The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.

 

A Breath of Fresh Air

Resisting the temptation to make Paul one-sided.

by Michael Danner

Epistle Reading: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

For Sunday, December 2, 2012; Year C—Advent 1

The Apostle Paul was a passionate defender of the faith. He dismantled error with a razor-like intellect. His reasoning abilities, top-notch. His style was in-your-face, no-holds-bared, truth-telling. He never backed down from a good debate (argument?). It was often his way or the highway (just ask Peter, Barnabas, and John Mark to name just a few).

And yet, this is not all there is to Paul. As a matter of observation, it appears to me as if Paul mellowed the further he got away from his Pharisaical roots and the closer he walked with the crucified Jesus. In Paul’s letters, we encounter Paul as an exceptional and thoughtful mentor who cared deeply about people, their profession and their practice of the faith.

A Much Needed Model

I am writing this one week after a contentious American election. During that election cycle, I witnessed Christian brothers and sisters fighting against other Christian brothers and sisters over partisan political commitments. Because of that, I experienced 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 as a breath of fresh air. Which leads me to a modest proposal: I propose that we, in the church, emulate Paul the thoughtful mentor, over and against Paul the razor-sharp, in-your-face, no-hold-bared, master of arguments.

At a time at which the United States could really uses some peaceable and productive discourse in the public square, a return to statesmanship and civility for the common good, I arbitrarily propose that the following spiritual disciplines for the next six months.  This would be a great way to kick-start the new Church Year.

According to the Advent 1 epistle, this is what a practice of Paul as peace-making mentor might look like:

Practice #1: Be Thankful

Paul wondered how he could thank God enough for those to whom he was writing. Cultivate an ability to see God at work in others and give thanks for that. That is much more edifying than picking on folks for the things they say and do that we don’t like.

Practice #2: Pray

Pray for those who are co-laborers in God’s work, fellow travelers on the journey with Jesus, and so on. This is especially when times of  ”distress and persecution” has been extending the gap between you. Paul found that praying for people is a way to stay connected in a positive way while you are not together. Prayer cuts through rumors, bad news, troubling reports, bridging hearts and minds.

Practice #3: Face-to-Face Time

Get together with others face-to-face. I enjoy a good email or text from time to time, but there is no substitute for face-to-face gatherings. This is especially true when we are having difficult relationships or issues threaten to divide us. It is harder to be unkind towards those we know and see regularly. So don’t avoid people, especially in conflict. Now one could argue whether or not Paul relished a good fight, but it is clear that he felt being together was the clearest way to resolve stuff and that even his letters could be a bit too intense.

Practice #4: Exercise Faith?

This one is huge. Too often people avoid giving thanks, praying and gathering with those they have judged to be lacking in faith and what they consider “morals.” Paul saw this as an opportunity for mutual growth. Giving thanks and praying for others sets the stage for the life changing growth that can happen when we get together. When I lack faith, I’m grateful that others don’t write me off. I’m especially grateful when they gracefully move nearer to me in such times.

Practice #5: “Bless Them, Jesus”

Hoping for the best for others is a good thing. Asking Jesus to bless others (even enemies) in ways that lead to life is a great thing. May Jesus clear the path between us. Paul meant that physically, which is important. Yet, it also has figurative significance. Whatever keeps us apart, may Jesus be present, bridging the distance, knocking down the wall, and so on. May Jesus make your love increase and overflow on others. 

The Hardest Question

This isn’t a hard or edgy post, is it? It’s tough to question a text that feels like a Pauline group hug. But, perhaps, therein lies the hardest question. How does one know when to call down the Rush Limbaugh Paul and when to channel the Dali Lama Paul? The text calls us to emulate Paul in behaviors that cut squarely against the status quo—especially in regard to rivals and enemies.

Have we become so well adapted to contentious practices, polemic skills honed in the arena of debate, that doing simple, irenic, loving things, seem ingenuous?  Weak, even?

Have we become friends with behaviors that make enemies?


Michael Danner is an ordained pastor of the Mennonite Church USA. He serves as Lead Pastor at Metamora Mennonite Church, a rural community on the outskirts of the empire (easy to miss unless you live nearby). When he is not actively engaged in husbanding, fathering, pastoring and blogging he confesses to spending far too much time trying to move objects with his mind…a practice he picked up at church as a kid. To date, it has not worked…but he isn’t giving up. His blog can be found at http://provokelove.net  and he can be followed on Twitter @michaeldanner

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