Celebrating The City (Pentecost 18C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Sunday 13th October 2019, the 18th Sunday in Pentecost in Year C.  This was a combined service with all of the churches in Kaniva in celebration of Kaniva Agricultural Show which had been held the previous day.  We gathered in the Shire Hall in Kaniva for church: I was the preacher and a youth band from The Salvation Army in Geelong lead us in worship and song.  That band had been performing at the Show.

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Psalm 66:1-12; 2 Timothy 2:8-15

One of the great themes of the Hebrew scriptures is the story of God’s continued deliverance of Jews from their gentile enemies. There’s the whole story of the Exodus to start with, the many victories of the Judges, then the kings Saul, Solomon, and especially David, and Esther, who whilst a queen was actually a queen-consort in a foreign land. Outside the centuries covered by the Jewish scriptures, but well within Jewish history, is the Maccabean overthrow of the Syrians in 167 BC. Maybe we could add Israel’s wars in 1967 and 1973 to our list. One description I have heard of the Jewish festivals like Passover (Exodus) and Purim (Esther) is the phrase “they tried to kill us, but God delivered us, so let’s eat!” Jewish history inside and outside the Bible is the story of deliverance repeated.

So what happens when God does not deliver? What happens when God’s people are in the minority, in decline, in exile, and specifically not in Canaan? In Jeremiah 29 we can read Jeremiah’s letter which he addressed to the whole community of the first and second exiles, specifically including the priests and prophets amongst the people. Jeremiah is still in Jerusalem at this stage so we’re talking around the year 597 BC, but he’ll be in Babylon within a decade when Nebuchadnezzar’s armies return for another cartload or three of Judahites. Surprisingly in the context of all those stories where God has saved the people from their enemies, what Jeremiah says is that Babylon is the correct place for the People of God right now, and that it was God’s plan all along that they be there. It is always God’s desire that God’s own people are actively completing God’s work in the world, that is what discipleship is all about. God’s instruction to the Judahites of Jeremiah’s day was to settle down and live abundant lives: they were to engage with their Babylonian neighbours and build homes and families of their own, make new and deeper friendships and relationships, and not hide away in ghettos. In other words the Judahites and Israelites were to grow in every way imaginable, and to make sure that Babylonia grew because of them. Jeremiah encourages them to practice domestic life according to Jewish cultural patterns and to remain faithful to God, but they were not be isolated and angry. This is also true of us, the people of God’s nation should keep their faith and their religious and cultural identity, but they should share an abundant life with the people around them, especially those who badger and malign the faithful out of spite and ignorance, so that everyone may come to understand the grace and love of God.

In Jeremiah 29:7 we read in some English translations that God desires the peace and prosperity of the city to which the exiles have been sent, but in Hebrew this is “shalom” in all that that word conveys. Shalom is more than peace, it is restful and complete well-being, not only the absence of war but the absence of anxiety. “You are to work towards and intercede with me for the shalom of Babylon” says The LORD, because in Babylon’s shalom is the exiles’ shalom. More so Jeremiah adds in 29:8b that the exiles and the remnant in Judah are not to listen to anyone who tells them otherwise: this message of shalom is the correct Word of The LORD, as opposed to what the other prophets are saying. The truth is that the apparently bad news of exile is actually God’s news, and the supposedly good news of a near release is false hope and false prophecy. Hananiah says that the exile will be over in two years’ time, but he’s an idiot so don’t listen to him, and don’t go setting up a partisan resistance movement to overthrow the oppressors. Settle petals.

No, the correct response to recognising the place where God has put you is to sing praise and thanksgiving to God because of what God has done: for you and for us all. In Psalm 66 we are encouraged to actively remember and proclaim aloud the glorious history of the salvation of out nation; specifically how God rescued us (including each of us) from oppression and oppressors. This might seem an odd response to exile, but God is the true king and every other king and president is less than God is. God will overrule governments to preserve God’s people. God has kept us from death and destruction in the past and God has used hard times to refine us and to bring us through and make us better people than we would have been had we had an easier life. In Psalm 66:4 we read that all the earth bows down…sings praises, and the chosen nation is asked to pause and reflect (Selah) on this. What God has done for us God has done for all humankind (Psalm 66:5), but so far we are the only ones who know. Since God has caused us to grow, has growed us up, we must be adult about this and we must no longer be selfish: we must share the news, share the joy, invite everyone we know to the concert of adoration and thanksgiving. After a time of walking through the hard places, where God actually opened up a road through the sea, Psalm 66:8 tells us to “drop to your knees in adoration” and “shout out God’s glory” so that everyone knows about it. Like the exiles we were bound up and dragged away, we went through hell and high water (Psalm 66:12a) but we have been brought through, and we have been brought to a place of plenty (Psalm 66:12b). That is worth celebrating with songs of praise, isn’t it?

This is why Paul finds it possible to proclaim the gospel even in chains. The chains of imprisonment will not silence him and they cannot silence the good news of Jesus the liberator, because Paul’s task is to continue to proclaim salvation to those who do not yet know that they are saved. God is faithful to Godself, Paul knows and he says that God will never go back on a promise or fail to deliver those whose trust is in God. God is worthy of praise because God is faithful toward those who persevere for the sake of the good news. In 2 Timothy 2:14-15 we read why it is so important that Timothy teaches the message of perseverance directly to the church he pastors, and why Christians must never get caught up in jargon. Let every person who trusts God for deliverance plainly speak the truth that the world needs to hear, because that is the task set by God for each one of us. It’s not the job of the overseers to silence the people, but to instruct them in the good news (of what the gospel actually is) and to empower them to proclaim it by the word of their own story and testimony. Be zealous for the truth so that the gospel of Jesus Christ (the Son of David) is proclaimed, and nothing else. Paul specifically reminds Timothy about false teachers, and like Jeremiah six hundred years earlier he counsels him to stay away from the self-seeking idiots who have a different agenda. Listen to God, hold fast to the good news of salvation, and trust in God’s timing for the completion of the work which God has been conducting since time began.

Well that’s all great; God is faithful even in the hard times, and even if there seems to be more tunnel than light we are encouraged to stay faithful and not be looking for a sneaky, early exit. But what do we actually do about it? I can honestly say that I do not feel that my life in Kaniva is a form of exile: I hope you don’t either. Okay, so compared with Serviceton and Broughton it’s a bit of a dive, but I like Kaniva and I enjoy living amongst the Kanivan people. As Christians we might say that all life on earth is exile because Heaven is the home for which we long to return: I think that’s a bit simplistic in light of what we’ve heard from scripture this morning, but there is some truth in it. It’s not the whole truth, but it’s not wrong. But even if the Wimmera and the Tatiara, let alone Corio, are not exactly places of exile, they are places where God is not so central as God was in Jerusalem, or shall be in the New Jerusalem. Since we live in a place which is not all that God wants for us so we must pray for the shalom of our cities.

This morning, as many of the Church in Kaniva who have wanted to gather have gathered in this place. There is only one Church in Kaniva even though it meets in six buildings with six different surnames. There is a common purpose and a shared culture amongst us. Yesterday our town was filled with visitors, and today we have the mob from Geelong participating as sisters and brothers in Christ. As Church (singular with a capital-C) and churches (plural with a small-c) we are the God’s light in the world, in Kaniva and its districts. As Victorians whose state motto is “Peace and Prosperity” we pray for the shalom of our home. We pray for the shalom of Melbourne our capital, for Kaniva our town, for Servi and Broughton and Nhill and all the other places we live, for Geelong. We pray that God would bless us and our neighbours, somewhat anxious that God will want to bless our neighbours through us, thereby giving us jobs, yet hopeful that God will indeed look with favour on our homes and industries.

So together in Kaniva this morning we celebrate God’s goodness to us recalling that God’s record for coming through is 100%. The Jewish exiles from the land may have lasted for decades, centuries, and millennia at a time, but God always called the people home and we know from scripture that the call to all the world is still there. One day soon we will be home, but this day we pray for the place where we are today and we sow into this. Today as we pray we build homes, we build lives and families, we build and plant and put down foundations in the place where we are because the place where we are is the place where God is, and God is with us here.

Go, sow, build, grow, pray and praise: they need to see it and hear it so that they will know it, and grow and sow and build and worship too.

Amen.

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A Rite of Welcome

Good morning Church: know that you are welcome.
 
Know that you are welcome if this is your first time among us,
or your first time in a long time
or your first time since last week.
Know that you are welcome if you have been here since 8:59
or 9:29
or you’re not here yet but are on your way.
Know that you are welcome if you have arrived with peace,
or you have arrived with rush,
or you have not arrived at all.
Know that you are welcome if you have come alone,
or with friends,
or with family, including an untidy child.
Good morning Church: know that you are welcome.

Useful

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 8th September 2019, the thirteenth Sunday in Pentecost.  I used only one of the four lectionary readings, so this is a sermon on the entire letter to Philemon.

Philemon 1-21

Paul’s letter to Philemon may seem like an odd text upon which to preach, I mean, what does it actually say about anything? It’s more like the sort of message you’d leave on voicemail than an epistle of scripture, don’t you think? “Yeah hi Phil, it’s me, Paul here. Yeah mate your brother’s actually here and says he’s been a bit of a ratbag. Has he? Yeah, well anyway he’s on his way back to P-town now so if you could just be kind to him that’d be great, ‘cos it sounds like he’s had a bit of a rough trot. And look, if he has caused some actual damage then, yeah, just fix it up and send us the bill. Or you could just knock it off the tab you owe me, yeah, ha. Anyway, cheers mate. Oh, and Ephaphras and the mob they say g’day too, yeah. Uhm, yeah, so righto, seeya-mate-bye.” Hmm, hardly words to build you life on are they? I mean, you won’t find anything from Philemon on a coffee mug at Koorong.

So why do we have it? Why’s it in the Lectionary for today, and why’s it even in the Bible? If you’ve done any sort of study in New Testament at a Bible College you will know that there are other letters and gospels that didn’t make it into the New Testament. Things like Didache which means “The Teaching” and is a basic summary of Christian doctrine of salvation against the life of sin, like a two column breakdown, followed by instructions around how to run a worship service, I mean, that’d be helpful. Or The Acts of Peter since what we actually have as The Acts of The Apostles is really just the activities of Paul after Acts 9; again you’d think that’d be a useful read. So, how come something like The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians didn’t make it in, but this letter to Philemon of Colossae did? The reasons why Philemon is in the Bible and Polycarp isn’t might become clear, but really it’s the reasons why Philemon is in church today rather than more from Hebrews is what I want to talk about.

One of the key things we know about Philemon as a letter is that Paul wrote it. Unlike many of the letters with Paul’s name attached to them, some which are probably not his actual work and three which are definitely not his at all, Philemon is agreed to be genuinely from Paul’s own hand, or at least his dictation to a scribe. So that counts for something, indeed that’s the key reason why Philemon is in the Bible, because Paul actually did write it. (We don’t know who wrote Didache, but we know it wasn’t an apostle. Actually we don’t know who wrote Hebrews either, but it probably was an apostle.)

Paul very likely wrote this letter from gaol in Ephesus, so that puts it around 56 AD and it puts Paul in his mid forties, so around my age. This is very early in the history of Christianity, it’s foundational stuff in that it is some of the first stuff written down and it is being written down personally by the actual founders of Christianity. (I say “founders” plural because Timothy has a hand in this, see it in Philemon 1a.) It’s also personal correspondence, we get the idea that Paul and Philemon are friends if not colleagues, and Apphia and Archippus are Philemon’s wife and adult son. The letter is actually addressed to a house church of which Philemon is the leader and the host; so even though it’s personal correspondence it’s not actually private. Paul writes to the group, via the dad, to teach them all something about Christian fellowship and the central place of reconciliation in the gospel story.

There are varying opinions about who Onesimus was with regard to Philemon. Most scholarship suggests that Onesimus was a slave of Philemon, but not all scholars agree. One key set of scholars present that Onesimus is actually Philemon’s younger brother, maybe like the prodigal from the gospels. Regardless of the foundation of the relationship the facts are that the relationship has been strained or even broken: when Paul sends Onesimus back he does so with the hope that he and Philemon will be reconciled. Maybe they were brothers, but even if they were not they are now Brothers-in-Christ, and that is what Paul wants to say to that little fellowship in Colossae.

So what is Paul saying? Well, we can start by saying that whatever Paul is saying he is not saying it with arrogance. “I could demand this of you as an apostle and a prophet, Philemon”, says Paul in Philemon 8, “but I’d rather appeal to your good conscience and the outworking of your discipleship as my Brother-in-Christ”. Remember that this is way way early in Christianity and Paul has never been to Colossae; he seems to know Philemon, so maybe they met elsewhere, maybe even in Ephesus before Paul was gaoled. So this is making-it-up-as-we-go-along stuff, where the theory of brothers- and sisters-in-Christ and the story of Jesus in Luke 8:21 where him saying these are my brothers and sisters, the ones who do my Father’s will, and even the prodigal’s parable of Luke 15:11-32, have been told around the fellowship but not yet written down. This might be the first time any of them has actually had to do the hard work of reconciling a broken human relationship, in the name of a new kind of Christian relationship, where everyone is family. What does it mean, how does it actually work when all men are brothers even (and not sixth cousins), and returned slaves and prodigals are to be welcomed. What, exactly, is Philemon supposed to do when Onesimus arrives, and stays, and participates in fellowship around the table? Well, here’s some tips from Paul, glory be to God.

So, again, (get to the point Damien), what is Paul saying? Well here’s a list, to stop me getting side-tracked.

1. According to Philemon 6-7 Paul is saying that Christian life is fundamentally and foundationally a life lived together: Christian fellowship is partnership. As local Christians we are to do more than associate together, we are to move beyond casual (and even regular) socialising and into businesslike association for the Gospel but also for our strength. Unity is not optional, we are to do it in groups, and we are to hold each other up. This is love from the guts stuff, which is why it hurts so much when we are betrayed by another Christian. But it’s supposed to hurt, (so don’t betray, stay.)

2. According to Philemon 10-16 Paul is saying that Christian life is fundamentally and foundationally set upon the bedrock of reconciliation. The work of the Church very much includes mediation within itself, the unity of believers is not just about everyone sucking-it-up and walking around on broken toes. We live together as siblings, and our close quarters often means that others will be hurt. When hurt occurs don’t ignore it and don’t shake it off, don’t hand around teaspoons full of cement and tell each princess to harden herself up; actively seek restoration and healing, including (but not limited to) forgiveness.

3. According to Philemon 12-22 Paul is saying that Christian life is fundamentally and foundationally about mutual obligation. Living in unity, actively welcoming and rehabilitating trespassers and those who have been trespassed upon, requires everyone working and them working together. It is within the rights and responsibilities of leaders to tell followers what to do, we have leaders so that the work is co-ordinated according to the shared goal and the talents and input of each person: but it’s so much better if everyone just gets on with his or her work for Christ out of love and obedience to him. Again, get your guts in the game and give God your best; don’t wait to be told what to do when you already know what to do, and you’re confident enough to go with God in trust and faith. I believe my job as a leader here is to help you when you get stuck, and to train you for what comes next: I’m not here to micro-manage what God has given you to do because of God’s trust in you. Don’t wait for me to tell you, just go for it!

You are now Christians, says Paul, and Onesimus has joined us as a brother-in-Christ. As Christians please do the hard work of welcoming the young man home with a prodigious welcome: and live together, heal together, and pull together. That’s how churches work, and how churches grow. I reckon that’s a pretty good message and I’m stoked that Philemon is in the Bible. I’d have liked Didache in there too, and to be honest some of Clement’s stuff (Clement was the fourth pope), and Polycarp’s story (he was bishop in Smyrna, the same Smyrna we read about in Revelation 2, and he was possibly appointed bishop by John himself), are excellent reading too, but then you can buy those in Penguin Classics if you’re really interested.

So, the message is the same for us as local Christians. As two parts of the six-part Church in Kaniva and Serviceton, and the local branches/franchises of the Uniting Church in Australia and the Churches of Christ in Victoria and Tasmania, we have committed ourselves to building the Church in our towns. We’re not here solely for friendship or to be seen with the in-crowd, the days of people attending church for just that are long gone. No, we’re here to work, and if we are serious as I believe we are then the message is clear: do the hard work of welcoming the lost and wayward, welcome them each home with abundant welcome. For those who come in and for those who are here now, the message of God through Paul is that we live together, heal together, and pull together in unity. That’s how our churches will grow.

And with God’s help, we will.

Amen.

Mutual Love (WWHS)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the Kaniva Day Centre (West Wimmera Health Service) for Tuesday 3rd September 2019.

Hebrews 13:1-8

Let mutual love continue says the writer in Hebrews 13:1. We don’t know for certain who the writer of this sermon was, although we can be pretty certain who it wasn’t: it wasn’t Jesus, or any of the apostles, and it wasn’t Paul. With that in mind I wonder whether we should care who it was, and what he or she said. “Who are you to tell us what to do, who are you to tell us how to live a Christian life?” we might ask. Christianity, indeed all life, is very different in 2019 to how it was in 65 AD; and in Australia to how it was in the Roman Empire; and for people born Christian than people born Hebrew. But I’d advise against getting too upset because if we do we might miss the point. The point is that this is good advice; “let mutual love continue” is a good thing to keep in mind.

The thing about mutual love, and this is especially so in how it related to Christians of Hebrew background, is that we are all in this together. At this point in church history much of the terror to come had not yet come. It’s been about thirty years since Stephen had been martyred and Saul of Tarsus had been locking people up; but then Paul had been converted and life had gone on without much backlash, save the occasional bullying episode. Nero hadn’t arrived on the Roman scene yet, and the Temple in Jerusalem was still standing when Hebrews was written: still, that bullying was going on, and especially so at the local level toward Jewish converts to Christianity. You can read about of that in the stories of Paul’s travels in Acts and his letters. And this is interesting, well, I think it is, because I think this is one of the reasons why Hebrews is relevant to Christians in Australia in 2019. We are not being persecuted like the Christians of later decades, look at what was happening ten years later across the empire and the condition that the Romans left Jerusalem in and you’ll know real pain. But no, for the original hearers of Hebrews the message is not about the struggle against flesh and blood and spiritual authorities, but about being kind to itinerant strangers at the door, and about staying in fellowship and encouraging one another for mutual support when the neighbours start throwing sideways glances and well-aimed fruit as you pass by.

This sermon also addresses the hardships of life away from bullying, specifically the things that all people find hard at times. Again this is as true for Christians today and here as if was for Christians then and there, and for people of all times and places who aren’t Christian for that matter. How do we help our friends who are in gaol, or who need advice from a trusted friend because they struggle in their relationships or with self-confidence, or they are becoming distracted by money and possessions, or with fear and overwhelming concerns? The same message applies, let mutual love continue: consider the suffering of others as if it were your own and offer the help you would desire in that person’s place.

The help that the writer of Hebrews wants us to offer to our troubled friends is twofold:

1. Compassionate inclusion. Show care in whatever way care is required – be that practical hospitality to the stranger or practical wisdom clothed in comfort to the friend, do something and do what needs to be done.

2. Share Christ. Encourage others with the promise that God is faithful and consistent, Jesus Christ s the same yesterday, today and forever, which we read in Hebrews 13:8 is a reminder not that the church needs to be sterile but that God can be utterly relied upon. That’s why we read in Hebrews 13:7 to remember your leaders…and imitate their faith. This is not because the Church demands honour for its clergy,  but because leaders as those who have gone before us in the faith, and who spoke the word of God to you know the story of God. When someone is doubting God, assure him or her that God is faithful and make that assurance by your own story. Say something like “I know this looks hard now, but when I was in a similar situation God pulled me though, and because Jesus is the same today as he was back then then I am sure that God will pull you through too.” The leader speaks encouragement drawn from experience, the wise person heeds that voice.

The book we call Hebrews is really a sermon. It’s not even a letter, it’s a sermon and as a sermon it is directed entirely at Christians. So let’s pay attention to this ancient sermon; let those of us who know Christ as Lord, God as Father, and each other as sister or brother look after each other as family. Let mutual love, love for one another, continue.

Amen.

Hier stehe ich.

This is the text of my ministry message for the Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry newsletter for September 2019.

There is something to be said for resilience and defiance in the face of challenge. “Here I stand and here I stay, let the storm rage onbelts out Elsa of Arandelle. Hier stehe ich; Ich kann nicht anders Gott hilf mir! Amen“, cries Martin Luther, “Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me!“ Elsewhere this month I have written about doubt and said that I’m not a fan of certainty, but there is of course two sides to that coin: as Christians we are certain of many things and those things are the rock upon which we build our home.

The Church in the world, (which is where The Church should always be), is facing earthquakes in many ways, even as The Church stands on the rock. Sex and sexual abuse remain key topics-slash-arrows in conversation, LGBTIQ+ matters around marriage and adoption remain current in conversation, and Cardinal Pell was in the news again with a failed appeal. Bodily violence for and against the name of Christ rages on every continent the world except our own (and Antarctica). Away from sex, legislation in many countries and states, including Australia and Victoria, poses challenges to the story of Jesus and the life-affirming values of evangelical Christianity. The time is now and the place is here to make a stand.

What is questionable is what sort of stand we must make. Defiant? Perhaps. Civil disobedience? Perhaps. Moral? Perhaps (but whose morality?) Whenever Jesus made a public stand there were always two characteristics; what he stood for and who he stood with. Jesus stood for the character of God the Father, and he stood with the displaced daughters and sons of God. Often, but not always, this was the economic poor. Always and often this was the downtrodden and the marginalised, particularly those who had marginalised themselves through activity and attitude.

This month, September 2019, let’s commit to standing with Christ as well as standing for him; and let’s commit to standing with our senses sensitive to what God and the world is saying to us concerning the needs of “the least of these”.

Where There’s Smoke

This is the text of my ministry message for the September 2019 edition of The Vision, which is the quarterly newsletter of Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry.

How many of you are purveyors of social media I don’t know, although I am aware that some of you are attached to Facebook and Twitter because you are connected with me on those platforms. You may then be aware via The News According to Twitface that several high profile Christians are declaring a loss of faith, or perhaps the realisation that there never was faith for them in the first place. Among the several is Marty Sampson, one time lead worshipper at Hillsong Church Sydney and lead singer with the band Hillsong United. A decade and a half ago Marty wrote the words: “I want to live, I want to love you more, I want to be used, Father, in all of the world, may your word be heard, and may it stay on my lips, to live what I speak, until your kingdom come”, (“Shine For You” © Hillsong Publishing, 2003). I remember this song fondly, and particularly this bridge as it has been my own prayer for some time, probably since 2004 when I was participating in Hillsong Church London. But for Marty all the shazam of Hillsong has not been enough, and he thinks (and says) that the issues within Christianity have put his faith on shaky ground. Marty has not renounced Christ, but he is expressing the raw honesty of a young man (he’s 40) struggling with a Bible which is self-contradicting, and a church which proclaims miracles as reality yet does not see them evident in worship contexts. His central soundbite is “no-one is talking about it”, suggesting that in his church experience the issues with Christianity are being ignored, or papered over.

Whether this is a legitimate critique of Hillsong Church or of Pentecostalism in general is not for me to say, but I do think it’s a fair point for Christianity in Australia. It is appropriate for us to look into our own church and not just point fingers at the happy-clappies (and jumpy-shouties). Is Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry prepared to engage with going deeper into Christian doctrine: do we acknowledge Marty’s concerns and see what he sees? How are we addressing the struggles of believing and trusting a 2000 year old message, a message that includes talking donkeys and massacred enemies as “facts”? How do we answer Marty’s question about a God of grace and love who sends the majority of humans to a fiery, eternal Hell simply because they haven’t said a certain prayer at some point during their earthly life? Or do we just concentrate our attention on singing “All I need is you Lord”, (“All I Need Is You” ©Capitol Christian Music Group, 2005), louder and louder in an effort to shout down the screaming crescendo of doubt until such time as we find we actually do need more from Jesus than a bunch of unquestionable doctrines?

Inside KSSM right now doubt is welcome. (I wanted to say “under my ministry” but I’m not the “above” type of minister; however if you need your senior pastor to say that then he just did, even in brackets.) I do not want anyone drifting away from Christ because of unanswered questions, unaddressed fears, or squashed doubts. Curly questions are welcome in our family: trite answers are not. I think it sad, and more than sad, that Marty heard no-one addressing these concerns in his Christian home, (especially since I lived in that same home for six years and I did hear such conversation), but it would be for me an absolute tragedy if someone looking back at KSSM in 2019 from years in our future were to say the same.

Doubt is not the opposite of faith: doubt is a necessary part of faith, and doubt addressed is what creates trust. Without doubt there is only certainty, and certainty is the condition where learning stops happening and smugness and self-reliance set in. I have no interest in participating in a congregation which is smug and self-reliant, and I will resist with every part of my being the development of such a congregation where I am in leadership. In view of that the invitation stands: talk to me, ask me, bring The Spanish Inquisition if you must (so long as they bring coffee with them…), but do not be afraid or ashamed of your doubt or your questions. As your pastor I am primarily the one who is responsible for your spiritual care and your spiritual health, I am here to teach you and to love you: I hope you feel safe enough in my care to talk to me first before you walk out the door and leave church and/or faith behind.

My front door is always open so that the church’s back door is kept closed. Please stay.

Paul in Thessalonica

This is the text of the message I prepared for Servi Church (KSSM) for Sunday 7th July 2019.  It was the day before our church “Family Camp” during which the Bible Study sessions would be on 1 and 2 Thessalonians.

Acts 17:1-15

This week coming is a bit of a first for me; in fact it’s a lot of a first.  I have not been on a family camp with the local church for close to forty years, and so that means that I have never been as an adult.  When I was a child my family worshipped with the Wheelers Hill Uniting Church as part of the Mulgrave Parish, we’d been the local Presbyterians since the 1880s and they (Mulgrave) had been the local Methodists.  In 1977, with Church Union, we joined up formally having been informal friends and ecumenical neighbours before that.  Our annual family camp took place over Cup Weekend, back when Monday was not a public holiday but no one went to work in Melbourne anyway, and we’d be away from Friday night until Tuesday lunchtime.  I remember a time of fun and I remember that there was always water: we usually (but not always) went to Wilson’s Promontory and stayed in on-site vans, back when they really were vans and not purpose-built cabins.  I remember a lot of colour too, and I distinctly remember one year when we were not at “The Prom” when we were visited by Rosellas.  Many of the memories and some of the photos I have of that time involve body paint, I made a very cute little pirate with my primary colours eye-patch and moustache.  But, as I say, that’s back in the seventies, or maybe the early eighties, but certainly no later than 1984.

This week to come, and Family Camp at Halls Gap, will I hope bring back happy memories for me.  I also hope it will create new happy moments which will become happy memories for me in the fullness of time.  I hope and indeed pray the same for all of you, especially the littlest people.  But what will mean the most for me in my memories is that this will be the first time I am the pastor, and the first time that I’ll be leading an intensive Bible Study.  Not that the Bible Study will be intense, there’s no high pressure stakes here, but there will be a series of sessions rather than it being a one-off chapel event on the Sunday (which is today) and then it’s kayaks and badge-making after quiet time.  I’m excited by what God has drawn my attention to, and by what we’ll be learning about God-in-Christ and Christ-in-Church as we spend some time in and with The Word.

Our main texts will be Paul’s two letters to the Church in Thessalonica.  This is interesting because 1 Thessalonians is almost certainly Paul’s first letter, (or at the very least the earliest extant letter of his).  Historically we can date it to 51 CE when Paul was living in Corinth, a year or so after his visit to Thessalonica.  If we follow the tradition (and many scholars these days do not), 2 Thessalonians was written within six months of the first letter, and so is Paul’s second (or maybe third, depending when he wrote to Galatia) letter.  Two things can be said straight away about this history:

  1. Paul is doing something new: he’s writing a letter where he has never written to a Church before. Paul is beginning a new form of ministry; with hindsight we know that this will become a major aspect of his legacy.
  2. Paul engages in correspondence: not only does he write to Thessalonica he writes back. We can assume that there was a letter, or a least an oral message, between the two letters of Paul because we see how the second letter expands on some of the points of the first.  It seems as though the Thessalonians had a few specific questions, and Paul addresses them.

The Thessalonian letters are personal letters of encouragement, written during a period where Paul is seeking to establish a communal work of God amidst cultural opposition.  There’s no finer point to be made here: Paul is inventing the first form of congregational Christianity outside the Jewish homeland, and he’s doing it on the hop.  Paul uses a lot of family language wherein he addresses the Thessalonians as siblings; the Christians are his brothers and sisters, the adult children of God the Father, who are becoming a new kind of family that engages in mutual support including responsibility for material care.  There was sharing but not like in Acts 2:44 with complete equality of possessions administered by a central body of apostles: in Thessalonica there was to be shared care from each person’s conscience and capacity such that in 2 Thessalonians there is teaching about what to do with bludgers and spongers.  It seems that Acts 2:44 didn’t work everywhere, and even 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 had been misconstrued and some correction was needed: the Christian Church is inventing itself and making notes about what works or doesn’t as it goes along the way.

So, in these first letters we see Paul trying out some new ideas as he puts them into writing; he plays around with words and phrases that he will develop as his preaching and correspondence ministries continue.  Paul is not writing systematic theology here, these are letters and not a text book, so the ideas do jump around a bit.  But isn’t that just more exciting?  Well I think it is, but then I’m a preaching nerd so I like this sort of thing anyway.  I mean, look at how we get to earwig in on Paul as he follows his trains of thoughts to their various stations, even jumping between trains every now and then.  He’s writing with passion, with fervour for the truth and a love for his friends at Thessalonica, and that’s a good thing.

There are a few key themes in the letters to the Thessalonians, and we’ll meet some of those at camp, but one that I want to highlight now is how Paul directs these new Christians to seek God-esteem rather than self-esteem as they struggle against opposition, persecution, and inexperience.  As we read in Acts 17:1-9 Paul had had a difficult time in Thessalonica and he may have been there for less than a month.  Paul had had to leave in a hurry, (and he never returned), so Paul is concerned for those new believers he left behind and for the work that he began but was not able to support long enough to see safely into self-replicating growth.  His prayer and desperation is that God will make up for the absence of the apostles, that the new believers will look to Godself for wisdom and insight rather than struggling to make philosophical ends meet from their own wisdom, small as it is.

Along this line, of this whole thing being new and a bit slapdash, notice in Acts 17:4 where not only were some of the Jews in the synagogue convinced by the gospel as Paul proclaimed it, but so too were many of the Gentiles (probably local Greek believers in Judaism rather than random pagans) and some of the leading women.  This new church is diverse from the outset, and perhaps as was the case in Philippi where Paul and Silas had met Lydia of Thyatira there was a distinctly European (Macedonian) model of church forming, distinct from the Judean and Asian models.  This is all new as even the models of Antioch and Jerusalem wouldn’t have fitted.

From the perspective of my history the Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry is very unique.  As a student of ministry and theology with the Uniting Church I had not been trained for work in a shared or combined cross-denominational ministry setting, despite at least one of my lecturers having served as minister at Keith One Church.  (And even Keith One Church is one church, not two in partnership.)  Of course this arrangement is not new for you, and this is especially true in Serviceton, but what might have been missed is that external models do not work well here: Servi Church is more unique than other churches.  (By the way “more unique” and “very unique” are totally fine as usages, neither is grammatical but both are linguistically significant.)  Why do I say this?  Well because you (and Kaniva) are doing something that no one else has done, at least not in the same way: and that is what Paul was doing alongside-yet-away-from the Thessalonians.  This is why I chose Thessalonians as our Biblical text for Camp.

So, the theme of the Bible studies at Family Camp is “building a church in changing times”.  The question is how or even if times are changing at Serviceton, and how or if our circumstances are difficult.  Where is there upheaval in our town; what are we doing about it now, and what are we prepared to do differently to proclaim the Kingship of Christ in the Wimmera and the Tatiara?  (Do we need to do anything differently?)  One of Paul’s key answers to this question, and there are several answers, is primarily found in 2 Thessalonians 2 and it is to “get on with today”.  The narrative of Acts 16-18 reports that Paul was thrown out of three major Macedonian cities: and he’d even been beaten and gaoled in Philippi.  Paul arrived in Thessalonica having been forced out of Philippi (Acts 16:39 and 1 Thessalonians 2:2) and he had had to flee from Thessalonica.  Paul’s confidence to continue preaching came from God and the assurance that he was doing God’s work (Acts 16:10 and 1 Thessalonians 2:4), but that must have been hard.  Imagine that you have seen “a man of Macedonia” in a vision like Paul had done, and imagine if Holy Spirit had three times closed the door on Asia and Bithynia so that you would go straight to Macedonia, don’t pass go, don’t collect two hundred denarii.  And then you get beaten up and gaoled, and then threatened with more of the same if you don’t sling your hook from the town you went for refuge, and the town after that.  I’d be asking God some serious questions about the whole endeavour, and I’m sure that Paul did, but Paul heard God and he took God at God’s word, and so Paul went on into Achaia and Athens and Corinth.  This is the same assurance Paul wants to give and to hear back from Thessalonica as they face trials of their own: Paul is like a father who wants to see his adult children doing well in their own maturity just as God the Father had desired the same from Paul.

I want to end with the words Paul began with, so look with me at 1 Thessalonians 1:1b and 2 Thessalonians 1:1b where Paul writes to the assembly of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Shalom! I like that, because it speaks of people gathering together rather than of an institution.  It is the people who matter, perhaps that’s why Paul used the phrase “brothers and sisters” so often in these letters.  And so as we gather in the coming week, in more relaxed circumstances and with plenty of free time to share, let’s be mindful that we are “ecclesia”: not just “church” but gathering, “assembly”, “mob”, and also in Christ, “family”.  Together we are about to do something new and exciting, something which might just change the world.

Amen.