Receiving the Word of God -- Sermon for Pentecost 22A/All Saints Day (1 Thessalonians 2)
|Young Clergy Man Reading|
We come together to worship on the eve of an election. I know many of us are anxious about the outcome and the aftermath of this election. All I can say is, if you’ve not voted, drop off any absentee ballots at your clerk’s office or go vote on Tuesday. Then pray hard! We also gather on All Saints Day to remember and honor all God’s saints, “who from their labors rest.”
The word we hear from Paul and his companions to the church in Thessalonika is the oldest document in the New Testament. This is about as close as we get to the very beginnings of the Christian story, which continues to unfold into our day. This community lived with a great deal of anxiety. Part of this anxiety was rooted in their expectation that Jesus was going to return any minute. With this expectation came questions about those who had died. Would they get caught up with Jesus when he returned? I don’t think we experience the same kind of anxiety as the Thessalonians did, though apocalyptic messages remain popular in our day.
While we might not share the same concerns as the Thessalonians, we bring our own sets of concerns and anxieties to this word from Paul. Like them, we are in search of a word from God, and Paul commends the Thessalonians for receiving the word that he and his companions brought to them as a word from God. Not only did they receive this message as a word from God, but this word was at work in them. As Bruce Epperly puts it: “Embracing God’s good news involves the whole of our lives—body, mind, and spirit. It involves the transformation of the mind (Romans 12:2) and transformed actions, and faith active in love for each other” [Adventurous Lectionary].
If God is speaking to us today, which is what I think Paul would have us believe, then I have a few questions for us. First of all, what is God saying to us? Secondly, how do we hear this word from God? Finally, how do we know if God is speaking to us?
We Disciples have a tradition of looking to the New Testament for guidance, and I would expand that to include the entire biblical story. While that’s the starting point, where else might we go to hear God’s Word? I find it interesting that Paul suggested that his own preaching of the Gospel was a word from God and not merely a human word.
As we ponder this question we might look to what is known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. While Scripture remains primary, these other three voices contribute to our ability to hear God’s Word. When taken together, they also provide checks and balances on our hearing of the Word. To give you an example, our decision to become an Open and Affirming congregation was rooted in hearing not just Scripture but also reason in the form of science and experience in terms of personal testimony.
We might also look to Karl Barth’s idea of the threefold Word of God, which has greatly influenced my own thinking. Barth followed the lead of the Gospel of John in suggesting that we have the Word of God incarnate in the person of Jesus (Jn. 1:1-14). So, when we look to the life, death, resurrection, and teachings of Jesus, we see the truth of God revealed. Scripture becomes the Word of God when it bears witness to this revelation embodied by Jesus. Finally, there’s the Word of God proclaimed that is rooted in Scripture and points to Jesus. This is what I think Paul has in mind here when he gives thanks to God that the Thessalonians received the proclamation of the Gospel on the part of Paul and his companions as God’s Word and not just a human word.
It is this word that was at work in the Thessalonians and is at work in us as well. That is if we embrace it by leading “a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”
With this message in mind, we come to the witness of All Saints Day, as we remember and honor all the saints of God, “who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed, thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.” To be a saint doesn’t mean being perfect. It simply means being faithful to the ways of God, who is at work in us.
Just so you know, even the heroes of the Bible weren’t perfect. Think of Peter or David, both of whom had many faults and yet were embraced by God. Elliot Rabin writes in his book Biblical Heroes that these heroes “are flawed, complicated creatures—a stew of noble qualities and assorted shortcomings.” Therefore, “the Bible seems to be telling us, people should not load their heroes with unrealistic expectations. We are to acknowledge that something, but not everything, is extraordinary about a hero” [Rabin, Biblical Heroes, pp. 270-271]. That is a truth we discovered in the Wednesday Bible study that focused on “Abraham Our Ancestor.” This is what Rabin writes of Abraham: “In his mix of reliance on God and self-reliance, in his being a family man whose choices sometimes alienate him from his family, in his tormented though confident and resourceful leadership, Abraham embodies the complexity characteristic of biblical heroes.” [Biblical Heroes, p. 155].
Being a saint involves the kind of complexity characteristic not only of the biblical heroes but all of us. Nevertheless, we can seek to embody the best of the saints of God, living and dead, as we take hold of the Word of God and “lead a life worthy of God.” So, as saints of God, what Word from God are you hearing? What Word is at work in you this day?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
All Saints Day
November 1, 2020
Image: Young Clergy Man Reading, Martinus Rorbye, Chicago Art Institute