Second Thessalonians 3:6-13
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, November 14, 2004)
I have to make a confession: I’m a sucker for chick flicks. I've never seen a James Bond movie. I've only seen one of Clint Eastwood's films. But I love chick flicks.
One of them becoming a favorite of mine is Return to Me, starring Minnie Driver and David Duchovny. In it, Driver plays a young woman who lives and works with her grandfather, the proprietor of O’Reilly’s Italian Restaurant in Chicago.
In one scene, it’s late on a Saturday night and Driver’s character stands on a balcony outside the second-floor apartment that sets atop the restaurant. She sees her grandfather, played by Carrol O’Connor, outside, taking out some garbage. She calls down to him, “Do you need help with anything, grandpa?” “No, darlin’” he says, “I’m blessed with work.”
Truth be told, we don’t always feel blessed by our work.
Some of you have gone through the agony of being without a job or of working at one that either fails to meet your financial needs or your need for work that’s meaningful for you.
Some have nasty bosses who make going to work a daily trial.
But all of us can say, I think, that the ability to do work--the brain, the brawn, the endurance--are real blessings.
Work can also be a blessing when it’s useful and when it seems to match our unique talents and passions.
Our Bible lesson for this morning is a reminder of what blessings work can bring to us and to others...and of what curses idleness brings.
Let’s set the scene. The first-century preacher and evangelist Paul planted a church in the city of Thessalonica. As was Paul’s habit, he got the church going and then went somewhere else to share the good news of Jesus and start another church in another town.
But, someone has said that Paul’s departure from Thessalonica kicked off a reaction similar to that of an elementary school class when the teacher has to leave the room for a few moments.
A contingent of the Thessalonians became enamored of the idea that the risen and ascended Jesus was going to return soon. So, a bunch of them decided that there was no point in working. They just quit doing any work, whether for pay or at home or in the church.
And they were going around town interrupting the daily routines of other followers of Jesus who hadn’t stopped working, urging them to quit, and gossiping the day away. With nothing but time on their hands, unwilling to get involved in the mission of their congregation because they were “short-timers,” they became verbal terrorists, complaining about one thing and another, including the church.
Paul got wind of this and was offended. So, he sent this letter to the Thessalonians which is now in the New Testament portion of our Bibles. In the part of the letter that makes up today’s lesson, Paul makes three points. (Now there’s a surprise: a sermon with three points.)
First, he says, that the gifts of salvation, forgiveness, and everlasting life with God are not a license for laziness. He writes, using a Greek word associated with the passing on of military orders from upper echelons to those of lower rank, “Now we command you, beloved, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us...”
Paul goes on to remind the Thessalonians about the tradition of working hard at one’s job so as not to burden the rest of the church that he and his coworkers lived and taught.
I once read the story about Hank, a notorious hard-drinking, womanizing, trouble-making guy who became a follower of Jesus. Hank joined a local congregation and for the pastor and other members, he became a poster child for how God can change the lives of people who surrender to Christ. At his factory assembly line job, Hank was always talking about his faith, about last night’s Bible study, and on and on and on. One day, this convert’s pastor visited him at the factory and spoke with the man’s foreman. “I bet you sure can see a difference in Hank since he came to faith,” the pastor said. “I can,” said the foreman, “but I sure wish he’d talk a little less and work a little more.”
It is absolutely true that there is nothing that you or I can do to earn God’s love or the new life that Jesus offers for free to those with faith in Him. All we have to do is want Jesus in our lives and He’ll be there. All he needs is our invitation. But, whether it’s in our professions, at our homes, or in our churches, we have God-given work to do. Our work is a response to God's love for us!
Back in March, 1981, I was sitting in the office of the late Jim Schaaf, one of my seminary professors. Along with two other seminarians, I was taking a private class on the Lutheran Confessions with Jim. His phone rang. After he answered, he listened, and asked, “When did it happen?” I have no idea why, but with only those four words as a clue, I thought to myself, “Reagan’s been shot.” Jim got off of the phone and said, “Reagan’s been shot.” After that Twilight Zone moment, we talked about it for a few moments and then Jim said, “Well, he had his work to do and so do we.” And we resumed our class. God’s gifts are free, but they’re not a license for laziness. Until the day we die and go to be with Jesus, we will have work to do in this world.
The second thing Paul teaches us today is that work is a blessing and a privilege, allowing us to provide for others and ourselves. Paul tells the Christians: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”
Now, the Bible scholarship I’ve consulted on this passage is quick to say that Paul is not addressing charity or government welfare programs here. Rather, Paul is saying that Christians who refuse to contribute their time, talent, and treasures to the mission of Christ in the world or who use their time to complain and throw stones at others in the church should not be allowed to participate in what was called the agape meal--the feast of love--that the early churches celebrated.
Agape, as you probably know, is one of four kinds of love identified in the Bible. It’s the highest form of love and has only been purely exhibited by God, especially when He came to earth in the Person of Jesus Christ. Agape love is selfless, self-sacrificing love. It’s the love Christ gave when He died on a cross for us.
Agape meals were the first century church’s gatherings around the love of Jesus Christ. Those meals included Holy Communion.
Paul is saying that those who don’t keep at the work given to them by God shouldn’t expect to enjoy the blessings of being part of the Church. They’re not living in the freedom that Christ gives us, the freedom to be our true selves. Instead, they’re living in license, lazily walking away from God’s mission for their lives. The don't live in response to God's grace, they take it for granted.
So, Paul teaches that God’s free gifts aren’t a license for laziness and that work is a blessing and a privilege given to help us love God and love neighbor.
Finally, Paul says, “Do not be weary in doing right.” A few years ago, pundits were speaking of America’s “compassion fatigue,” noting that contributions of time and money to charities and churches were diminishing. Following a steep increase in these things immediately following the attacks of September 11, 2001, people’s giving of time, talents, and treasures fell like a stone again. It turns out that this year, people’s giving of these things is beginning to climb once more.
Paul says that our call as Christians is to keep being Christian when things are going well and when they’re not. Just as God loved us all the way to a cross (and still loves and forgives us), He calls us to love Him and to love others whether it’s convenient or not. He calls us to give of ourselves and our possessions whether doing so is convenient or not. God’s love for us never goes out of season and neither should our responses to His love.
As we contemplate how we will use our time, talents, and treasures in the mission of Friendship Church during 2005, may we remember what Paul teaches us today:
that God’s gifts are free, but not a license for laziness;
that work is a blessing and privilege, allowing us to provide for others and ourselves; and
that in response to God’s eternal love for us, we will never grow weary of doing God’s mission for us...on the job, in the church, and everywhere else.