Matthew 22:34-40 The Greatest Commandment

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 (CEB)

Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica

2 As you yourselves know, brothers and sisters, our visit with you wasn’t a waste of time. On the contrary, we had the courage through God to speak God’s good news in spite of a lot of opposition, although we had already suffered and were publicly insulted in Philippi, as you know. Our appeal isn’t based on false information, the wrong motives, or deception. Rather, we have been examined and approved by God to be trusted with the good news, and that’s exactly how we speak. We aren’t trying to please people, but we are trying to please God, who continues to examine our hearts. As you know, we never used flattery, and God is our witness that we didn’t have greedy motives. We didn’t ask for special treatment from people—not from you or from others— although we could have thrown our weight around as Christ’s apostles. Instead, we were gentle with you like a nursing mother caring for her own children. We were glad to share not only God’s good news with you but also our very lives because we cared for you so much.  You remember, brothers and sisters, our efforts and hard work. We preached God’s good news to you, while we worked night and day so we wouldn’t be a burden on any of you. 10 You and God are witnesses of how holy, just, and blameless we were toward you believers. 11 Likewise, you know how we treated each of you like a father treats his own children. 12 We appealed to you, encouraged you, and pleaded with you to live lives worthy of the God who is calling you into his own kingdom and glory.

 

This is the word of God for us the people of God. Thanks be to God.

 

Habits of Hospitality Part 3: Sharing Our Authentic Selves

 

Today a lot of people would much rather sleep in or watch their kids play in baseball tournaments than come to church on Sunday morning.  The trend is that fewer people go to church and those who do go to church go less regularly.  And this is troubling if you believe that gathering together as a community is a primary way that we practice loving our God and loving our neighbor.

One of the focuses in my seminary training has been church renewal – I’ve been considering the question of how we work with the Holy Spirit to bring about revival and renewal to the church when it seems like the church is just not that important to a lot of people.  One of the main things I keep reading about and hearing directly, especially from young people, is that they want church to be authentic.  “Authentic” is the word that I keep hearing.  And so today we are going to talk about how we can be an “authentic” church and how we can share our “authentic” selves.  We start with this passage from 1 Thessalonians as we continue to learn about Habits of Hospitality.

To review a little bit, you may remember that two weeks ago, we learned that hospitality is not just about what we do when we greet visitors coming in the door.  We read the scripture in Luke where Jesus sends out the 72 disciples to pave the way for his visit – to share peace with each household; and we considered how we could share peace with the people we interact with on a daily basis.  And last week, we talked about sharing our spirit – do remember the old cheer – “We’ve got spirit yes we do, we’ve got spirit, how ‘bout you?”  And I wondered if we show as much spirit for our God as we do our football team.  I encouraged you to show your excitement and enthusiasm by letting the message of the Lord ring out from us through the work that we do with love and faith and hope.

And this week, we look to Paul, Silvanus and Timothy again to speak to being our authentic selves.  Do you remember where Thessalonica is?  It’s in northern Greece, and it was an important seaport.  It was a place that the Apostle’s had been before to start the church.  And in today’s text, Paul is defending his ministry because his opponents are challenging him.  You will see in verse 2 that Paul says the band of apostles had suffered and were publicly insulted in Philippi.  Paul is referring to his imprisonment and abuse there that is described in Acts 16:16-40 if you want to go back and read about that.  (They were imprisoned when Paul exorcised a demon out of a slave girl and she was no longer able to make money for her masters by fortune telling).  Now, Paul’s opponents are accusing him of several things: they say his preaching was false, he had wrong motives and used deception.  They argue that Paul was just acting for his own glory and greed – to get attention and money for himself.  But Paul defends himself.  He says that the apostles spoke only God’s word.  He says that they did not ask for special treatment or support, but that instead they worked to support themselves so that they wouldn’t be a burden on the people.

And in verse 8 Paul writes: “We were glad to share not only God’s good news with you but also our very lives because we loved you so much.”  (verse 8).  He goes on to say: “We treated each of you like a father treats his own children.  We appealed to you, encouraged you, and pleaded with you to live lives worthy of the God who is calling you into his own kingdom and glory.”  (verse 11-12).    And I think that’s a fantastic description of what an authentic church looks like.  Let me read it again, and think about this.  Is this what an authentic church would do:

Paul writes: “We were glad to share not only God’s good news with you but also our very lives because we loved you so much.”  (verse 8).  “We treated each of you like a father treats his own children.  We appealed to you, encouraged you, and pleaded with you to live lives worthy of the God who is calling you into his own kingdom and glory.”  (verse 11-12).

Recently the United Methodist Church created a campaign called “See All the People.”  The challenge that comes with “See All the People” is “to stop fixing churches and concentrate on making disciples.”  (Rev. Junius Dotson, Discipleship Ministries).  The whole idea is that we are so wrapped up in what is going on inside the walls of our churches that we don’t take the time to see all the people around us who haven’t experienced the love of Jesus in their lives.  The idea is that we need to build relationships with people before we can even broach the subject of faith.  (Do you remember last week when I admitted that I don’t answer the door when a stranger knocks on my door to talk about Jesus?  But if my friend, whom I know and respect, wants to talk about Jesus, that’s a whole different ball game.)  The See All the People campaign argues this: “missional engagement entails the building of authentic, organic and consistent relationships.  Only relationships built on these three characteristics will lead to intentional discipleship.”  Authentic, organic and consistent relationships are what help us to become disciples and what help us to make disciples.

Authentic means genuine and true—the real deal — when we are authentic our words and actions match up – our behavior matches what we say we believe.  We truly do care for others.  It must be organic and not forced.  If you think about it, most every day we are face to face with people we don’t know.  It’s organic to strike up conversations and make new friends with people you come in contact with every day.  Some of you extroverts do this organically – some of us introverts have to be trained to meet new people and make new friends.  Right now we are organically forming relationships with the parents and grandparents of the kids in the after school program.  We are just visiting with them as they pick the kids up.

The other thing is to be consistent.  As we develop relationships we have to be consistent about investing our time if we want to get to know someone, right.  It is NOT our main goal to get someone to come to church or join the church or give money to the church.  We are trying to share the love of God that we have found in Christ Jesus, not manipulate them or use them.  Consistent interaction might be a phone call or text, sending a card, a personal invitation to an event, or letting someone know they have been prayed for by the church.

It is when we build relationships in ways that are authentic, organic, and consistent it is natural to share God’s good news and our very lives with people.  But I’ve also learned in my studies that the reputation that the church has, in our country at least, is anything but authentic because research is showing that more and more people have negative attitudes toward Christians and the church.  In fact, one study showed that 40% of people under 30 have a negative opinion of Christians.  The study even came up with six reasons for these negative attitudes – and I thought I would share those with you.  See what you think- People outside the church have a negative impression of Christians because:  1.  We are seen as hypocritical.  We pretend to be something we aren’t.  We are two-faced.  2.  We are seen as focusing on only wanting to convert people instead of really being interested in who they are.  Outsiders wonder if we really care about them.  3.  We are seen as anti-homosexual.  We are seen as hateful and bigoted.  4.  We are seen as sheltered – old fashioned, boring and out of touch with reality.  5.  We are seen as too political—being motivated by a political agenda.  And 6.  We are seen as judgmental – outsiders doubt that we really love people as we say we do.  They think we try to present the picture that we are perfect and judge others who we think aren’t good enough.

Maybe the common denominator in all of these is that we are not being “authentic.”  Instead people see us as fake Christians.  We are not living a lifestyle of love and grace – we aren’t being genuine and realistic.  We aren’t really imitating the love, humility and the general lifestyle of Jesus inside or outside of our churches.  Whether these six things are true or not, this is how we are perceived to outsiders.  And so, it is going to take a lot of work for us to change that perception.  We are going to have to remodel our lifestyles – we cannot be like Jesus just on Sunday morning – instead our entire lifestyles are going to have to comply with what Jesus would want us to do.  If we are going to really make a difference, and if outsiders are really going to notice the light of Jesus within us we can’t just hear the word of God, we have to live by the word of God.

The age group known as millennials are the people who were born from about 1981-2000; and there is a lot of talk about this age group in churches because they are pretty much absent from the life of the church these days.  And we definitely see evidence of this issue in this church.  So, all the church experts are trying to come up with the magic formula to bring all the millennials back to church!  I asked one of my favorite millennials to talk to me about what it was that she wanted in a church family.  I asked her what it meant to be an authentic church.  And I want to share with you what she said.

I don’t want the glitter, the bright lights, the fog machine, the loud music… I don’t want a production – I want heart. I want to participate in worship that is obviously and truly from the heart rather than a performance. Big performances seem so fake to me. Like we are “putting on” worship rather than engaging in. It’s a plastic case over the real thing.

I like tradition and liturgy. A service with roots and history, that is part of a larger collective. Otherwise, it feels like trying something new for the sake of trying something new.

I don’t want to sit and make small talk with my fellow church members. I, personally, want to be vulnerable… To talk about how I’m really doing – how I’m struggling – what pains exist in my life. And I want the same in return. It’s actually caring about the person on the pew with you, rather than trading “how are you?” “I’m fine”. It’s about honesty, vulnerability, and being present.

I want to be part of a church that cares more about me as a person than about me contributing to the attendance count or membership roll. I want to be part of a church that doesn’t pretend to have all their crap together, but is honest about the mistakes and failures. I want to be a church that cares more about the people outside than the people inside…that takes seriously the teachings of Jesus to love the least of these…that understands that donating money is very rarely how we are asked to give love.

Now, she is one millennial, and I’ll tell you what millennials really hate is being considered the token millennial and asking them what they think – because of course each individual is just that – an individual with different opinions and needs.  But these are some of the things that I keep hearing in all the conferences, research, classes and reading that I have been doing on these issues.  It is really not about the surface issues – it is not about the outward appearance of your facility or your worship and it’s not about having a coffee bar.  It is about being authentic — it’s about “seeing all the people” – right?  It’s about seeing each other and loving each other in sacrificial ways.  In ways that are authentic, organic and consistent.  And it’s about seeing those outside the walls of our churches and walking the Christian walk in our communities.  It’s almost about being a mission outpost to the community.  Millennials want a church that makes a real difference in their lives and in the lives of all of God’s people.  And isn’t that exactly the mission Jesus calls his disciples to?

So, I have a challenge for you.  Would you think about these six opinions that people have about the church?  Really take some time to consider whether these things are true, and then whether they are true or not, how can we counteract these opinions?

  1.  Are we hypocritical?
  2.  Do we focus only on wanting to convert people instead of really being interested in who they are?
  3.  Are we anti-homosexual?
  4.  Are we old fashioned, boring and out of touch with reality?
  5.  Are we too political?
  6.  Are we judgmental?

Do we pretend to be perfect people who have our acts together instead of sharing our real struggles and doubts and failures with others.  You know, it is when we share the ways that our faith has helped us and transformed us that people can see the transforming power of God’s love.

I pray that we would have the courage through God to speak God’s good news to others every day…. even when we face opposition, even when we don’t feel like it, even when it would be easier to just hang out with the people we are most comfortable with.  I pray that we would share God’s peace wherever we go, that we would share our excitement for our God, and that we would be authentic Christians who are truly loving God and our neighbors.  I pray that our motives would be right – that we would live trying to please God and not people.  Holy One, help us to share not only God’s good news but also our very lives with others.  And may we live lives worthy of the God who is calling us into his own kingdom and his glory.  Amen.