+Rev Dr Edgar Mayer – Living Grace Lutheran Church, Toowoomba – Date: 2 February 2014
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An Edge to the Family
Paul and the Christians in Thessalonica loved each other and exchanged affectionate words:
1 Thessalonians 3:6-13: But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. Therefore, brothers and sisters, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.
Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.
1 Thessalonians 2:6-12: We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. Instead, we were like young children among you.
Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.
Paul’s words overflow with emotions:
1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:2: But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way. For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy.
So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith.
For him, love was of the utmost value:
1 Thessalonians 4:9-10: Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more.
Is this attractive to you? How about living in community – a big church family – with brothers and sisters – leaders that are like nursing mothers and encouraging fathers? How about being so close to each other that we cannot bear being separated?
Is this a pipe-dream? Not according to Paul! It is Jesus Christ, the Saviour, who is the head of the church family and it is his love which sustains everyone: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other” (1 Thessalonians 3:12). [“… our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit …” (1 Thessalonians 1:5).] Drawing on Jesus – not ourselves – there’s going to be enough love for everyone – it’s going to be overflowing – because Jesus’ kind of love and the extent of his love can be seen on the cross.
We may not yet have seen the reality of an absolutely loving church but – if you are buying into this vision – what are your expectations? When you join a church, what are you looking for? It’s safe to say that everyone is looking for love – (neither good preaching nor programs are anything without love). We want to be at a place where we can relax and enjoy some warm and fuzzy attention. (We may not admit it but it’s nice when someone fusses about you having morning tea and a good seat.)
Yet, for Paul, there was an edge to being in a church family which is often lost today. Let me explain what I mean. I begin by telling another testimony of Heidi Baker:
Heidi Baker testimony: … going to this village that has been notoriously difficult for us … chopped a few of our pastors … I was in my Land Rover and was dealing with a crisis … and suddenly everything started shaking around me. My Land Rover started shaking and it was just really bad – dangerous bad. Something beautiful happened that night. One of the most beautiful nights of my life – as a Mama … This guy – a son of mine – young man … I picked him up on the streets when he was maybe fourteen or fifteen (he didn’t know). And he’d never been to school … couldn’t read or write … and he didn’t understand who he was … “rascal son” … I would pour into him – love and everything – but this one did not understand who he was. I talked to him about his identity and what he would carry in God … and he would not really understand and still had an orphan spirit inside his heart.
This particular night, when I was in my Land Rover and some people were out there and suddenly people from another faith started throwing things and smashing the sound-system into the ground and beating our pastors and this group of men came towards me to beat me … and obviously this is not a problem except it’s better to live for the Gospel than to die … Yes, we are willing to die … but it is better to live because there is a lost broken world out there … better to live for the King than die …
So I watched this beautiful thing to take place. As these men came up toward me to beat me, this young man – Dilo – put himself like this. He stretched out his arm between me and those that were coming to beat me and he took the beating for me. He just took it. He took it for me and he screamed: “Mum, get into the truck.” And he is being beaten. And in my mind, I don’t have a grid for this. I don’t know how to get into the truck and leave me son there being beaten. But I had a truck full of other people and my husband at the time was still very sick. He did not know where he was and I had to get him into the truck … people beating and slamming. Dilo said: “Get in and drive.” I couldn’t believe it but I began to drive. I knew there was another truck.
I am just praying in the Spirit: “Lord, Lord, protect my children. Come in your glory and might.” What happened was so spectacular. Somehow, other brothers managed to get Dilo and two others that had been badly beaten into the truck and take them to the police station. Well, when we got there (I got there first), I remember their faces. They had been beaten badly and they were weeping. And they said: “What a privilege! What a privilege! What a privilege! What a privilege!” And they were just full of this presence of God. They were radiating. And I watched Dilo into a Spirit of adoption where he suddenly knew who he was. For the first time in his life, he knew who he was. “I am a son. God loves me and, because I am a son, I have the freedom to lay down my life for love.” “I am a son and I am loved.”
It was a beautiful thing. They arrested the men who wanted to murder our beautiful laid-down lovers. And of course, we did what we always do … The police get very ticked at us. We go into the police station. The three beaten up got the privilege to go and release those that beat them and speak about God’s grace, kindness, forgiveness and love.
So we sent the three guys. It happened on Thursday night and on Sunday they were at the police station, speaking to those men that had beaten them and speaking about the love of God, the love of Jesus, the passionate love of God. And they said to them: “We love you. We forgive you. We bless you. We honour you.” And those men from a people of another faith said: “We will never convert and meet this Jesus but because of the love and mercy you have shown us we will allow all of our children to come to your church.” And our church there is filled with children … filled with children. After years of struggling to get even six people in there, it is filled with worshipping children. Hallelujah! We should be happy. Amazing! Look at Romans 8:5 …
Dilo was loved by Heidi. She poured love into him and something happened in this young man. In turn, he stretched out his arm covering Heidi and took the beating intended for her and – even more importantly – in the midst of the beating – he realized who he was – someone that belonged to Jesus – someone that was a son of God – and had the amazing privilege of suffering for him. God considered him worthy to represent him and overcome hate with love. He experienced his identity – being full of the Spirit of God.
In this testimony, we find the church family in action but we can also see that there is an edge to our relationships. At times, we – any church – need to function under pressure and even persecution which was exactly the case for Paul and the church in Thessalonica:
1 Thessalonians 1:6: You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.
1 Thessalonians 2:2: We had previously suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition.
1 Thessalonians 3:2-5: We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you and that our labours might have been in vain. [Cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16.]
Heidi had a wonderful testimony but positive outcomes are not assured. Paul feared that his work in Thessalonica could have been in vain. Pressure and persecution are real threats – (witches come on the church ground and curse us – rejection and negative words come against us) – which means that the church family – our relationship network – cannot just be cuddly and soft but has to have resilience and discipline.
And this is where it gets complicated. The church has more than one dimension. It is not just a family – with nursing mothers, encouraging fathers, brothers and sisters in the faith – but also a cause and (if you want) an organization (corporation). As a church member, you sign up to the cause of mission work – obeying Jesus’ commission to disciple nations – and we pursue this cause against resistance. Then – in order to be effective – we are organized. This is the corporate aspect. Paul was not only an encouraging father figure but also an apostle who held a certain rank in the church structure.
Community (church family):
1 Thessalonians 2:11: For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children.
1 Thessalonians 3:11: Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you.
1 Thessalonians 4:10: And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more.
1 Thessalonians 5:26: Greet all God’s people with a holy kiss.
1 Thessalonians 1:7-8: And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you …
1 Thessalonians 5:6-8: … let us be awake and sober … putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.
1 Thessalonians 2:6-9: … as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority … we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.
1 Thessalonians 3:2: We sent Timothy, who is our brother [community] and co-worker [corporation] in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith.
1 Thessalonians 5:12-13: Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work …
In practice, these different dimensions of being church are not easily held together. There is no easy balance. One pastor writes from experience:
James Emery White: What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary, Grand Rapids: Baker Books 2011, p172: If you are in community with someone, then you are a family. If you are in a cause together, then you are an army. If you are in a corporation together, then you are a business. These three dimensions are vastly different from each other in more than just metaphor – they have different core values, different key persons, different ways of entrance and exit, and varying ways of payback.
Consider values. In a community, the greatest values are, arguably, love, loyalty, and mutual support. In a cause, the greatest value is winning. In a corporation, it is effectiveness. Could there be some tension between love and winning, or love and effectiveness?
Or think about roles. In a community, the roles fall into such things as father, mother, brother; in a cause, it would be general, lieutenant, or sergeant. In a corporation, one things of a CEO, a president, or an employee. You relate to someone as father in a vastly different way than you do as either general or CEO. Approaching someone as an employee is not the same as approaching them as a brother.
And think of the tension between these three when it comes to key people and heroes. In a community, they key people are often the ones the community rallies around, meaning the weakest. Think of the way a family revolves around a newborn. In a cause, the heroes are the ones who are the most committed. In a corporation, the most honoured are usually the most productive.
And perhaps most tricky of all, think of how you exit each of the dimensions. In terms of leaving a community, well, you don’t. You are part of a family, or family of origin, forever. You can’t ever really leave. When it comes to a cause, you have to desert or, if honourable, die in the effort. In a corporation, you either quit, are fired, or retire …
Think about knowing which hat to wear. Someone is not performing well at all, but you know that part of it is based on personal issues in their life. Do you wear the corporate hat of performance or the community hat of concern? In truth, it might be both. They may need a word from you as their general to pick up their pace for the cause and also need a father figure at a moment of weakness …
… Seldom does one person have all three in good balance … If the church is oriented primarily to the cause, then it will leave in its wake a trail of burned-out bodies of those who gave their lives to the effort but had little supporting them along the way. If they are oriented toward the corporate side of things, then they will be efficient and organized – and dead, dry, and formulaic. If they lean toward community too much, then they will turn inward and rarely reach their growth potential. After all, the point is to know everyone, right?
… know and work the three dimensions … “Listen, I’ve got my corporate hat on with this, just so you know.” …
Looking at these different dimensions, maybe we get a greater appreciation of what church actually is. At the same time, we are together in a family, together in a cause and together in a corporation (some sort of organizational structure). We are brothers and sisters – a family – commissioned with the cause of reaching a lost world (against resistance) and organized with certain structures to achieve our task. For this reason – making sure that we bring honour to the family, communicate the nature of God and function well – our development is of the utmost importance. There are high demands on church members:
1 Thessalonians 1:6: You became imitators of us and of the Lord …
1 Thessalonians 2:12: … urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.
1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: … brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God … It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honourable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit.
God gave the church an awesome design but it is complex. At the same time, we are together in a family, together in a cause and together in a corporation (some sort of organizational structure). How can we make sure that we will find our way through all the issues? There is some learning to be done but – according to the same pastor from before – the most important lesson is probably this: zero tolerance on division. Since everything depends on the proper functioning of the community as a family with a cause and structure, we cannot – under any circumstances – allow people to undermine what holds us together – our unity of love and honour worked by the Spirit of God:
James Emery White: … I’m continually surprised at how many leaders spend enormous amounts of energy – and emotion – on things that simply don’t matter … But then, equally stunning, is how lax these same leaders are on things that DO matter.
For example, not caring about: … …the continued presence and practice of contentious, divisive behaviour in the church. (If you haven’t learned to confront this at once, you haven’t learned much.) …
I am not sure whether I agree with this pastor. I have probably not practiced what he is preaching. How would you feel about zero tolerance on contentious and divisive behaviour? In the past few years, there have been cases where leadership has been accused of things – (and it is easy to do and I am doing it myself). How are we to handle this? Usually, there was a choice not to defend oneself – (because how do you defend yourself against what is said on the grapevine) – and trust God to reveal the truth. This was a slow process which was also costly. The longer it went, the costlier it became. Sometimes, those that voice criticisms have circles of friends which – at least initially – are closer to that person than the leadership. How could we have a zero tolerance policy when swift actions are not always understood by everyone? Mostly people say: “Do nothing. Have more grace.” And then, you cannot argue back because you don’t want to say anything negative about the other person. (Further, it is hard to defend yourself because you are seen to have a vested interest.) Yet, attitudes are contagious – even the negative ones.
The pastor from before acknowledges that most pastors feel like I do but this is what he writes:
This chapter is about the ones who are damaging. I have one big piece of advice. It might startle you. It may even seem radical.
Do what the Bible says to do. Why is that so radical? Because what the Bible says to do is about as counterintuitive to the average pastor as you could possibly imagine. It doesn’t even feel legal. Strange way to feel about the Bible, I know. But it’s true …
… for some reason, the clear directives about dealing with problem people in our lives as spiritual leaders is either ignored or just so uncomfortable that we refuse to consider it for our lives.
And the Bible’s advice? Zero tolerance … there is a set of behaviours, an attitude, that should be met with a “zero tolerance” mentality from you as a leader. There is something so destructive to the church and its mission that it must be met with a swiftness and firmness that ensures it is never allowed to take root …
I’m talking about this: “Warn a quarrelsome person once or twice, but then be done with him. It’s obvious that such a person is out of line, rebellious against God. By persisting in divisiveness he cuts himself off” (Titus 3:10-11 Message). The one attitude, the one spirit, that you must meet with zero tolerance is that which fosters division and dissension in the church.
Why? Because it is so damaging … Little wonder there is a zero tolerance mentality in the Bible toward those would rip the church apart through dissension, disgruntlement, and division; through spreading false doctrine and hyping petty doctrine; through power plays and malicious gossip; through slander and the undeserved undermining of established leadership.
If you do not follow the Bible and confront these things, you do so at your peril. One of my biggest leadership mistakes cost our church at least three years of growth and forward progress. You have no idea how just writing that line makes me sick to my stomach. Three years!
… I allowed a staff infection to take root that manifested itself in a spirit of division and dissension, and then I failed to confront it in a timely manner. As a result, it took hold and spread like a cancer, infecting people and teams, families and leaders in ways that in many cases were inseparable.
… We were about to open a new wing to a building, and a volunteer made some kind of comment in his hearing about not doing something because “Jim wouldn’t like that.” Rather than seeing that as something potentially positive – that the volunteer was enforcing a value that she knew I would uphold as well – he automatically read into it an autocratic and dictatorial style. And he told the volunteer as much.
… His style was simple: where there had been no disappointment or disgruntlement, he planted the seed. “Did you really think that was a good talk? Maybe if you’re in a classroom. It was more teaching than communicating to me. Now my old pastor – he was a communicator.” “How did you feel about that meeting? Didn’t seem like we had much say-so, did it? Where I came from, staff input was valued.”
“You think the sky is blue today? This isn’t very blue at all to me. You want to see blue, you should see where I came from. Our pastor really made it blue.” Okay, he didn’t say the last one, but it would have fit …
We had grown rapidly in a short period of time. Assimilation was lagging behind … And I was tired. Midlife kind of tired. Church planter tired. Taking it through hotels and elementary schools and high schools and eventually to our land kind of tired … Four services a weekend tired … I went for months … with an undiagnosed case of whooping cough … I did not respond the way I should have …
I should have fired the person who started it long before I did … I should not have tolerated those select individuals who engaged in parking lot conversations, hallway snipings, “sharing” in small groups, and so much more as they vomited out their own junk. At the earliest manifestation, there should have been immediate confrontations on the basis of Matthew 18:15 …
How acceptable would a policy of zero tolerance be among us? I may have to change and be more confident in tackling divisive behaviour but – I think more importantly – this would have to be a shared value among the entire congregation. In small groups, band practices, over morning tea – you would have to guard our unity and confront negative sentiments. Encourage engagement and accountability but stand against cheap shots which turn out to be costly for all of us.
“Zero tolerance” is a radical expression but there is another case of it in Paul’s correspondence with the Thessalonians:
2 Thessalonians 3:10-15: For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
We hear that there are some who walk among you in a disorderly manner, not working at all, but are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat …
Take special note of anyone who does not obey our instruction in this letter. Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard them as an enemy, but warn them as you would a fellow believer.
Whoever does not work, shall not eat. Zero tolerance for idleness – laziness. Why? I quote from a commentary:
Expositor’s Bible Commentary: “We hear,” he writes, “of some that walk among you disorderly.” The metaphor in the word is a military one; the underlying idea is that every man has a post in life or in the Church, and that he ought to be found, not away from his post, but at it. A man without a post is a moral anomaly. Every one of us is part of a whole, a member of an organic body, with functions to discharge which can be discharged by no other, and must therefore be steadily discharged by himself. To walk disorderly means to forget this, and to act as if we were independent; now at this, now at that, according to our discretion or our whim; not rendering the community a constant service …
Not working – idleness – laziness – amounted to leaving your post in the community – our church family which has a cause and structure – therefore was damaging – asked the community to pay too high a price to let it pass without consequences. (It would also have been unfair on the working members to expect them to feed the lazy ones. Then, much free time gives too many opportunities for mischief making.) (I think that) if this kind of zero tolerance approach is appropriate for mere idleness, then it is probably also true for divisiveness which seems worse.
Maybe this talk about “zero tolerance” makes us uncomfortable – we are certainly not yet practicing these principles – but greater discipline among us would not lessen the atmosphere of love among us. On the contrary – and this is precisely Paul’s concern – love would increase because we make a stand against that which destroys community.
There is an edge to being in a church family which necessitates that we are one – growing in love – because – at times – we – the church – need to function under pressure and even persecution when a lost world reacts to the message of Jesus. Yet – as we know and believe – it will work out because God is in this family: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other” (1 Thessalonians 3:12). [“… our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit …” (1 Thessalonians 1:5).] He will. Amen.