1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12
Janice Scott wrote once about how when her father was dying, he started to give away all his possessions. No-one, including him, knew at the time that he was dying. In fact although everyone knew he was ill, they didn’t realise quite how ill he was. He was always a tidy and methodical person, but around that time he began to sort out all his business and to give things away with a wild abandon which was quite refreshing to witness. Of course my colleague didn’t know he was dying, so she really admired the way in which he seemed to be able to cut all reliance on material things as though they were no longer important to him, and to reorganise his priorities and his values. Apparently this is a relatively common phenomenon. It’s as though even if they don’t know it consciously, people do know at some deep level that their life on this earth is coming to an end, and they have a sense of real urgency to get their affairs sorted out.
Perhaps there was something of this urgency about St Paul’s missionary journeys. Paul, like most other Christians of his time, expected the imminent return of Jesus to gather all the faithful together and whisk them off to heaven. In his early letters he was constantly warning the Christian community to make sure they were ready for the return of Jesus. St Paul probably visited Thessalonika around the summer of AD 49, only about 16 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus — still recent enough to be expecting Jesus in the flesh around any corner at any moment. Paul was a man with a mission – an urgent mission. Probably his sense of urgency was increased because of the violent opposition he encountered at Thessalonica. The hostility towards him was so great that he and Timothy and Silvanus, his co-workers, were forced to flee after only three weeks in the city.
No wonder he had to work so hard when he was there. I would find three weeks barely long enough to set up a desk, let alone to set up a church! But Paul did manage to start a church in Thessalonika, and in this first letter which he wrote to the Thessalonians a year or so later, he reminds them all of just how hard he did work. “You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day…while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God,” he tells them.
He reminds them too, that he was still doing his day job at the time, presumably making tents, as that was his occupation. So it’s something of a miracle that he was able to convert anyone in Thessalonika, let alone start a Church there. Heck – I have trouble getting everything done in the 40 to 50 hours a week that I work – I can’t imagine holding down a day job at the same time! Still, some of the Thessalonians must have been absolutely ripe for conversion, for Paul goes on to say, “We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.”
Current studies of evangelism have discovered that most people come to faith gradually, even when they receive the sort of blinding flash of light that St Paul received in his conversion on the road to Damascus. Even though the person concerned may be totally unaware of it, God has been working away inside them for years. Early experiences at Sunday School can have a profound effect on people years later, as can chance meetings, or unexpected kind remarks or deeds of generosity from unexpected people, or something seen on TV or heard on the radio or read in a book. It’s as though everything works together for good, so that when the right moment comes, that person is absolutely ripe for conversion. It’s also been discovered that most people are brought to faith by a friend, and that this experience is more likely to happen in a small group setting than in a church service.
So St. Paul had everything right. He himself had plenty of religious experience as a Pharisee prior to his conversion, and since the Thessalonian converts were both Jews and Gentiles, they would probably all have been worshipping in some way prior to St. Paul’s visit. Paul managed to tap into that previous worshipping experience and show that Jesus Christ filled all the holes of longing which were left by less satisfactory worship experiences. Then he started churches, which at that time were simply small groups of friends meeting together in each other’s homes – and the churches spread. Friends brought along more friends and family members, and Paul saw his task as laying the groundwork and teaching the basics of Christianity. And at that time, teaching a new morality of Christian behaviour which was unlike anything most of them had known before. As he says in today’s reading, he was “urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”
It was a very exciting time in the life of the Church. Exciting, because the Church grew at a phenomenal rate, but also a very dangerous time, because the Church was regarded with deep suspicion and hostility by both the religious and the secular authorities. This hostility was expressed in viciousness and violence towards Christians, but since it was a young people’s religion – different, new, creative and against the old ways, with a leader who died for his faith – the danger was probably a large ingredient in the very rapid expansion of the Church.
Things are not so very different now. Not that we can offer young people much in the way of physical danger (thank goodness!) but we in Canada are now living within a society which is hostile towards Christianity – indeed, religion of any kind. Perhaps we need to follow in the footsteps of St Paul and start meeting in each other’s homes to share faith and fellowship, and bring along our friends and relations – yes, even our kids. A recent study of some of the committed, involved people of our time showed that in almost every case, these people learned about commitment in the home: by listening to their parents’ conversations with other adults, by participating in their parents’ volunteer work, by talking with their parents about their involvement in their communities. Bringing Christianity back into the home is one way of opening it up to those who might not otherwise connect with the Gospel – including our young ones!
After all, there are a lot of people out there who only associate churches with weddings and funerals, and are very uncomfortable in our pews. And after all, it is from everyday people in everyday situations that most of us came to faith. We came to faith through the lay women and men who taught us Sunday School, through the parents or grandparents or teachers or CGIT leaders, who lived the faith daily, in their ordinary walks of life. They all had their day jobs, and did what they did for the church out of love of God and love of the Body of Christ. And if they were anything like the people I look up to, the people I think of as saints, they lived the faith just as much while at their day jobs as they did at the church: whether they were stay-at-home parents, teachers, policemen, soldiers, actors, students, farmers, whatever…
I suspect that while a very few of us may have found faith through Sunday sermons given by an effective preacher, most of us, if we were influenced by a minister at all, were more influenced by the warmth and caring with which they met the everyday events of life, than by the most brilliant preaching. I’m absolutely certain that none of us came to faith because the minister in their church wore the nicest robe or the biggest cross or gave the longest sermons – the contemporary equivalent to phylacteries and fringes!
No, it is through everyday saints that most of us come to faith. When we think about Paul, we often think of a larger-than-life figure: the inspired preacher, the talented theologian, the steadfast martyr. We forget that he made a living at an everyday job, just like you do; that he likely touched as many lives by sharing his faith with a customer over a ripped up tent as he did by well-written letters read out in church meetings. The First Letter to the Thessalonians, as we heard last week and this one, gives us a rare picture of the warmth and care with which he treated his fellow Christians, especially those new to and growing in the faith.
It is this kind of caring that really gets people’s attention: not the ostentatious show of righteousness or status that some Christians, especially some clergy, attempt to make, but the words of care and concern shared while handing over an order at the implement dealership; the listening ear while running errands at the Post Office; the helping hand at the grocery store… It is when we ask the question, “How Are You?” and we really want to hear the answer; it is when someone calls us up and says, “Do you have time to talk?” and you say, “Of course!” – those are moments of ministry. That’s what it is to be an everyday saint.
You and I encounter all kinds of people, day in and day out, who could use some words of hope and encouragement. We need to learn, as a Church, how to chat about our faith in an unthreatening and warm and welcoming way – to share that hope with others. Because you never know who might be needing the good news: the news that they are loved, the news that they don’t have to carry their burdens alone; the news that they are forgiven; the news that there is light for them in the midst of their darkness; the news that God knows their names. You never know what seeds your chance remarks or random act of kindness might plant. And you never know who might be lost to the life of faith because we failed to plant those seeds.
Christianity demands big things of us: justice, peace-making, healing of people and of creation. But it asks the little things of us too: the simple words and actions that show others what faithfulness means, what being a Christian is in the midst of the everyday. In our prayers today, we honour the saints. But more importantly, will our living honour them? May it be so. Amen.
(Today’s sermon is based on the work of The Reverend Janice Scott, Rural Dean of Redenhall Deanery, covering 32 parishes in South Norfolk, England. Janice is a wonderful preacher, a teller of great children’s stories, and one of the first women ordained in the UK)