1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
First Congregational Church of Anchorage : 29 October 2017
Remember your baptism. Remember the day you were claimed as a child of God. Remember the day when in the presence of your community you stepped into a new way of living, even if you were not sure how.
I was baptized in a swimming pool among family and friends. I was safe. No one questioned what I was doing. Afterwards there was probably food and more swimming, as if I was bathing in the waters of my own baptism. Honestly, I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I don’t think a few more years of life would have changed much.
1 Thessalonians is the oldest document in the New Testament. It is the first letter from Paul we have, and it is in some sense his own figuring out what he had gotten himself into.
He was traveling along major Roman roads planting churches in prominent cities as he went. He was following a pattern of other public speakers of his day, traveling from city to city trying to convince people to follow one thing or another.
But Paul was trying something new. He was not asking so that people would pay him. He was not seeking notoriety, at least not the kind people were often seeking. He was not making demands of people to follow him.
He was sharing his experience with others about the Jesus movement, and he had no time to waste. But something about what he was doing really bothered some people, at least important people. Calling Jesus Lord, as if he was the Lord of Rome instead of Cesar. It was not without risk.
The church spent the first few centuries of its existence as a countercultural community. They didn’t do this by choice or design, but rather because they were generally not welcome.
We are in a strange time today as well, but for different reasons. For the last 1500 years, Christianity has been at the center of European and eventually North American culture. Churches like ours could assume that the world around us was familiar with who we are and what we do. We might have assumed that people would have a working understanding of a meaning of Jesus, the crucifixion and resurrection, even if there were differences in what meaning we made of them.
We were not countercultural when the Reformation began. We were instead the dominant culture. There are those who bemoan the shift away from cultural dominance, but I do not. When the church accepted cultural power in place of persecution and marginalization, living a gospel that was countercultural became instead a maintaining of order and control. The church substituted institutional power in place of freedom, and we have struggled with this ever since Christianity became to official religion of Rome.
The problem with the Gospel becoming the dominant cultural expression is that the Gospel in its best sense can never be a static place of comfort or final understanding. The experience of death and the persistence of life found in Jesus are never an easy place to rest, and it refuses to be explained away with simple anecdotes or bookstores full of Christian living and self-help books.
What’s even more paradoxical is that we as Christians baptize ourselves into the death of Jesus so that we can know a fullness of life that defies that death. Celebrating death and life this way is countercultural.
So what are we to do with this in a world that ignores death, and is generally afraid of it?
It is not as simple as removing ourselves from the culture we find ourselves in. That sort of protectionism and isolation fails to see that God is deeply concerned with all of creation. It is instead necessary to attend to both the communal practice of challenging how we live in a world that deals out death with ease, but at the same time doesn’t acknowledge it.
Christ acknowledged death and even faced it, but refused to deal it back. He approached life with a compassionate love which is a kind of emptying of oneself in relationships with others.
There is something to that releasing of control and understanding that has its own power.
During a live studio interview with long-time jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and the relatively young bassist Thomas Morgan, they played the title track off of their new duo album, Small Town. Afterwards they were asked a question about how they discovered one another and what makes there chemistry so powerful. What followed was mainly silence. Neither one was eager to answer, and they are both pained introverts. Then Bill started to walk through an answer. He said of their chemistry playing together:
“As soon as you start talking about what happens, you can never get to what it really is. I’m almost afraid to talk about it, because then you start thinking about it. There is this place in music, where if you can stay in this naive state … to me that’s the best feeling. You’re never sure whats coming next, and every moment you’re finding it.”
This is something I have experienced myself while playing music. It doesn’t happen every time, but when it does, there are no words to be said. In those moments when the music becomes a language of its own, improvised and rehearsed, after it is finished, nothing more is needed except for a nod of agreement that something special just happened.
Sometimes I feel this way about the Gospel. The thing that compelled me to leave my home and attend seminary was to understand more, to be able to better articulate to the life of the church the Way of Jesus.
Strangely, the deeper my own exploration has gone, the more difficult it has become to just tell people about it, and the more I search for ways of understanding that do not rely so centrally on spoken explanations. Paul spoke and wrote about Jesus, but it seems that more than that he lived in such a way that he shared his own person with them in the process.
There is an aspect that the reformation got wrong. The focus on the spoken word in response to the written word became the most important aspect of the life of our church tradition following the reformation. What we are doing right now, me speaking and you listening, when it began to be the most important way of expressing faith, we lost something.
With the church as the dominant cultural force in our society, we feel as if we need to make sure people understood clearly the correct understanding of the right belief. But I am not convinced that that is our greatest witness to faith. There are many other ways and rituals, songs and service, that need few words to be spoken. There is a source of power that we can live into that does not seek dominance.
This very weekend displays this sort of subversion of explanation. We celebrated the life of Bob Rinehart yesterday. It was a moment that took account of the pain of death felt within family and community. It also sought to begin to make meaning in the midst of grief.
It was an example of the internal work of community dealing with its own very human limitations.
But today we also baptize a new life just beginning within the body of Christ. It is an example of the outward work of this community welcoming life new and renewed, revealing the persistent rebirth of the human spirit.
We are always doing both. We attend to one another, and we welcome new members among us, only to attend and welcome over and over again. We are constantly creating something new out of something known and unknown. We never quite leave where we have been, but we never stay the same.
And I don’t think that the words spoken have the power to contain or explain what is happening in this flexing of life. In the divine presence known through death and baptism, we are being formed and reformed over and again.
In this 500th year of the reformation, I declare fewer explanations, and more reflection. I declare fewer meals blessed and more meals prepared and shared together. I declare more long moments of silence sitting with one another. There is no time for empty words that seek to appease. Nor is there an extra moment of explanations that attempt to explain away all doubts.
We are dealing with death and life, and even words may not be necessary.