1 Thessalonians 2:1-13; Matthew 23:1-12
3rd Sunday before Advent
06.11.17 St Barbara’s
Rev Tulo Raistrick
I don’t know about you, but I have found the news quite depressing of late. Not depressing in terms of the global crises of climate change, war and famine – things that should shock me and sadden me far more than they do – but depressing in another way – in the way that it has shone a light on human character and it has revealed a sordidness, an untrustworthiness, an abuse of power and privilege, that has been disturbing.
Not a day has gone by this week without new allegations being made about the behaviour of public figures. The case of Harvey Weinstein and the reaction to it has made it possible for others to come forward and speak of abuse they have experienced. Earlier in the week, it was the actors Kevin Spacey and Bruno Langley; now it is politicians such as Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins and Cabinet Minister Sir Michael Fallon. Indeed, the latter’s fall is all the more marked as on Monday he was reported to be “furious” at the conduct of sailors on a submarine, and by Wednesday he was having to resign because of his own misconduct.
It yet further erodes our trust in public figures. It becomes very easy to be cynical of anyone in the public eye, or who takes on positions of responsibility: to question their motives, to wonder if there is a hidden agenda, or if they are in it to abuse their power over others. To question whether even the most genuine and compassionate of acts has other motives.
And yet this degree of realism/ cynicism is nothing new. Go back to the mediterranean world of 2,000 years ago, when Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians was written, and one finds many others whose motivations were under scrutiny. Back then, there were lots of wandering salesman and travelling teachers, trying to make a living by attracting crowds and offering people fresh wisdom or mystical knowledge that they promised would transform their lives. Sooner or later, cynical observers knew, a hat would be passed round to collect money, or people would be offered, for a price, to be introduced into the higher mysteries. The vulnerable and gullible would be singled out and targeted. The salesman would exploit their power by whatever means. Jesus himself identified such behaviour amongst the religious leaders in Jerusalem, that we heard in our Gospel reading.
So since Paul left Thessalonika a few months ago, some people in the city have been trying to tar him with the same brush. They accuse him of being a flatterer, using fine words of praise to win people’s confidence. They accuse him of greed, of being a heavy burden on the young church. They accuse him of impure motives and deception. This is a serious attack upon Paul, but it is also a serious attack upon the message of the Gospel he preached to them. If Paul can’t be trusted, then his message must be suspect too.
So Paul writes to respond to these complaints and allegations. The future of the church in Thessalonika, in many respects, depends on his response. If Paul is a fraud, or an abuser of power, or just in it for personal gain, then does that bring the whole message into question?
In how Paul responds, there are some invaluable pointers for how we ourselves should respond to criticism, and also how we are to live Christian lives, lives of integrity.
One of the first really notable things about his response is how much he mentions his relationship with God. He writes that it was God who caused their mission in Thessalonika to be successful; it was God who encouraged him and the new Christians to persevere despite of the opposition and persecution; it was God who had approved them as people able to speak his gospel message; and it was to please God, not people, that he spoke at all. In other words, God is his witness and his judge as to the purity of his motives.
Now, to be honest, that is not likely to be an argument that will convince the cynics and opponents. You can imagine them sneering: “Of course anyone can claim God’s backing. After all, its impossible to prove. What it does prove however is that Paul is more deluded or more manipulative than we had at first accused him of.”
Paul knows that too, but he still speaks of it. Why? Because he is writing to the Christians in the church and wants to remind them of something. That more than anything else, we need to test our motives, our actions, in the presence of God. Can we come into his presence and know he approves of our actions?
If you are like me, there may be times when you have done something or said something, and you want to avoid bringing it to God in prayer because you know it is not right. You don’t want to confess it because that will mean having to put the situation right. You don’t want to pray about it because you fear God may prick your conscience. And so you avoid it. That is Paul’s point here: when we are accused of all sorts of things, big or small – whether by colleagues at work, or by loved ones at home – can our actions hold up in the light of God’s presence?
Another thing that Paul does in response to the allegations is to remind them of how he lived among them. He reminds them that he was like a mother with her little children, gentle and caring. He was like a father with his own children, encouraging them, comforting them and urging them to deeper faith. Far from lording it over them, or demanding things from them, like the Pharisees Jesus describes, and whom Paul in his pre-Road to Damascus days would have been like, here he is, humble, kind, generous.
As these things would have been so easy to refute if untrue, and would have led to people regarding them as not worth the cost of parchment they were written on, the fact that the church instead chose to treasure the letter, preserve it and pass it down to future generations, and indeed give it such authority and respect that it became part of the Bible in due time, suggests that Paul’s words rang true for his readers.
And that is our challenge. Could we write these words about ourselves and people regard them as true and accurate? In my relationships with people in church, am I gentle and patient, making the effort to truly understand people? Am I caring, looking out for the needs of others? Maybe there is someone I haven’t seen for a few weeks – could I send them a card, drop in for a visit? Am I encouraging? We often find it easier to spot the things that we don’t like or didn’t seem to go well. But do we look out for the good things, the things we have enjoyed, and encourage those who were involved?
And there is a third thing that Paul does to respond to the those who are wanting to criticise him and denigrate him. He reflects on his actions before God; he reminds the Thessalonians of the quality of his relationships. And he reminds them of the consistency of his life.
He was so concerned that he should not be a burden to the church, he was so aware of not wanting the gospel to be tarnished by allegations of greed and being on the take, that Paul did something extraordinary amongst travelling preachers of the time – he paid his way. He rented a shop and made and sold tents. It was in the evenings and on Sabbaths that he would then go out and preach – during the daytime he would work away at cutting and sewing leather, and no doubt chatting about faith with customers and passers-by as he did so. But the quality of his message would be tested day-in, day-out, by the way he conducted his business. If his tents proved of shoddy workmanship, if he was trying to pull a fast-one on his customers, fairly soon it wouldn’t just be his business that would get a bad reputation; it would be the gospel too. As he says, he shared his whole life. If there was inconsistency between his message and his life, it would soon be found out.
That is the challenge facing many figures in the public eye today. There is often a disconnect between what they are saying and how they are living, and while that continues, we will continue to see charges brought and resignations made. But the challenge is the same for us too. The spotlight of media interest may mercifully not be on us, but the disconnect between words and actions can still be there. We say one thing, and do another.
We are called to live lives of integrity and consistency, where our lives are open before God and one another, where how we live matches the love of God we have received.
In the words of St Francis of Assisi:
“It is no use walking anywhere to preach, unless our walking is our preaching.”