Speaker: Cynthia Lapp
Last week at the church retreat we practiced looking at the biblical text from different perspectives. We looked at the story of Jesus feeding 5000 people with five loaves and two fish. We acted out the story from the perspective of the fish; from the perspective of a confused but in charge disciple; from the perspective of the excited child who offered her lunch; from the perspective of the NSA spying on the whole scene. It was a helpful, enlightening and hilarious exercise.
When I read the first letter to the Thessalonians this week I wasn’t sure which perspective to take: that of Paul, the receiving community, Timothy, Silas (or the NSA.)
Can we even choose a perspective before we know the context? This first letter to the Thessalonians is the first that Paul wrote to a worshipping community; it is the oldest writing in the New Testament. From the Book of Acts we learn that Paul and Silas had been imprisoned in Philippi. This is the “rough treatment” that Paul refers to in this letter. They are whipped and beaten and put in prison in Philippi after casting out an evil spirit from a slave girl.
That night, as they are singing and praying in prison, there is an earthquake which breaks their chains. But all the prisoners, led by Paul, stay in the prison. The terrified jailer is so grateful to not lose his prisoners – or his job – that he invites Paul and Silas home for a bath and dinner. His whole family is baptized and become Christ followers.
It is after this episode in Philippi that Paul flees and goes to Thessalonica where he starts a new congregation. According to the Book of Acts this congregation is Jewish but in this letter from Paul it sounds more like a congregation of converted Gentiles. In any case, Paul doesn’t stay in Thessalonica very long. He leaves in a hurry, again. Wherever he goes, Paul leaves not only new congregations of Christ followers but a trail of angry Romans and Jews.
Several months later, Paul would like to come back for a pastoral visit with this congregation in Thessalonica: do more teaching, answer their questions. However, it seems that he is suffering from illness. After hearing from Timothy about good things happening in the community, Paul sends Timothy to visit and deliver this letter, intended to be read aloud to the gathered community.
All of this is helpful background yet it does not help us decide from which perspective to read. And what we read here from Paul is a bit different than how the writer of Acts records things. We begin to see more clearly how each writer has their own agenda and perspective, thus tells the story a bit differently.
The approach I would like to take with these short verses from I Thessalonians is to read it together with the gospel reading for today (the greatest commandment is love for God and love for neighbor.) What if we read this text from the perspective of love. Certainly it sounds as if Paul loves this congregation, loves them like a nursing mother cares for her infant children, loves them like a father who tenderly holds his child’s hand.
All these many centuries later, reading some of Paul’s other letters as well as those attributed to Paul, we don’t always think of him as a loving pastor. We think of him as a strict teacher who knows the answers and what is best for his pupils, or a brave and bold missionary who has high expectations for his converts.
But in this first letter that Paul writes, it sounds like Paul loves his people. He wants the best for them; he implies that he doesn’t want to deceive them like some of the contemporary Stoic or Cynic philosophers might. He reminds them that when he was with them, he didn’t want the new believers to take care of him. He worked day and night to support himself financially and to encourage, support and comfort them in their new faith.
It might feel like cheating to read this part of the letter through the lens of tender love that Paul has for this congregation, the lens of love for God and neighbor. On the other hand, we do it all the time. As Anabaptists we keep the life of Jesus, the living Word, at the center when we read and interpret the text.
Of course that doesn’t mean that all Anabaptists agree on what the Word is, what Jesus would say or do. It seems like we read in the Mennonite press every week that another congregation is leaving Mennonite Church USA because they don’t agree with how other Mennonites are living out love of God and love of neighbor.
Which brings us to the situation with our local conference. This coming Saturday, the Allegheny Conference will meet at the Barrville congregation for the fall delegate session. On the agenda is discussion of the recommendation that the conference Leadership Council received from the Reconciliation Discernment Committee.
The recommendation begins with a series of statements of belief – we hold this common belief, however we do not all have the same understanding of what that belief means. (The whole recommendation is on the bulletin board in the foyer if you want to read it.) From the recommendation:
We believe that God is love.
We believe we are called to love God and love others as ourselves …
… however we recognize we have operated out of anger, fear, anxiety and pride and — in hurting our brothers and sisters — have hurt our relationship with God.
We believe that God heals a fallen world …
…however we recognize that we model God’s healing grace in different ways, some emphasizing welcome and others emphasizing repentance as essential.
We believe in the centrality of Jesus to our faith.
We believe Jesus is Lord and we are called to follow and obey his teachings …
… however we recognize we cannot agree amongst ourselves on how we are to live out that calling.
And it continues with more “we believe… however” statements.
As a conference, as a denomination, we are not alone in our struggle to find ways to fellowship and work together when we do not agree on biblical interpretation. We see this across the Christian church, across the Jewish tradition, certainly in Islam. And it is not just a twenty first century problem. Diversity of belief, diversity of experience and perspective, is part of the biblical tradition, part of the beauty of the book. We see it in the texts today: Acts 17 claims that the congregation in Thessalonica is Jewish. But a different canonical text, the letter to the congregation, implies that this was a group of Gentile converts.
So how do we love the text, the whole text, when it doesn’t agree with itself. How do we love the church, the whole church, when we cannot agree. How do we love each other and live together when we do not agree? One of the other statements from the recommendation says this:
We believe we love each other …
… however we recognize loving each other may not be enough to help us live with each other.
It is part of being human, that we do not always agree, or know how to live together. Though we are made in God’s image and we strive to love God and neighbor, we don’t always know how to live and work together, within families, within the church, across religions, across the political aisle.
After all these years, many of us are tired of the conflict with the conference, we are ready for it be over. In 2005, some in the conference expected that when the delegates told us we were not faithfully following the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective we would just say to the conference, “Ok, you are right, we will change our membership policy. It is not worth the silencing, not worth the alienation. On second thought, we’ll just leave.”
That we did not say this, that we did not leave, could be because we are stubborn, or that the pastor is stubborn. But I believe it is more than that. What has kept us connected to the conference is that we understand, as Paul says in his letter to the fledgling congregation in Thessalonica, we understand that God has entrusted us with the Message. We have experienced the Good News. We have experienced love in many different people here in this congregation, regardless of ability, orientation, race or language. We have seen the fruit of the Spirit in people across age, gender identity, and country of origin.
Despite the many ways we mess up and don’t understand each other, we have been entrusted with the message, God’s word, the Living Word which is Jesus.
How can we love and live together with the conference when the conference does not agree with how we live out church together? As a congregation we have been living into the mystery for over 10 years. Despite our disagreements we have been entrusted with the Message, the good news of life, of resurrection.
In fact, we are living proof. After nine years of living in limbo, of being “under discipline,” by all rights, we should be a depressed, struggling, declining congregation. And yet we know the Spirit is at work among us. We continue worshipping together, building community, reaching out to the local community, welcoming new members, engaging with people across the Mennonite Church, spreading the message that death is not the last word.
Philosopher Cornel West said recently, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Might we say “Justice is what love looks like in church.” It is not just the message of love that God has entrusted to us, it is also the message of justice. And it is this message of love and justice that has allowed us to thrive the past decade, to continue to engage with the conference, to see our siblings in Christ as family members who also seek love, are also entrusted with the message.
From some angles it does look like a problem, that we do not agree on what that message is. While we may say with Cornel West “Justice is what love looks like in church” others congregations in Allegheny Conference might say “Salvation is what love looks like in church,” or “Repentance is what love looks like in church.” I can imagine that in their various contexts salvation and repentance look like love. Our sibling congregations are entrusted with that message. May they be strengthened to share and spread that message of love in their communities and with their neighbors.
We have a different context for ministry: last night there was a shooting, at the University Town Center a few blocks from here, and three young people were taken to the hospital; this week we will welcome homeless families as guests in the fellowship hall; our neighbors across the street say they do not have electricity so they ask to plug their cell phones in at the church; in this congregation families come in many configurations of moms and dads and children and grandparents and aunties and uncles. In our context, justice looks like love. And we are committed to living that out, as we love God and love our neighbors.
We, like Paul, have been entrusted with the message, the good news of Christ, the mysterious news of resurrection, the gifts of love and justice. Let us share that mysterious good news – confidently, with hope and joy.