Saturday, November 01, 2014

Sharing Ourselves

Sharing Ourselves
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8  [1]
These days it seems like we’re all trying to protect ourselves from something. Whether it’s crime, or a financial scam, or the latest health scare, it seems that we’re always protecting ourselves from something or someone. And when we go into that protective mode, our “walls” go up, our suspicions are high, and we close ourselves off from those around us. Don’t misunderstand: I realize there are aspects of our world that are frightening and even dangerous. But the question we face as people who practice the Christian faith is how we are going to respond to those concerns. It seems to me that we can either withdraw from everything or everyone around us, or we can find the good in life and open ourselves up the way St. Paul did.
I think that, as we look at our lesson from St. Paul for today, it’s all too easy for us to think of him as “St. Paul the Apostle.” We may even unconsciously envision him as having a halo of holiness visible around his head. But the reality is that St. Paul was a human being, subject to all the trials and hardships and fears that we are. I might even say that because he was constantly putting himself out there for the sake of the Gospel, he may have faced even more challenges with the dangers he faced. After all, as he tells us elsewhere, at one point in his ministry he had actually been pelted with stones and left for dead! I think many of us might re-think our career choice after experiencing something like that.
But St. Paul didn’t do that. In fact, he seemed to constantly be going from the frying pan into the fire as he went from town to town preaching the gospel. In our lesson for today, he mentions the fact that he had been “shamefully mistreated” at Philippi just before coming to Thessalonica. If we read the story of Paul’s visit to Philippi in the book of Acts, we find that he was arrested and thrown in jail, although it was illegal to do that to a Roman citizen without due cause.[2] I don’t know about you, but I wonder how willing I would be to go on preaching the gospel after spending a night in jail. I’ve never been in jail, so I can’t say for sure. But what I do know is that jails in St. Paul’s day were a far cry from jails today! I think it would be more accurate to say he spent the night in the city dungeon.[3]
And yet, after all that he had already been through, when St. Paul came to Thessalonica, a new town he’d never visited before, he says, “we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition” (2:2). Just exactly what that opposition was, we may not be able to know for sure. The story in the book of Acts mentions opponents who followed Paul from town to town, stirring up opposition against him, gathering crowds to run him out of town. Again, I find it amazing that Paul didn’t just sail away to a quiet place where he could just make tents in peace! But that’s not what he did. He kept right on proclaiming the Gospel because he was compelled by the love of Christ and the calling he had received from God.
What I find even more amazing is that, after all that Paul had already been through at the hands of his opponents in a wide variety of places, he says that he cared so much for the Thessalonians that he was “determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves” (2:8). It seems to me that it’s one thing to share the Gospel. That was taking a great risk in and of itself. But St. Paul went even further in sharing himself with them. He cared for them deeply. He opened his heart to them. And in doing so he made himself vulnerable. But I wonder if that’s not one of the reasons why the gospel took root so well in the hearts and minds of the people there.
We may be tempted to think that St. Paul’s experience doesn’t really have anything to do with most of us. After all, he was an apostle. What can the life of an Apostle teach those of us who are ordinary human beings? Maybe his life and example relate to pastors, but how do they relate to those of us who aren’t walking around with visible halos? Well, I think St. Paul himself answered that question on a number of occasions. He often instructed the people in the churches he was writing to follow his example, because he was striving to follow the example of Christ. In other words, St. Paul didn’t see himself as an example of someone with a special vocation. Rather, he saw his life and work as an example for all believers to follow.[4]
So it seems to me that what it comes down to is how we will respond to the example St. Paul and many others like him have set for us. They faced dangers and criticism and opposition--and many still do today. I think we have to determine what we will do with the dangers and criticism and opposition we face as we seek to live out the Christian faith and share the gospel with those around us. Our natural inclination may be to withdraw into our protective shell and hide from what we fear in our world. But it seems to me that if we’re going to follow the example of St. Paul, in fact if we’re going to follow the example of Christ, we’re going to have to find a way to get past our fears and our tendency to want to protect ourselves. If we want to share the gospel with those around us in our community, if we really want to share the gospel with them, we are going to have to find a way to get past our protective walls. We are going to have to be willing to risk our safety and open our hearts to the people around us. We are going to have to make ourselves vulnerable and share not only our faith but our very hearts and lives with them. It’s a bit scary to do that in our day and time, but I think the only way we can genuinely share our faith is if we share ourselves.[5]

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/26/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church in Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. F. F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 24-25: “The outrage ... lay not so much in their being subjected, Roman citizens though they were, to treatment from which Roman citizens were legally exempt, as to their being publicly stripped and flogged without any inquiry into the charges brought against them.”
[3] Cf. L. Gregory Bloomquist, “Subverted by Joy: Suffering and Joy in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians,” Interpretation 61 (July 2007): 274-75. He says, “Prison in antiquity was not a ‘holding cell,’ but a place to impose greater suffering on the wrongdoer than the wrongdoing itself had caused. We would be shocked by the length of imprisonment for crimes that today would be considered matters either for fines or for a short jail sentence. And we would be shocked by the conditions of the prisons—overcrowding, hunger, chains, filth, inadequate clothing, illness and death.”
[4] Cf. 1 Cor. 4:16, 11:1; Eph. 5:1; 1 Thess. 1:6.  See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 2.2:576.
[5] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 127: “All human relationships, …, are meant to be signs of God’s love for humanity as a whole and each person in particular. … Jesus reveals that we are called by God to be living witnesses of God’s love.”

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