The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."
December 22, 2002
How Many Are Thessalonians?
I would like to be a Thessalonian. I'm coming to believe that it may be the most important thing we Christians can do with our lives.
In the opening chapter of 1 Thessalonians, Paul commends the people for their faithful witness to their neighbors, which has had the double effect of spreading the Gospel and proving the truth of its message:
The Thessalonians were characterized by their faithful work, their loving deeds, and their joy in Christ. They clung to the truth of the Gospel despite suffering they encountered for Jesus. They knew the way Paul had lived among them proved the truth of his message, and they determined to live that way themselves. As a result, they became the example for all the other Christians in their region. But it didn't stop there. People in other countries who heard about their faith and the way they lived it out in their lives were also inspired to do the same. The Thessalonians were Paul's pride and joy.
The visitor walks into church. We don't know why he has come in, and maybe, neither does he. But he is looking for something. An affirmation that God exists? A straw to grasp? Strength to make a change? Someone who will listen to his problems? Hope? A purpose for his life? It might be any kind of reason like this.
So, in he comes. What will happen when he encounters the Christians inside? I hope, I hope, I hope he finds Thessalonians.
I don't think most Christian laypeople realize how important their own witness for Christ is. In many churches in America, we laity believe we come to church to get our weekly dose of God from the paid clergy and church staff. We believe it is their job to visit the sick, do outreach in the community, welcome visitors, provide counseling, give us dynamic worship, and be the example to us of prayer, devotion, selflessness, etc.
We don't really understand that their job is actually to equip us to do all of those things for each other and for people who do not yet know Christ. Many of us, when asked to contribute parts of our lives, balk, get offended, or run elsewhere. After all, church is there for us, to meet our needs, to enhance our lives. We are there to be served, not to serve others. Our lives are hectic enough without adding one more thing to them. We come to church to rest, to feel good, and to have someone teach our children Christian Values.
But this is not the Thessalonian way. Nor is it Jesus' way. Actually, it's the complete opposite of what Jesus taught. And if we are living in a way opposite to what Jesus instructs his disciples, should that not give us pause?
To understand the importance of the witness of laypeople, consider your own life. What was the greatest influence in your decision to become a Christian? How did you realize Jesus is who he says he is, that the Christian life is real, and that it actually makes a difference what you believe?
In my life, and in the lives of most of the Christians I know, actually seeing an "ordinary person" doing their best to take Jesus seriously in every facet of their life, and then having this person take an interest in me was the key.
Even when we are heavily influenced by people who bear the title "clergy," it is when we realize they are actually people like the rest of us who have chosen to take God at his word and try to live accordingly, that we see the true power of Christ.
Conversely now, think of things that hindered you from coming to Christ, or made it difficult to walk with him. The unfaithful witness of someone who claimed to be a Christian often comes to mind.
Perhaps it was a parent or relative who attended church regularly but did not live out Jesus' teaching the rest of the week. Or it was visits to churches where no one greeted you or tried to get to know you. Maybe you were involved in church for a while but realized the Christians there did not seem to show Jesus' characteristics.
The life of the church breaks down when the lives of the members of its body (1 Corinthians 12) do not reflect Christ. There is little even the most gifted pastor can do to make up for a lack of commitment among the people in the congregation. If we are not together the body of Christ, we might as well drop the pretentions and be just another civic organization.
Frankly, I would not take the odds of our visitor walking into a church full of Thessalonians in America. We need to do our part to improve them.
People are looking for God, exemplified in us. What happens to them when they don't see that? Will they keep searching for him in Christian churches? Or are they going to give Christianity a try or two and then seek elsewhere?
I think the chances of THAT happening are pretty strong these days. Many people I know who have embraced religions or practices outside Christianity actually did give us a chance somewhere along the way. They did not find Christ among us, and they crossed Christianity off their lists. People are rejecting what they think Christianity is, based on what they have seen and experienced of Christians.
I don't think these days Christian churches are routinely seen as places where the answers to life's tough questions can be found, where one can have fellowship and friendship, where people really care about each other and where concern is shown for strangers. We lost that position and assumption some time ago because we haven't been acting like Thessalonians.
One of the churches I admire most is Ginghamsburg (United Methodist) Church outside of Dayton, Ohio. I first visited in 1998 and have been following life there through their web site ever since. I recently had the chance to worship with them again, and was struck once more by how very ordinary these people all are, including their longtime pastor, Mike Slaughter. Yet this church has slowly developed a worldwide influence.
Ginghamsburg is not perfect. No church is. But what makes this chuch work, what makes it distinctive, is that it is full of Thessalonians. Being a Thessalonian is the standard Slaughter continually holds before his people, and in the 20 years of his ministry, they have responded. Virtually every Sunday, some story of an ordinary member's service is highlighted during worship. (View some of their sermons online and you will see what I mean.) The culture of the church emphasizes the need for each Christian to live responsibily the life God has given them, in servant mode, reaching out to others in whatever way he has determined for them.
And here is what the world sees: The people — not just the pastor and paid staff, but the people — of Ginghamsburg are characterized by their faithful work, loving deeds and joy in Christ. They cling to the truth of the Gospel despite suffering. They care for each other and they bring others to Christ. Lives get transformed in the process. The Gospel spreads in the process.
And the world takes notice. The Christians in this church have become examples for others in their region, and the word about their ministry has spread around the world.
My prayer is that this may become true for you and your church. May we all become Thessalonians. Amen.
1 Thessalonians 1:2-9; 2:19-20