Politics of a Holy Kingdom

I Thessalonians 5.12-24: A Written Sermon

Acts 17 tells us about a church that came to be in what we might call a delicate political climate. Paul and Silas were banished from the city and forced to leave under cover of darkness. A local named Jason, along with others, had been dragged through town and placed in jail. All because of politics. In this church, they were preaching a king other than Caesar. First in the synagogue, now perhaps at Jason’s house. And ever since the letter we call I Thessalonians arrived, they were constantly reminded that this was the message. There is another king, and this king is on the way to establish a new kingdom.

This made people nervous. Especially since, in I Thessalonians this is not just casually mentioned. The reader is reminded in chapter one that King Jesus is coming. And again in chapter two “we will glory in his presence.” In chapter three a prayer that we will be “holy and blameless” when he comes. And in chapter four, nothing less than a royal welcome as a herald announces his coming as trumpets blast. And again, sanctified and blameless at his coming in chapter five. This is not a peripheral message in I Thessalonians. This is not an accidental political statement. The true king is coming to set up his reign.

Caesar had issued a decree. It was against the law to predict a new king during the reign of Caesar. In fact, Caesar declared that he himself was a god.

We cannot escape the fact that when I Thessalonians talks about a king… one who is truly God… it is a political statement. We should not be surprised by this. If we have been reading our bibles, we already know that when the New Testament began it began with a prophet in the desert who kept crying out “repent! A new kingdom is coming.” I think we can hear in his words and actions that he wanted to be sure we understood that this meant a new king was coming.

And then Jesus walked onto the scene. And he came with an announcement “the kingdom is here!” By the end of the gospel we surely understand that he meant “the new king has arrived!”

This conversation about the Thessalonians reminds us there may be tendencies for us, perhaps a majority of us, to become loyal to the kings of the world. We should be able to understand why the residents of the city might get nervous when someone came claiming another king than Caesar. We might be able to understand why they might drag someone across town to restore order. But this conversation about Thessalonians also reminds us that kings like Caesar do not last for long. The fact is, all of earth’s kings are on the way out. We can fall in behind them, but we would be placing trust in a system doomed to failure.

This kingdom I Thessalonians is talking about comes with expectations. We read some of them in our text from chapter five. They come as a list of characteristics that those in the kingdom should exhibit. This is what one with a holy heart looks like. Paul does not spend a lot of time on any of them. We do not get detailed definitions of what any of them mean for us. He shoots them out in rapid fire and we hear things like;

Acknowledge those who work on your behalf and those who care for you. Live in peace with one another. Warn those with idle tendencies and warn those who are disruptive. Encourage the downhearted. Help the weak. Be patient with everyone (sounds so simple, we know it’s not). Do not pay back wrong with more wrong. Do good for one another. Do good for others. Rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in everything. Do not quench the Spirit. Be careful with prophecy.

Reject evil. Yesterday morning, here in PA, an armed shooter entered a place of worship during a naming ceremony and killed eleven people, including four officers. In this kingdom, we hear words like reject evil. We hear do not pay back wrong with more wrong. We condemn such attacks. We pray for our Jewish neighbors. We call on people to turn from violent ways. We call on the church to be God’s agents of love and reconciliation and change.

I Thessalonians is an encouraging message of hope. It tells us peace is possible, but only through the God of peace. We get a prayer here in our text this morning. A prayer that the “God of peace will sanctify you entirely in preparation for the coming of the true King.” Thessalonians calls us to live like we are in the presence of the King.

This is how we are to live on days that seem normal. This is how we are to live when we are seriously wondering if the person driving ahead of us really has a driver’s license. This is how we are to live if forced to leave town under cover of darkness. This is how we are to live if dragged across town for our politics. This is how we are to live if a girl named Gwendolyn steals all our change. This is how we are to live if we encounter one who sends packages of hate to people who think differently. This is how we are to live if someone walks into a place of worship and kills people because of their nationality.

We are a people who live in peace with one another. A people who encourage the downhearted. We are people who help the weak, who are patient, and do not repay wrong with more wrong. We are a people who rejoice and pray and give thanks. We are a people who reject evil.

We are a people who believe in another kingdom, one ruled by the true King – Jesus.

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I Thessalonians: Politics, Holiness, and the Coming Kingdom

The historical context that lies behind I Thessalonians may provide some insight into the meaning of the letter. We could start with the back story of Julius Caesar, the one made famous by William Shakespeare. After the assassination, there was a struggle between Octavian and Antony. Thessalonica threw its support behind Octavian who later became known as Caesar Augustus. Thessalonica had been in a favorable position ever since. Therefore, the citizens were very sensitive about anything that might threaten their status with Rome.

Our introduction to the Thessalonians is political. Acts tells us that the preaching in the city was not in vain. Many Jews and prominent Greek women were converted. This aroused anger and perhaps jealousy that led to complaints about Paul and Silas. The complaint is that the men who turned the world upside down are upsetting the status quo by proclaiming a king other than Caesar. As it turns out, the complaint is valid. In defense of the residents, they were only behaving as expected by banishing Paul and Silas from the city and dragging Jason across town to be jailed.

When one considers those things, it makes one wonder about the intention of I Thessalonians when we read;

– About grace and peace that does not come from the emperor (1.1).

– That these people have been chosen by God. For those who were raised with a longing to receive a blessing from Caesar, this may be unexpected but glad news (1.4).

– Of good news that is preached not to receive praise from mortals, not even the emperor (2.4). This may not be a direct slap to Caesar, but is likely a slap to the ways of Caesar’s world. Whatever the intentions, God is the more important audience.

– About a call into the kingdom of God, even better news than being welcomed into the kingdom of Rome (2.12).

– That this is no human word, but God’s word at work in them. Caesar’s tidings do not compare (2.13).

– A reference to a “crown” (2.19), wonder what went through the minds of the recipients?

– A prayer to be prepared for the coming of a king. Holy and blameless are the preparation for this king (3.13).

– A statement about rejection. To reject this word is not rejecting a human, but a rejection of God (4.8). This is more serious than rejecting words from Caesar.

– Of a commanding voice, an archangels call, and the sound of God’s trumpet (4.16). The coming of Jesus is portrayed as a royal announcement. I Thessalonians, as well as Paul’s preaching, was treasonous. It was against Roman law to predict the coming of a new king or kingdom.

– People talking about “peace and security” offered by the emperor, yet destruction will come to those who are unprepared (5.3).

– About breastplates and helmets (5.8). But, Roman attire does not offer the faith, love, or the hope of salvation offered here.

– That it is God who offers “peace” and prepares one with the necessary holiness for the coming of the real king, Jesus (5.23).

I Thessalonians is a letter written during a politically delicate situation to people who live in a pro Caesar city. There was a decree that banned the prediction of a new king. Yet, in a gathering at Jason’s house they keep talking about a king other than Caesar. And now they have in their hand a letter that repeatedly (1.9-10;2.19;3.13;4.16;5.23) announces that this king is coming from heaven. It is difficult to overlook the political tone of this letter.

Preaching Holiness

Recently I had opportunity to attend a mini conference on “Preaching Holiness.” This is worthwhile conversation that reminds us we are not God and that God should always be the wow factor in the church.

This was an enjoyable conference for me not only because of the theme, but this gathering is full of friends and mentors and others I have served with for a long time. This is my family. I was raised among this crowd and this message. These are my people. Still, I cannot help but notice that we have some tendencies that are puzzling at times and perhaps disturbing at others.

Here is one small voice from the crowd who wants us to be able to articulate biblical holiness more articulately, effectively, and faithfully.

1 – I understand our desire to illustrate holiness with personal stories that serve as evidence for the work of God in our lives. I fear they sometimes make us sound as if we have mastered holiness or at least make us sound holier than most. Perhaps this draws some to our message but I admit to having doubts.

2 – It is easy to fall into a trap of thinking the best way to preach holiness is to emphasize what it is not. For example, it is not Calvinism. This tends to send messages of some sort of class system in the kingdom as if we are superior to others. I propose we would serve ourselves better to talk about what holiness is.

3 – We have a tendency to act as if preaching love and grace results in listeners thinking it is ok to stay the way they are. If we take the gospel seriously we know these are the very things that spur one to change. Perhaps we think prevenient grace is preferable or superior to other stages of grace.

4 – We love to reference John Wesley in our conversation about preaching holiness and rightly so, no one has been more influential in our branch of the family tree. But I cannot help but wonder what he would think if he felt we were branding our heritage as greater than others in the Body of Christ. Or if we began reading the bible to find evidence for his way of thinking. It was Dennis Kinlaw who said “I am a Wesleyan in theology, but I need to be very careful that when I read the Bible my concern is not to find what Wesley taught, but to discover the Word of God.”

5 – It is easy to make holiness sound as if it is an individual pursuit. Sometimes we make it sound as if it is lived best in our secret places. While no one would deny the importance of holiness in secret, should not our emphasis be on the influence holiness has in relationship with others? It was Wesley who said “Holy solitaries is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than Holy adulterers.”

Yet, I cannot help but notice how we emphasize sin as an individual matter. We even might refer to a sinful individual as a loser. What we tend to not talk about is the way sin hinders the body. The health of the body and the witness of the body are both hindered due to sin. Sin has corporate effects. I propose we would do well to discuss how church and world are cheated by sin. This is, as Wesley might emphasize, a relational religion.

We tend to do the same thing with ethics. Ethics is fitting to emphasize while in conversation about holiness. Still we tend to emphasize individual ethics. This is odd when we are reading texts that are written to congregations. Perhaps we would do well to emphasize how ethics support or hinder the body. Emphasize how Christian ethics influence the world. This becomes important when we speak of a gospel that knows of “no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.”

While talking about ethics it is worth mentioning that to say slanderous things about politicians or pop stars while discussing holiness may be somewhat contradictory. Even these people belong to a world that “God so loved.” We know the holy work of a holy God is evident by the way we talk about others.

I spent most of our time together waiting for someone to talk about how holiness occurs in relationship. While God can perform His work in whatever way God desires, it is evident He has chosen the church to nurture and disciple one another. Perhaps some will resist this thought, but the New Testament appears to support the idea that holiness is a group project. We need one another. Perhaps that is the primary reason I am so grateful for the people I gathered with at this conference.

6 – Preaching about holiness can easily fall into the trap of simply repeating terms from a systematic theology text. This occurs despite our repeated emphasis that Wesley did not write a systematic theology. Yet we continue to preach a systematic theology. Perhaps this is most puzzling for me. We know a systematic theology, no matter how honest or helpful it may be, is always less. Always. This is not only wise counsel for sisters and brothers who adhere to a systematic theology different than our own, this is wise counsel for us also.

Much of what occurs in a setting like this is preaching to the choir. From one grateful to be part of the choir, I am glad for some diversity of thought. Though I may have questions about some things, I am glad to be part of this body. I was raised by this bunch and raised on this message. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thank You Dr. Dennis Kinlaw

Dr. Dennis Kinlaw was a college president, an Old Testament professor, a chancellor, an author, the founder of a society. But many of us will remember him as a preacher. In the religious arena I was raised in, holiness preachers were giants. Dr. Kinlaw was considered a giant among giants. When he preached you were sure of two things; he was serious about the biblical text AND he loved the listener. I remember sitting in a college classroom when our professor looked out at young preachers and said “we want to shape you into preachers like Dennis Kinlaw.”

Kinlaw would not have said anything quite like that. In his Preaching in the Spirit he says “it is part of the miraculous work of God that he uses the likes of you and me, not to mention the likes of our sermons…” Kinlaw goes so far as to say “the greatest problem in preaching is not the preparation of the sermon but the preparation of the preacher.”

I once heard Kinlaw preach a sermon that included an active conversation between members of the Trinity. I am not sure how often he used that as a homiletic tool but he includes another of these conversations in Preaching. “There are some days when I know I have not acted as I ought… I can almost hear the heavenly Father ask Jesus, ‘Son, how did that Kinlaw guy do today?’ I hear the Son respond, ‘Well, Father, he did not do so well today.’ I quake as I hear the Father say, ‘Shall we give up on him?’” Kinlaw goes on, “I see Jesus lift two scarred hands to the Father and say, ‘No, Father. We have a substantial investment in him.’” Kinlaw claims to have a love affair with those scars.

Kinlaw provides excellent counsel when he says things like “I am a Wesleyan in theology, but I need to be very careful that when I read the Bible my concern is not to find what Wesley taught, but to discover the Word of God. If Wesley opens windows on the Word of God… three cheers for Wesley; but the important thing is that the Word of God comes alive for me, so that I can share it with others.”

It is holy week as I write this. I am reminded of Kinlaw’s conversation about the followers of Jesus following the crucifixion. Jesus had died and had been buried. Disciples were feeling some strong feelings. Ad then, on Sunday, some strange stories were being told. And “As the shadows lengthened into night, those who knew him best sought out one another; when they had found each other, they locked the doors…” Then “the miracle occurred… He was there, the Living Lord in their midst… Death had not really contained Him. He was alive!

Of this we can be certain; Kinlaw would want us to continue telling these strange stories.

I Corinthians and Holiness

The Corinthian Church is addressed early in the letter as “holy ones.” Because of this I expect to find a different group of people than those I read about. Instead, the further I read, the more I begin to think that designation was a mistake.

These people are jealous, full of strife, they boast in their own wisdom. There is immorality among them and they are arrogant. They are covetous, idolaters, drunks, swindlers, fornicators, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, revilers. Just saying, these do not sound like saints to me. Yet I Corinthians never revokes the statement that these are “holy ones.”

I Corinthians does go on to say “such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in Christ Jesus.” I Corinthians is a reminder that holiness is not an individual project. To be called “those who have been sanctified” is to acknowledge that holiness is the work of God and that we become holy together.

Living on the Frontier

Pope Francis has been talking to theologians.  His letter addressed to the theological faculty of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina is summarized in a recent article of the National Catholic Reporter.  Any of us who spend time as interpreters of scripture could benefit from his reminders.

Those of us who believe that theology is for the church will find a kindred spirit in Francis.  He says that theology is not simply an academic exercise to be practiced at a desk, but should be taken to the frontiers.  He goes on to say “the good theologians, like the good shepherds, smell of the people and of the road” and “pour oil and wine on the wounds of humankind.”

Francis compares studying theology to living on a frontier where the Gospel meets the needs of the people in an understandable and meaningful way.  “We must guard ourselves against a theology that is exhausted in the academic dispute or watching humanity from a glass castle.”  Francis goes on, “theology and holiness are an inseparable pair.”

It is good for each of us to be reminded that the Gospel belongs on the frontier.  The pope implies that to do otherwise is to run the risk of taming the mystery.  In order to move forward we must live it out on the extreme boundaries.  May we smell of the people and of the road.

Romans and Preaching

People arrived in Rome for a variety of reasons; commercial purposes, immigration, and some involuntarily as slaves. Some early Christians among them, they resided in areas where other foreigners were concentrated, including Jews. Jews and Christians would have had some things in common as they assembled in the synagogue and celebrated the feasts. However, the words and actions of the Christians likely sparked tension as things like observing the law and the inclusion of the Gentiles would have created some controversy. Eventually, this escalated to the point where Claudius evicted all Jews in AD 49.

The letter to the Romans is written with this knowledge in mind. Also, the knowledge that after Claudius had died the Jews who had been banished were permitted to return. Upon their return, it appears that all Jews were at a disadvantage in Rome and that Jewish Christians were at a disadvantage in the church. Paul writes the church at Rome in order to present a Christian perspective about the relationships between Jews and Gentiles, inside and outside of the church.

A young emperor Nero was not yet antagonistic toward Christians at the time of writing. Still it was important to discuss how the church should live in this environment. While we do not find a theology of how to respond to the state, Romans does describe the state as a servant. Government is a gift from God to minister justice and peace. The church should not take justice in its own hands and should live as civil civilians.

There are some things about this relationship that remain blurry, other things become quite clear. Romans does not give the state divine permission to do as it pleases. The state does not mirror the will of God. There is no indication that the state rules now and the Lord will take over that role in the afterlife. Jesus is not, as Brian Zahnd said in a recent conference, “the secretary of after-life affairs.” He is Lord now. Jesus could not endorse the politics of Rome any more than He can endorse politics in America. He already brings His own politics. This would have been a significant downer for an emperor who promoted his own divinity and the emperor cult. He would not have been pleased to hear that he was servant to a God he did not know. Christians then, could not worship Nero but they could pay taxes.

Paul the letter writer desires to deal with questions that concern the people of God. Namely, how to live in community with one another and peacefully in a pagan environment. At a risk of oversimplification, the letter deals with the status of Gentiles who are not Christian (chapter 1). It deals with the condition of the Jews, then the condition of Christians (2-8). Discussion then focuses on non-Christian Jews (9-11). The letter concludes with a sermonic application of how all Christians should learn to live together in the non-Christian world (12-15).

Romans 12-15 works as a sermon from a distance that emphasizes that Christians live in community with one another and peacefully in a pagan environment. That is why we find there a sampling of gifts that are relevant to the Roman situation in the late 50’s. That is why we find Paul bringing up the theme of holiness or sanctification. When Paul talks about this subject he is not talking about ritual or theology. He is talking about behavior. “Present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God.” The emphasis is not on the language one knows or uses but the behavior one exhibits. For Paul, as Romans makes clear, this is the behavior that must be demonstrated in the world.

Paul’s letters, including Romans, are theology in progress. Paul is not repeating doctrine that has already been articulated. As Ben Witherington suggests, he is theologizing as he writes. And his aim is always to shape the behavior of his churches. Theology is not theory for Paul, but a tool for creating community. The same could be said for preaching, then and now. Preaching is a tool to shape behavior and create community in a non-Christian world.