind every successful ministry. (By successful, we do not simply means big budgets, large memberships and huge programs.)  Success is faithfulness to the good news and reflection of the character of Christ in our life together.

Finally, a highly effective church is a church that touches the world around it with the good news of Christ.

"...the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it."

What kinds of things do you hear about churches these days?

You've heard the saying, "Good news travels fast."  But there is a flip side to this coin. Bad news also travels fast. When a church has conflict or difficulty, the news gets around. Most of us can probably think of a church that is known for some kind of difficulty or conflict. It is tragic when the reputation of a church becomes a barrier to faith rather than a doorway to faith.

What a joy it was for Paul to be able to write to this church, "People are talking about you!"  And it was good talk.  "We don't even have to say anything about you," he writes, "Your faith is well known everywhere we go!"

***

The wonderful thing about these characteristics of a highly effective church is that they are not dependent upon the size of the church, the amount of the endowment, the scope of the budget or the complexity of its programs.

A highly effective church, in the Apostle Paul's terms, can be any church that gives itself fully to these simple characteristics. The integration and living out of these characteristics in our life together as a church may not be so simple - but the basic ingredients are no secret at all.

May God give us grace to grow in these characteristics and so touch our world with faith, love and hope! 


Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Texts

A question that could bind the texts together is, "Who knows the Lord?"  The religious officials in Matthew are working against the Lord, Isaiah and the Psalm call on people who are not God's people to acknowledge the Lord and Paul is celebrating the knowledge of God that has come to the Greeks.

In terms of knowing God, Matthew deals with people who should know God, but don't.  Isaiah addresses Cyrus the Persian who doesn't really know God, but is used by God.  Paul writes to those who have turned away from pagan worship because they have come to know the Lord. The Psalm is a celebration of the God who should be known in all the earth.   There is a strong sense in the texts of the One God who is sovereign over all peoples and all circumstances -- whether they know it or not.

The texts are connected only loosely, but if I were to stretch and do a meditation using all of these texts, I might ask people to look at their lives, their schedules, their priorities -- the sum total of what makes up their living and have them ask, "Where is God in all of this?"

You could apply that question to all of our texts and come up with:  The Pharisees and Herodians didn't have a clue.  Cyrus doesn't know he owes his success to God.  The Thessalonians know God and are acting on that knowledge.  The Psalm would make a great prayer to carry on our hearts as we ask the question of where God is in our living.

Matthew

The first thing that jumps out of this episode is the fact that Pharisees and Herodians team up to entrap Jesus.   These two groups had absolutely nothing in common and one of the unfortunate facts about human nature rears its head once again.  It is easy to unite people to be against something -- to gather around the negative.  Give folks a common enemy -- something to fight against.  Throughout history, genocide has documented the fact that people can be gathered together to hate with relative ease.

The media will cover a "protest" if it promises conflict.  Can you imagine the response if you were to do a press release announcing that there would be an "affirmation" -- the opposite of a protest.  People would be asked to get together to make a bit of noise, carry signs and join hands in singing -- as an "affirmation" say, of legislation that helped the homeless.  The Pharisees and Herodians who wouldn't give each other the time of day find themselves coming to Jesus arm in arm to back him into a corner.

The second thing that jumps out in this text is the utter hypocrisy of their approach to Jesus.  "Teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God..."  Now if Jesus teaches the way of God, why are they not advocates of Jesus instead of adversaries?   If you have ever been on the receiving end of this kind of behavior, you know the revulsion this stirs up inside.  The question they ask is one of those "no-win" questions.  No answer will work.  It close to the old quip about the district attorney who asks a defendant, "So -- tell the court with a 'YES' or 'NO'.  Have you stopped beating your wife?"

The heart of this passage is the question of what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God.  How shall we, as the Psalmist enjoins, give God the glory that is deserved?"

Isaiah

The prophet affirms that Cyrus the Persian is actually a servant of God.  Cyrus doesn't know it -- but his success has been for the sake of Israel.  There is a strong affirmation  of providence in these words.  Even though it is behind the scenes and even though Israel is a tiny, almost unnoticed on the world's stage at this time -- God is watching over her destiny.

Verses 5 & 6 are illustrative of the radical monotheism of the prophets.  Even though the people chased after other Gods and honoring the gods of one's allies was simply good manners, Israel was called to a strong, "no other gods before me..."   stand.

Though it might be in different circumstances and terms that we examine this issue of no other gods, it is a good self-examination.  What shape do the other gods take in our lives today?

1 Thessalonians

The readings from this epistle over the next few weeks connect with Matthew's portrayal of the days of Jesus' last week.   The parable in Matthew takes place about Tuesday of Passion week.  Everything begins to point to the end and Jesus will soon begin the eschatalogical discourse in Matthew 24.  Paul's first letter to the church at Thessalonica is the earliest bit of writing in the New Testament and is filled with fresh eschatalogical imagery.

There are several opportunities over these weeks to do some contrasts and correlations between Matthew and 1 Thess.  Consider today how it is that the religious officials who come to Jesus saying (deceitfully) -- "We know you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth..."  As opposed to the church at Thessalonica where they have, "...received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit."  Some oppose the word and wisdom of God with everything they have (including alliances with people they don't even like).  Others receive it with joy.  And this begs the question of his you and I are receiving the word and wisdom of God in our lives.  And your life.

Here's another contrast.   All of us have people in our lives we are mistrustful of.  Then there are people who add something to our lives.  Paul remembers the folk at Thessalonica with joy.  Jesus will not have another conversation with the people who came to him with feigned deference.  There are toxic people and there are nourishing people.   Some leave us drained and some leave us energized.  Paul writes to a group of people here who leave him energized.  If you are -- there's a sermon here.  I tried it two or three times.  The question behind the sermon is, "Are you the kind of person who brings joy to a pastor's heart?" 


Worship Helps

A Call To Worship  (Adapted from Psalm 96)

Leader:   O sing to the LORD a new song;
People:  Sing to the LORD, all the earth
Leader:   For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised;
People:  We honor our God above all things.
Leader:   Worship the LORD in holy splendor;
People:  Let our hearts be filled with awe.
Leader:   Let us rejoice and be glad in the coming of the Lord,
People:  For the judgments of God are right and true.
Leader:   Praise the Lord with songs of joy,
People:  Lift high the name of our God!

Prayer of Confession

Almighty God, who destroyed sin and death by the glorious resurrection of your Son, Jesus Christ, we confess that we have sinned and strayed far from your holy love. We have not loved you with the whole of our being and we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. In the light of your glorious presence we humbly bow before you and ask for your mercy and forgiveness through the redemption won for us in Jesus Christ. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

May the Lord have mercy upon us and forgive us all our sins through Jesus Christ our Lord and give us strength for all goodness by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

Prayer of Thanksgiving

O gracious God of power and might, we celebrate with joy the glorious resurrection of your son Jesus Christ and the victory of sin and death he has won. On this day of great celebration, we give thanks that with you there is forgiveness of sin and healing of our spirits. Your love and grace to us are beyond our ability to comprehend.   You love as no human being could ever love.  Your forgiveness even goes to the extent of forgetting our sin.  You give us a fresh new beginning with each morning and the promise of joy in our living day by day.

We praise you for those times you open our hearts to your grace, our eyes to the beauty of your creation and our ears to the gentle call of your voice within.  We pray today that you would give us an increase in our ability to see your presence all around us and a heart to embrace the peace you intend for our living.

Thank you O gracious God for calling us together in the Body of Christ to rejoice in your presence and feast our spirits on your eternal word.  Bind us together in heart and voice that we might declare your praise and thus become the people you have formed for yourself.   Amen.

All glory and honor and praise belong to you O Lord our God, in the name
of Jesus Christ. 
Amen.

Prayer of Dedication

Lord, it sometimes seems as though you gave so much and
received so little in return.  And yet, you give without limits.
You continue to reach out when no one reaches back.  O help
us to use these gifts to reach out in your name.  Make us faithful
servants of the love you have invested in us.  Amen.