TO THIS END
Preached by Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
II Thessalonians 1: 5-12
Champaign Faith UMC
November 3, 2013
Methodism began its work in the Republic of Macedonia about 140 years ago. To understand its purpose in 2013, I wanted to know how that part of the church understood its mission. So I dialed up their website. Here is what they wrote. “At the center of our church life is God’s love, which became apparent in the coming of Jesus Christ and it is vital for all. This loves helps us to be wholly valued persons; it makes us capable of sharing this divine love with all persons. All who would like to visit our church services are cordially welcome. We are a church open to all people, regardless of their nationality, background or age.”
Their mission statement evoked thanksgiving and hope. God’s love, valuing others “regardless of nationality, background or age” suggested that churches in modern Macedonia desire to serve all God’s children. In like manner, Paul praised the first century Thessalonian Church. Evangelical success had become a reality. Also, Paul prayed that they would be worthy in God’s sight and resolve to be even more faithful. Lead Pastor, the Apostle Paul supported by the competent work of two Associate Pastors, namely Silvanus and Timothy wrote about these matters in Second Thessalonians.
Paul is happy and complimentary that his church in Thessalonica, now called Thessaloniki is growing. It’s a miracle. People are joining the church in droves. This growth is of no small success. Jews and Gentiles make up that church. Divided by social mores and customs, nationality, culture, their histories of the conquered and the conquer, unresolved hassles of race and religion; the life, death and resurrection and teachings of Jesus Christ are lived out among members that it lowers and/or breaks down the dividing walls of hostility in such a way that all flesh see it together, if only for a season. It’s a miracle. Paul is effusive with praise because his leadership in “teaching the faith” has flourished. Scripture is silent. But Silas and Timothy were skilled teachers of the good news. In his own right, Timothy was an expert teacher in the Septuagint, the Greek Bible. Bottom line, Paul remarked on another occasion that “he had no one like him.” More importantly, an effective teaching ministry bears fruit. Notice how this teaching translates from gnosis to action. “We (meaning Paul, Silas and Timothy) must give thanks to God for you brothers and sisters…because your faith is growing abundantly and the love of every one of you is increasing.” Wouldn’t you like to be in that church? When one’s teaching takes root, its gift and blessing. Recipients discover and take advantage of it in their daily lives. In this audience, most of us could speak the name of a teacher who touched our lives with knowledge and even more with their caring. Sister Paula, a Benedictine Nun, taught me to play the piano.
This Bishop is grateful for the teaching ministry of Faith UMC. District Superintendent, In-Sook Hwang, provided me with copies of your pastor’s report for Charge Conference. I read them. I learned about your teaching ministry in general and Disciple Bible Study in particular. Stated one report, “I have become passionate about leading Disciple Bible Study…we have been very successful in establishing (it) …enrolling a total of 76 persons in seven different Disciple groups...by popular demand a third Disciple 1 group of 13 students has been added…this year marks the 14th group of Disciple 1 participants.” When Disciple Bible Study knowledge explodes into belief and commitment of participants, transformation of individual and corporate will continually spill over into the ministry of Faith UMC and grow. It happens in Thessaloniki.
Ultimately, the greatest source of Paul’s thanksgiving about the Thessalonian church may have been lay empowerment. How so? Paul had so effectively interpreted and promoted the idea that Jesus Christ was the Messiah that a stream of Jews left the synagogue and began following him. Some of the Jewish officials rebuked Paul by inciting crowds to riot, throwing him and his cohorts in jail, pursuing him in other cities and threatening to kill him. He became persona non grata. Thus, Paul never visited Thessalonica again. Through prayer, personal messengers and two epistles; Paul provided leadership in absentia. Without the Lead Pastor or his Associates present, the church still grew exponentially, lay leadership. Paul couldn’t hold his peace. It was a miracle. To this end, I can imagine the Apostle lifting up holy hands and saying “Thank you Jesus.” My Damascus Road experience tells me that “nothing is impossible with God.” If God can turn me around, God can grow a church in my absence. One songwriter put it this way, “it is no secret what God can do. What He’s done for others; He’ll do for you.”
After praising the Thessalonians effusively, Paul strikes a cautionary tone. Why, Paul asks that God make the Thessalonian Church worthy of his call. Why? The apostle goes beyond thanks giving and compliments and boasts about the church. For example, it is one thing to say that Faith UMC offers a powerful ministry to the members, this community and the region. It’s quite another to describe the Faith UMC and its pastoral leadership as the model versus a model other churches ought to study and follow. We call that pressure. Yes, Paul declares the Thessalonian Church as the standard. I like the plain speak of The Message here. “We’re (Paul, Silas and Timothy) so proud of you; you’re so steady and determined in your faith despite all the hard times that have come down on you. We tell everyone we meet in the churches all about you.”
Can’t you imagine some of the responses of lay and clergy upon hearing or reading Paul’s opinion? Let’s see what we can learn from the Thessalonians. Maybe we can replicate their success. That big church is not so hot. Our lay preacher can out preach theirs. We’re small but we’re mighty. At least, Pastor Paul can visit us. Our town is not so dangerous that his opposition want to kill him. Besides, we won’t let anyone take his life. Wonder why Lead Pastor didn’t brag about us? We need encouragement too. Don’t worry about the Thessalonians. What goes up; must come down. Recognizing the pressure his public acclamation puts on the church at Thessaloniki, Paul writes “I am praying for you that you might be worthy of call.”
Faith UMC, however you see yourself, understand your ministry, celebrate the gifts and graces of your leadership, lay and clergy, you are a model church whether you want to be or not. Somebody’s watching you. Somebody’s learning from you. Like Paul, they make a judgment about Faith UMC, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health as long as ye both shall live. A pregnant statement in the Maxwell Leadership Bible is insightful. “When leaders or churches surrender their credibility, they lose the right to lead.” After Paul thanks God and boasts on the Thessalonians, he prays that his church will never lose the right to lead.
We are all models for something or someone. Whoever we are at home, on the job or in the church, we are models. When the Cardinals win and when they lose, we are models. When sickness, death, job loss, a wayward child or estranged spouse come knocking at the door of your heart, your response to these dilemmas will be modeled by someone who admires what you are all about. When a person surrenders their credibility, they lose the right to lead. Faith UMC, in modeling the life of Christ with your expertise in fine display; hold on to your credibility. More than that, pray that God will help the church to be worthy of the ministry to which it has been called.
On Sept. 1, 2012, I was assigned to my third and last tour of duty as an active bishop in The United Methodist Church. During those 17 years, I have worked with three Assistants to the Bishop. Jan Griffith became my first female appointee. Last week, she made a comment all my Assistants have made over the years. “I want to make you look good,” she said. Beyond thank you to Jan, my heartfelt response to God has been synonymous. “I’ve strived to make God look good.” In short, God called me into ministry through my grandmother “so that the name of Jesus may be glorified.” Ministry can’t be about me. Let your light so shine before humankind that they may see your good works and glorify God who is in heaven.”
Has Faith UMC sought to live out its ministry for Christ alone? Only God knows; yet I have gleaned that spirit here. Disciple Bible Study has kept you in the Word; affected and informed your beliefs and commitments. The mission and vision of Faith UMC have made you an open an affirming community, utilize the insights of Luke 4: 17-19, opened your eyes to social justice, religion and race, offer diverse worship venues and sponsor hands on ministry at home through ASP and abroad via Juarez, Mexico, ad infinitum. The telling comment and the hope one pastor expressed about Faith’s approach to ministry seemed very clear. “Our disciple making process is one that encompasses all that we do at Faith UMC as our ministries are guided toward personal and world transformation in the name of Jesus Christ.” In other words, Faith United Methodist Church does what it does so that the name of Jesus Christ might be glorified.” Anything less won’t live up to high calling of discipleship in Christ Jesus.
At the beginning of the sermon, I mentioned The United Methodist Church in Macedonia. My reading revealed some parallels. The economy has tanked in Macedonia as well. Political unrest, military skirmishes, refugee incursions, unemployment and people living below the poverty, health care have dominated the concerns of the Macedonians. To this end, local congregations have responded with Meals on Wheels, Food and Clothes Pantries, spiritual nurture, outreach and witness. None of this vital ministry would have happened without the “faith and courage” of a group called Bible Women.
Bible Women in Macedonia functioned like Circuit Riders in America. On foot and horseback weather fair or foul, they travelled to every city, town and village in Macedonia. They were scorned, cursed, stoned, disrespected and often thrown in prison. Such demonic treatment failed to dissuade them. These persecuted Bible women gave up marriage and children to preach the gospel, organize sewing circles and nursing groups. They taught other women to read and write, conducted Disciple Bible Studies, started schools, churches and rebuilt those burned down. Then the writers of this history added their word of thanks to God for these Bible women. “But congregations survived this treatment. They still exist today, and they are growing.”
To this end, we see the most heartfelt reason why Paul celebrated the ministry of the Thessalonian church. Against persecution of the highest order; the church grew. Their faith grew. Church and Society were transformed. To this end, Faith UMC you have the people, the programs, the leadership, the disciples-lay and clergy to transform your world on behalf of Jesus Christ whatever struggles you may encounter. “Let your light so shine before humankind that they may see your good works and glorify God in heaven.” To this end, I have come to say all these things to you. Lead Pastor Paul, the Apostle Paul is right, “we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.” Amen.