April 19, 2012, Mount Olivet Retreat Center, Farmington
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
I suppose some of you are more techie than I and could figure out if what I just read is in fact the shortest three-verse segment in the Bible. If it’s not, it’s close.
And it is also the most compact series of admonitions that, if examined closely, should all be followed by a group response: “Really?” or “You kidding me?”
- Rejoice always. Really? Are you kidding?
- Pray without ceasing. Really?
- Give thanks in all circumstances. You’re kidding!
- This is the will of God for you. Really!
So those admonitions are to cover always and everything.
- The orthodoxy police that figured out you believe in evolution and are now watching your every word to find out where else you’ve sold out;
- The youth group advisor who is pretty much sure that it’s your fault his daughter got her nose pierced;
- The office volunteer who won’t do any of your tasks because you’re not the lead pastor and therefore not the boss;
- (I could have you turn to each other and take two minutes to fill in your own pastoral ministry horror story, but I’d never get you back!)
- The list goes on and on.
Now maybe constant prayer fits those circumstances—or at least prayers of deliverance. But the rest? Rejoice always? Really? In all circumstances?
At the risk of offending someone here who might actually think you are able to live these admonitions, let me confess that I, like most of you, really dislike smiley-face Christians. The I’m-so-happy-Jesus-is-my-bestest-friend” folks whose Pollyanna look at life—simplistic and naïve—just makes you hope they spill spaghetti all over themselves at lunch.
We good Lutherans, of course, look down our theological noses at them and mutter something about triumphalism, a theology of glory, and feel smug about being rooted in the theology of the cross.
But let’s assume for the next few minutes that being smug and condescending isn’t a sufficient response to a scriptural admonition to rejoice always. After all, you did, less than three years ago, answer yes when you were asked:
- Will you preach and teach in accordance with the Holy Scriptures…?
- Will you carry out your ministry in harmony with the Constitutions of the church?—a constitution that contains the language that the Scriptures are the “inspired word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.”
We can’t simply set aside what we don’t like. So back to rejoice always.
You’ve been in life and ministry long enough to be able to add a real long list to the half-in-jest list I started this with. Cancer diagnosis, broken marriages, lives ended too soon, broken friendships, disappointments. You know there is plenty to which a response isn’t logically “rejoicing” but something very different. So how can Paul be so flip?
Let’s be clear: Paul was himself familiar with these kinds of things. His own suffering was real, and intense. In 2 Corinthians he lays it out there:
Five times I have received… forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked”.
And his own suffering was not simply based on stuff that was happening to him, but on his own inner failings and flailings. Frederic Buechner in Peculiar Treasures said he figured Paul was so depressed sometimes that “he could hardly move the pencil across the page.”
“I don’t understand my own actions,” he said. “For I don’t do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I can will what is right, but I can’t do it. For I don’t do the good I want but the evil I don’t want is what I do…”
Talk about an addictive personality deeply in need of a recovery program!!
Or, maybe, Paul is simply a suffering human in need of some good news, which he has found in the living presence of the God he has met in the resurrected Jesus Christ. And it’s in the light of that relationship that for Paul, the whole of life is surrounded and permeated and marinated in joy. Something like, I suppose, winning the $10 million lottery would make you forget about the mosquito bite on your arm that just a few minutes before was driving you nuts!
For Paul, and for anyone Paul could get to listen to him (and that was a lot of people!), the love of God that had come alive for him overshadowed everything. “If God is for us,” he figured, “who is against us??” The answer? Nothing else matters! : “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”
The answer? No!
Paul wrote: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor everything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
We Lutherans call this a “theology of the cross,” and what it means is that encountering Christ is to live life not hiding from what’s wrong, but living fully in all the brokenness of our lives—our dreams, our behavior, our relationships, and coming out of it all with a smile—rejoicing isn’t too strong a word—because we know how the story ends, we know none of the pain and dead-ends are where we’ll end up, but that God continues to walk with us through it, and beyond it. We can know what Paul knew. And so we can believe his invitation to rejoice always!
Buechner again, summarizing Paul’s life: “The ups and the downs. The fights with his enemies and the fights with his friends. The endless trips with a fever and diarrhea. Keeping one jump ahead of the sheriff. Giving his spiel on windy street corners with nobody much to hear him most of the time except some underfed kids and a few old women and some yokels who didn’t even know the language. Where was it all going to get him in the end? Where was it going to get all of them, any of them, in the end? When you came right down to it, what was God up to, for God’s sweet sake, sending them all out—prophets, apostles, evangelists, teachers, the whole tattered bunch—to beat their gums and work themselves into an early grave?” By the way, that’s ministry he’s describing there at the end!
But that’s Paul’s story. Paul, the author of the words, “rejoice always,” spoken to the Thessalonians. Or “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice” in Philippians 4, or any number of other places he’s rejoicing or giving thanks or being grateful.
And in the end, that’s our story. To paraphrase Buechner writing about Paul: Sent out to give our spiel on windy street corners or bored sanctuaries with nobody much to hear you most of the time, except some overfed kids and a few old women and some yokels who don’t pay any attention at all. Sent to beat your gums and work yourself into an early grave!”
And for what?
For the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord—the $10 million lottery! Overshadows absolutely everything else.
That’s what for.