In today’s Luke Gospel reading there are predictions about destruction and persecution, but also blessings and the promise of God’s reign. In the last days of his teachings inJerusalem, Jesus talks about a series of apocalyptic prophesies and images. He predicts the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, presents signs that the end time is near, and speaks about upcoming persecutions. There are some really scary predictions made here!
Much of what Jesus spoke about actually took place within the lifetimes of everyone who heard him speak. The temple was destroyed during the rebellion of AD 70, and the persecutions of the faithful Christians would occur during the early years of the church (recorded in the Book of Acts). These events occurring as Jesus had predicted verified him to be a prophet, and led his followers to believe his promise to come again. We can also feel confident in these promises, as we say in our Communion worship, “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Chris will come again!”
Our reading today from 2nd Thessalonians has some real interesting and useful directions for our Christian lives. It also provides us a helpful lesson in being careful when we read the Bible without having the full context of history and culture to help us. A friend of mine, Arthur Ruger, wrote recently (I do not know if this is original from him or from someone else!), “The Bible is like a finger pointing toward God ... many choose to worship the finger rather than where the finger points”. His view is that it is real easy to get all focused on the Bible as literal truth and religion, when it is our faith in God that should be our focus. Carefully studying what we read from the Bible in its historical and cultural context can actually give us more insight into God and his love and grace.
Paul, writing to the people of Thessalonica, gives the following instructions:
· Keep away from those who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that you received from us.
· Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.
One of the most well-known phrases from Paul’s letter is the one above that says, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” It is so well known, that it has been used in a couple of really different ways. The obvious literal one is that it has been used to promote the work ethic as biblical, and of course the corollary to this is that not working is unbiblical. It was also once adapted by Vladimir Lenin as an adage for the Soviet Union. "He who does not work, neither shall he eat." (I suppose Lenin was promoting that all should work to support the good of all in the country.)
Those who believe this phrase is calling for all to work to receive their food, insist that it is God’s will for every one to have a calling, to mind and make a business of it, and that no one should be idle. All should have some way to earn their living; otherwise they should not be allowed to eat. (The only caveat to this axiom is that those who are unable to work, the sick and afflicted, should be helped by those who can work.)
Some people take the phrase, “Keep away from believers who are living in idleness,” to say it is wrong to even associate with those who will not work, who are idle, that somehow real believers will be led astray by those who are providing a bad example. This bad example is that those who would not work are “mere busy bodies”, instead of working spending their time nosing in the affairs of other people.
I also read from one commentary a fairly reasonable, but not specifically Christian concept, that work is tied to worth, that people cannot feel good about themselves when they are without meaningful work or a purpose. It said that work produces vision, and vision reinforces work. We celebrate work and all of those who daily strive to legally earn a living and contribute to their families and communities. William Mathews wrote: “A great deal of the joy of life consists in perfectly, or at least to the best of one’s ability, everything which he attempts to do. There is a sense of satisfaction, a pride in surveying such a work—a work which is rounded, full, exact, complete in all its parts—which the superficial man, who leaves his work in a slovenly, slipshod, half-finished condition, can never know. It is this conscientious completeness which turns work into art. The smallest thing, well done, becomes artistic.”
What is the context for this letter from Paul?
Many scholars believe Paul wrote this second letter to the Thessalonians to clear up confusion caused by his first letter to them. In his first letter Paul had written about the second coming of Christ. These scholars think that Paul's having written about the second coming of Christ in his first letter led members of the church in Thessalonica to believe the coming of Christ was most imminent. Others think that the people were being upset by false reports that were supposed to have come from Paul that the day of Christ's coming in judgment had already occurred. Last week we read in Paul 2nd letter, Chapter 2, “As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here.” Some of the people had quit their jobs, refused to work, and had become idle busybodies and gossips. Some may have even believed that by stopping work they were being truly faithful, and could make the point that continuing to work was an example of faithlessness. Thus, Paul maybe wrote his second letter to correct the Thessalonians' misconception about the coming of Christ and to admonish them to work again—get on with their normal lives.
Another context--In Luke 10 Jesus sent his followers out to “preach the good news”. He told them to take nothing with them. They were to expect those to whom they went to provide for them. In 1 Corinthians Paul affirmed that those who “preach the word of God have the right to expect this provision.” Paul and his disciples, though, had visited Thessalonica once before, and had by their example shown those people a very different concept. Unlike some other Christian leaders who had come before who believed Jesus had taught that they were owed support for their preaching, they had worked alongside the people for their meals and lodging, while also preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ. Paul and his friends did not have to work this hard. They could have asked for food and other provision from those who had become Christians. Instead, they worked hard so that there would be no cost to the Thessalonians, showing a model that they could copy.
So, what is the “right” way to look at Paul’s instructions in this letter?
We had a short, but lively discussion about this in our Bible study this week. I know we all want to think that a good work ethic is one of the great Christian principles, but I think it is best to not get too focused on the “work as a biblical principle” idea, or also its corollary of “unbiblical laziness by those not working”. This just promotes a concept that those who work are better, and more Christian, than those who don’t. Do we really believe that? In these economic times, where we see headlines like, “Over 50, Out of Work and Financially Squeezed”, that is a real stretch--it unfairly judges those who have been unfortunate to have lost their jobs and cannot find reasonable ones. It also is not proper to use this passage to argue for not providing unemployment benefits for those out of work.
Using the biblical work ethic idea, that it is being a good Christian by working, can lead to over-emphasizing work to “get ahead”, to work excessively or to the detriment of the rest of our lives for material things or for a great retirement, or at the expense of our relationships with others --including those in our Christian community. I know about this from my own personal experience in my early years working at Boeing; I worked really long days and lots of weekends to get ahead and get us a few extra materials things, while Bonnie was left to do her mother and parent thing with our kids, as best she could. I was not around as much as I could have and I missed out on some important times in our kids’ early years.
Paul was actually telling those people of Thessalonica that Jesus had indeed not come yet, that to continuing working and getting on with their lives and ministry was to be faithful with God’s present and future purpose for them, and a good example to others who might become Christians, and that helping others who cannot work was important, too. He added to these instructions by telling them all to work quietly, not get involved excessively in what others do, and to be diligent and not weary in doing what they know to be right, for Christ.
Is there a way we can apply these instructions to our lives today? One way is to think about working, as a Christian, as an opportunity to use those gifts that God has given to each of us.
In Ephesians 4, Paul says, “But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” Paul also says, in 1 Corinthians 12, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.
I think we all in some way can relate to one or more of the above roles using the gifts given to us to be workers in God’s church, in essence the way that Total Common Ministry works. You have been given, via the latest bi-monthly newsletter, the annual commitment card to fill out for your $$ pledge to support St. Mark’s. I appreciate all of you for your efforts with these pledges of money to contribute to the ministry of this church. Along with that commitment card is a part where you can mark what role or roles you will pledge to do for this church next year. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving we will bring these cards up with our other offerings to be given to God for the work of the church. Please consider prayerfully what you can do for this church in the coming year.
God gifts us all to contribute, in Christian freedom and mutual respect, to the good of all. "In Jesus Christ," we give each other our best efforts, doing good work and serving human need out of love for one another and our Lord. AMEN.