12 November 2007

That You May Obtain The Glory Of Christ.

Proper 27, Yr. C
2 Thes 2.13-3.5
11 November 2007
Church of the Holy Communion
The Rev’d Patrick S. Allen

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Today, as you no doubt are aware, is Veterans Day – a day set aside to honor and express our gratitude to and for those who have given of themselves to the service of our nation in the Armed Forces. Thinking about Veterans Day brought to mind an essay I recently read, an essay occasioned by the posthumous awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor to Navy Lt. Patrick Murphy, who, with great courage and full understanding of what he was doing, laid down his own life to save the lives of the Navy Seals in his squad, high in the mountains of Afghanistan. After detailing Lt. Murphy’s heroic acts, the author – a captain in the 82nd Airborne, as it happens – had this to say:

What makes men like Lt. Murphy do such extraordinary things? In the U.S. military, we often say, “Drive on.” We say this in myriad settings to convey in two simple words that difficulties must be overcome. It means that you never quit, that you keep going, that you always find the will to accomplish your mission. The military teaches and endlessly develops the will of its members to drive on. Combat is hard—much, much harder than most people ever realize. . . The only way to win is to drive on, even—and even especially—when you don’t think you can go any further.[i]

So today we are grateful for our veterans who found the courage and the will to “drive on,” even – and even especially – when it didn’t seem possible to go any further. Considering this kind of will and courage gives us perhaps a bit of insight into this morning’s epistle lesson, in which St. Paul writes to the young church at Thessalonica, encouraging them, essentially, to “drive on.” He writes because they are down, discouraged, even despondent; they are losing hope. So much so that some are abandoning their new faith in Jesus Christ, the faith they had received from St. Paul and his fellow missionaries. But Paul encourages them; he urges them to hold on, to “drive on,” and not to give in to doubt and despair: So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions you were taught by us. But Paul’s ringing “Stand firm” is not just more hollow encouragement, nor is it some grim stoic incentive to bear up manfully under difficult circumstances. No, he gives them something they can use, a truth they can hold on to that will fill them with confidence and courage and even joy, despite all that is arrayed against them.

Before looking at the content of that encouragement, it’s worth looking at what it is that stands against the Thessalonian church, at the forces pressuring them into abandoning the cause of Christ.

Well, if you were to sit down this afternoon and read both these epistles to the Thessalonians, which wouldn’t take more than half an hour, several of problems would be apparent. For instance, it seems that some from the local Thessalonican synagogue had questioned Paul’s credentials and integrity. In that day, as in our own, there were any number of huckster preachers and teachers who sought to enrich themselves by pulling in the gullible with wise-sounding but specious words. Some apparently charged that this new faith in Jesus as God’s messiah was simply the product of Paul’s fevered and fertile imagination. Beyond that, following Christ meant a new and different way of life, adhering to a higher and stricter moral code, and so there was considerable pressure to return to a more lax pagan sexual lifestyle. And beyond this cultural pressure, they had doctrinal questions as well, and not due solely to the distortions of false teachers. Indeed, they were confused by some of the teaching of Paul himself – certainly we can relate! Paul had told them the return of Christ in glory was imminent. Well, where was he? What was the hold up? And what about those brothers and sisters who had died? Having died prior to Christ’s return, what would become of them? What could it possibly mean to have a resurrection body? And finally, there is evidence of some persecution of this young church, and this is not surprising. Flannery O’Connor paraphrased Jesus and said, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” Knowing the truth – knowing Jesus – had made these first generation Christians, among other things, odd. And anyone who has lived through middle school knows what the odd are in for. There is incredible pressure – implicit, explicit, and sometimes violent – to conform. Following Christ then as now meant living against the grain, swimming against the tide.

In short, this church 2,000 years ago felt all the same pressures we do. They had all the same reasons to give in, to ease their own way by conforming to the world rather than being transformed by the Gospel. And to them and to us, Paul doesn’t give hollow encouragement but real help. He gives a job to do, but also the tools to do it with.

So what does Paul give them? Well, he does not give them a discipline to practice; he does not give them a mantra to repeat – “All is well, all is well.” Instead, he gives them a short course in theology.

I used to look occasionally at a magazine called Credenda/Agenda. We all know what an “agenda” is. “Agenda” is just a Latin word that means “things to be done.” Similarly, “credenda” just means something like “things to be believed.” And the magazine title got the order just right, the same order that St. Paul always used. First comes the credenda – that which is to be believed – and only then comes the agenda – that which is to be done.

And the theology, the credenda, that Paul gives doesn’t just tell us what to do, it actually gives power to do it. Remember what Paul says: “So then, brethren, stand firm.” That phrase we have translated as “so then” in Greek always introduces a logical necessity, an inescapable conclusion. What Paul has just told them leads, and leads necessarily, to stability of life and faith despite all the pressures brought to bear by the world, the flesh, and the devil – if we will believe and live it.

So, what did Paul tell them? He gives thanks for the Thessalonians, because, he says,

“God chose you from the beginning to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our Gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Now there is a lot there. In two sentences, Paul has given us an entire system of theology. A system of theology that teaches us that God has destined his faithful people for glory. All that we have been through, all that we are going through, all that we ever will go through, God is bending and using and redeeming for this purpose: that we might “obtain to the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is for this that God has chosen and sanctified and called us by the Gospel.

Now, how does this work? How does this bedrock truth, this bit of theology, this credendum, lead, and necessarily lead, to stability and fixity of purpose?

It does so because it allows us to take our eyes of ourselves, off of our own wavering and faltering faith, and to focus them steadily on our God who is faithful, in whom there is “no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”[ii] It teaches us to see our emotional highs and lows for what they are –temporary, subjective states, which do not alter the objective reality of what God is doing and where he is taking us. It teaches us to see that the circumstances in which we find ourselves are the arena in which, and the means by which, God is working out his purpose, “so that you may obtain to the glory of Christ.” Our circumstances, our struggles, our problems – and also our triumphs and joys – are real. Paul is not encouraging some Eastern-style detachment that says suffering is an illusion and evil unreal. Rather, while our circumstances may, and at some point certainly will, involve us in deep suffering and real evil, Paul would have us remember that our circumstances are not ultimate; instead, they are means which God is using to prepare us to share in the eternal life of the Blessed Trinity. Suffering is not the last word. Glory is.

In his wonderful little book The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis gives us a wise insight in the form of some advice from a very senior, experienced devil giving advice to a younger, rookie devil in how to tempt a man to hell. The man in question has fallen in love, and the junior devil wants to know how to make use of this circumstance for his diabolical ends. But Screwtape cautions his advisee. He tells him that the circumstance of being in love, “like most of the other things the humans are excited about, such as health and sickness, age and youth, war and peace, it is, from the point of view of the spiritual life, mainly raw material.”[iii]

“Mainly raw material.” In short, Paul is telling us to keep our eyes on the big picture, on the end game. Remember who called you – your loving Father. Remember who you are – his beloved child. And remember your loving Father’s plan and purpose – “that you may obtain to the glory of Christ.”

And, then, stand firm.

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[i] http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/?p=888
[ii] James 1.17
[iii] Screwtape Letters, Ch. XIX



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