The Sunday Sermon: April 11, 2021 – Second Sunday of Easter
Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 5:12-24
Easter Life: Getting with the Program
The journey of Lent takes us to the cross and onto the cross, if we allow it – and I hope you did, to some small degree or another, because that allows Easter morning to be even more powerful for you. Easter morning empties the cross of its worldly power to shame, torture and kill – literally for some, more figuratively for most of us; replacing shame and death with the power of God to reconcile, redeem, and resurrect life itself.
In this time after Easter, Eastertide, we move beyond the cross, taking our own experience of resurrection into the world that all may hear the Good News and have the opportunity to experience the new life possible because God said “no” to the worst the world could offer. This is Eastertide. And we are setting sail on another annual journey that just may find us back inside the cargo hold of our beloved ship, the sanctuary of Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church before it’s done!
Pray with me …
During the Season of Eastertide, the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost, we always travel. Not physically on Sunday morning, but intellectually and, I hope, emotionally. We’ve done this before, but we’re going to do it again because this year, as Pentecost approaches on May 23rd, we hope to be back in an old place with new vision from the year we’ve just been through. We’re going to travel to six of the first cities we know of where the message of Jesus of Nazareth was being proclaimed and embraced. Six of the first cities where those who were gathering in Jesus’ name were engaging in an ordered way of life together that would soon become known as “Christianity.” And I’ll tell you why we’re going to do that:
I’m not sure if you can remember this far back, but we asked a lot of questions during our season of Lent. (Only a few weeks ago, but a lot has happened since then, right?!) In most of the sermon messages since early March, I included the questions of Lent for 2021 that came from the devotional book that guided us:
- Do we have the eyes to see God’s near presence all around us?
- Will we open ourselves to the holy not only in heaven but also on earth, right in front of us?
- Can we and will we look for the living … among the living?
We responded finally to those questions on Easter morning last week: Yes! We can and we will! And so we begin this morning and in the weeks ahead to fulfill that Easter promise.
Because of the God and Christ that we discovered this past Lent, week after week in ordinary object like bread, shoes, and coats, we believe that the Kingdom of God is here right now – on Earth. Jesus, himself, believed that. He didn’t simply proclaim the “soon to come” end of evil, and injustice, and violence here on earth. During his lifetime he proclaimed that the ending had already begun; that through the Way of Life he shared, taught and modeled, the Kingdom of Heaven was already among us. It wasn’t and isn’t yet complete, this kingdom. Jesus proclaimed that as well. There is work to be done. And so he called his followers then, just as we believers are called now, to participate cooperatively with God.
That’s what Eastertide is always about, and is about this year for us. This year we are going to discover how we are “participating cooperatively with God” creating heaven on earth, we’re going to explore how we are “getting with the program” through our own Easter life. And to help us do this in our day and age, we’re going to visit a few of the first communities who gathered around the belief that they must join in with the “divine program” of making the world a better and more just place, and we’re going to explore what they were doing to realize, to make real, heaven on earth. Let’s embark …
We begin our travels in the small provincial capital of Macedonia. In his short letter to the Thessalonians, the oldest known writing in our New Testament, Paul concludes … Read 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22
That’s how the first Christian community in Thessalonica was “getting with the program: respect, high esteem, peace, encouragement, patience, rejoicing, prayer, thanksgiving, abstaining, and holding fast to, with and for one another.
It is crucial as we begin to remind ourselves of something that I share constantly, but that is so easily forget: Jesus, as this new community’s decisive revelation of God, did not reveal a violent, vengeful, and wrathful God. He did not reveal the God that is so popular with movies, and literature, and “hell and damnation” telecasts do common and appealing to us today. He disclosed a nonviolent, compassionate, and loving God. It was and is this same God, one who insists that peace on earth will only come through righteousness and justice on earth, that Paul announced to the early Christian communities. Jesus reveals this God. Paul proclaims this God. The communities that first “got with the program” embrace this God. First to do it … the Thessalonians.
In the year 50 C.E., about twenty years after the death of Jesus, the Thessalonians had already been a loyal Roman city for over two hundred years. They enjoyed prosperity and diversity and were well placed for an important future with all their city had to offer the Realm, the Empire. They were set, that is, for an important Roman future. It was into the midst of the Roman Emperor as God and violence as the peacemaker that Paul marched with his message of Christ as Lord and Justice as the only path to true peace.
He did so because he believed, as we do, that the process of making the world a more “just place” has already begun in and through the life of Jesus of Nazareth and the resurrection of Jesus the Christ. And if the process of making the world a more “just place” has already begun in Jesus Christ, then the only way to “get with the program” and continue this effort was to oppose anyone or anything that gets in the way of justice and peace for all. That anyone happened to be the Roman Emperor. And that anything happened to be the Roman Empire. How in the world was the new Christian community in Thessalonica supposed to make their city a more just place? What power did they have?
It’s not military power, a control of force and violence. It’s not economic power. Though some may have been well-off, there was surely little money and less control of labor or production. It wasn’t political power, either, to be sure. No, what Paul had and what he offered the community in the capital of Macedonia was not legions or politicians or products, but ideas and an alternative faith. We appeal to you brothers and sisters, to respect … to esteem … to encourage … to help … to be patient … not to repay evil for evil but to always seek to do good to one another and to all. The Thessalonians were “joining Christ’s program” by striving to do all these things and more. What about us?
It’s a pretty counter cultural thing, this “share-world.” It replaces the “greed-world” we’re all pretty used to. It’s curious for us to consider, I think, that, as we noted earlier, when Paul arrived in the city of Thessalonica the Thessalonians had already been a loyal Roman community for over two hundred years. That’s about the same amount of time we’ve been an American community. As with the Thessalonians two millennia ago, citizens like us in the United States also enjoy prosperity and believe ourselves set for an important future. But whose future, whose Kingdom, are we committed to?
That’s the question of Eastertide: Whose Kingdom are we committed to?
We’ll come back to that question over and over again in our travels with Paul, but we’ll conclude this morning’s leg of the journey in this way: You can’t read the book of 1 Thessalonians without taking seriously Paul’s conviction that the “coming of the Lord” would happen in his lifetime.
Perhaps that made his “always rejoice, prayer without ceasing, and constant thanksgiving” a bit more manageable. After all, it wouldn’t be for long! But on the question of time, Paul was completely wrong – wrong by a little less than two thousand years and counting, just as every other hope, expectation, proclamation, or prophecy of a (literal) violent apocalyptic second coming has been wrong throughout human history.
So, here we are right back where we started: Paul, like Jesus before him, didn’t simply proclaim the “soon to happen” end of evil, injustice, and violence, the “soon to be” revelation, or apocalypse. They proclaimed that this end has begun already (surprise!) and that you and I are called to participate with God (surprise, again) to help complete the end of evil and injustice and violence, however long it takes.
So as we prepare to gather around our table this morning, perhaps we may consider that the Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen supernaturally. Perhaps the Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the first peaceful, righteous, and just Coming was the only Coming and “get with the program,” cooperating with the divine presence all around us.
The community in Thessalonica was seeking to “get with the program” that Jesus revealed and that Paul proclaimed. They strove to live a life pleasing to God. In a few moments as I recite and you listen again to Paul’s “Words of Institution” for our Communion, we just may hear his concluding words with bit more urgency: As often as we eat this bread and drink from this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again. And again and again and again. Whenever we remember.
This is our Easter life: Getting with the program. May we do so even more fully this year. Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor
Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / April 11, 2021