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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Racial Justice: Coming Together

            A play date!  That’s what Deidra Riggs said fixed things.  She was talking about a when her husband Harry was 4 years old.  At a birthday party, he and another 4-year-old almost came to blows over a helium balloon.  His mother decided the way to solve this pre-k feud was to call the other boy’s mom and schedule a play date.  The boys became good friends and stayed that way for over 50 years.[i] 
            Oh that we could settle things with playdates. 
Oh that we could all see as 4-year-olds see. 
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus said that (Matthew 18:4). 
I know the issues that divide people are complicated.   As a white, educated, middle class, American male, I am acutely aware of particular divisions between people perpetrated by individuals like me.  White males of means displaced, killed, and emasculated the indigenous people in the Americas.  We (white males) enslaved Africans, hauled them to the Americas in the horrific middle passage, and then tried to strip their humanity in ‘the peculiar institution.’  We replaced slavery with Jim Crow, and Jim Crow with mass incarcerations.  We put American citizens of Japanese descent in internment camps.  And today millions of white Americans, blissfully ignorant of any of this history, profess their innocence and their disinterest. 
Understanding our own collective racism is too complicated.  We just want to be happy and go to Heaven when we die.  Dealing with the complexities of generational, systemic, institutional racism is too messy.  To get into discussions about privilege threatens us with guilt.  We came after slavery and Jim Crowe, we say.  Those things aren’t my fault.  We want to claim we are “colorblind” and then spend our energy and resources pursuing our own happiness. 
It’s not that simple.  But it is.  Riggs’ book is not about playdates.  But it is.  She knows how complicated and how simple human relationships are.  Her book is about loving God and loving neighbor and doing the work to overcome divisions that separate people. That I am reading her book as I enter a Sabbatical from pastoral ministry is providential.  Matthew 10:39 (‘those who lose their life for Jesus’ sake will find it) is the theme verse of my Sabbatical.  I am learning what it means for me as a disciple, as a dad, as a husband, and as a pastor to ‘die to self.’  Deidra Riggs’ book One is one of my primary non-Biblical texts.
My church has sent me away for four months of rest, renewal, and new focus.  One of the things driving me on this Sabbatical and, I believe, in the future of my ministry life is the call of God on the church to bring people together in Jesus’ name.  Uniting diverse people is a direct effect of the Gospel of the salvation we have in Jesus Christ. Look at Ephesians 2:11-21.  Look at Revelation 7:9-10.  Read the entire book of Acts.  Crossing cultural lines and breaking down racial barriers in order to unite divergent groups in Christ is rooted in the Gospel.  All who are a part of Christ hold in their hearts a deeps concern for crossing racial barriers for the sake of loving the neighbor and bringing people together in Jesus’ name.  Let me restate that for the sake of emphasis and clarity.  To love and follow Jesus is to actively oppose racism and to actively advocate for justice and the coming together of all people in Jesus’ name.  The Christian cannot be indifferent concerning racism and still be a Christian.
This, by the way, is a blanket condemnation of Christians who supported Jim Crowe and segregation (not to mention slavery).  There can be no lionizing of our predecessors in Christianity in America or anywhere else where our forbearers tolerated and even promoted the degradation of one racial group while simultaneously exalting another.  Such blatant racism is foreign to the Gospel and that was as clear in 1865 as it is today.[ii] 
Unity, equality, diversity – these words have a Gospel aroma when they are understood in light of the passages I mentioned above as well as John 17 and other New Testament passages.   The yearning for these things is a yearning for the Kingdom of God, where people of all shades and backgrounds joyously come together as one family in Christ.  I believe the church in North America is positioned to sound a clarion call for unity and togetherness.  I especially believe those with privilege (middle class educated whites) are called to sacrifice our own tastes and preferences and to willingly give up power so that minorities who have been held down by systemic racism can have a seat at the table of leadership.  The church is called to set the pace as this generation moves toward equality for all people.  If we, church leaders, can do this, we will help the church show the world the goodness of the Kingdom of God. And that’s our mission, to help people enter the kingdom of God as Jesus’ disciples.
With this sense of calling in mind, Riggs’ observation about how we (“we” humans) approach conversation and interaction is a guide for the Christ-follower.  First, she quotes U.S. ambassador Samantha Power who says, “Some people put themselves at stake when they get involved in a cause.”  My opposition to abortion is as much about my ability to defend pre-birth life as it is about the pre-birth life itself.  I find myself more concerned about how I advocate for the Ethiopian orphan than I am worried about any particular orphan.  No matter what the cause is, when I become strident (for or against it), I am more worried about my own image, which I happen to have attached to said cause.  Ambassador Power’s point is well made.  Whether or not I ever prevent an abortion or a child from starving, I want to make sure my identity and ego are preserved in how I represent myself.
Opposite this self-aggrandizing approach, Riggs makes this salient point.  “Our identity is not impacted by whether or not others agree with us, or even by what others think about us.  Instead, finding the right perspective on who we are is based on understanding whose we are.”[iii]  Hear this.  We are God’s possessions, God’s children, people made new in Christ.  He is master, we are disciples.  He is Lord, we are servants.  Advocating for the unborn and the orphan and the victim of racism and injustice – these are all stances we take and works in which we invest ourselves as a part of our discipleship. 
I don’t fight racism for the sake of fighting racism.  I fight it because that’s what a Christ follower does.  I fight it because in Ephesians 2, we read that Jesus has broken down the dividing wall.  This is true for any cause or in any decision or interaction.  I try to act and think and speak in ways that align me with Jesus.  When I do that, I find myself forcefully rejecting racism.  I find myself exhausted by the yearning for diversity, the longing to see the church today stand as a living embodiment of Revelation 7:9-10.
Riggs shows just how difficult this step into the work of reconciliation is.  She shares a litany of people represented by actions you may support or decry:
-      Women who have had abortions.
-      Men who dress in drag.
-      White people who shoot unarmed black men.
-      People who shoot up crowded movie theaters and elementary schools with automatic rifles.
-      Adulterers.
-      Cheaters.
-      Gay teens from Fundamentalist Christian families.

You may go through her list and wonder how she compiled it.  Maybe you sympathetically identify with some on her list and angrily despise others.  Maybe it is offensive that some on this list would be cited along with others.  I know Deidra Riggs could make a list 2 or 3 times longer than this as could you or I, with people much more divergent than those listed here.  There is but one thing that unites everyone on this list, and this is the author’s point. God loves everyone on this list.[iv] 
Christ followers have two assignments, straight from Jesus.  First, we are two love these people just as God does.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  It’s easier to draw a line in the sand and determine who’s on our side,[v] but God wants us to see it his way.  So, we have to die to our own sense of injustice, to our self-perceptions and self-righteousness.  We have to die to self and see as Jesus sees and love everyone as Jesus loves them; even those we would hate.  Second, we have to help people who don’t know Jesus come to know Him and become his followers. 
That second assignment comes later and in most cases what we actually do through words and actions is witness.  We testify to God’s goodness.  Whether or not people become Christians after hearing our testimony is between them and God.  But whether they ever do or not, our call is to love and to be God’s agents of reconciliation.
            “Reconciliation invites everyone to the table, the wraparound porch, the picnic on a summer afternoon.  All of us, even those we wouldn’t have necessarily chosen to invite.  And isn’t that the point?  We are not in charge of the guest list.  We are guests along with everyone else.”[vi]  Remember, it’s not about who we are, but about whose we are.  Meeting for coffee or talking over beers is the way adults have playdates. 
            I went to a playdate like this a month ago at a Durham (NC) mosque.  There were Jews there, Muslims of course, and Christians.  The food was delicious.  As a “faith leader,” I was, at the last minute, added to the program.  I knew that might happen and had a few remarks prepared.  But when my time to speak came, I shoved my notes in my pocket and ignored them. 
Instead, I began my speech by thanking our Muslim hosts for their generous hospitality.  Then, I repented of the ways Christians have demonized and “hated on” Muslims.  I didn’t affirm Islam.  I didn’t deny the evil done by extremists.  I just stood up, and with a voice that surprised me by its cracking said, “I am sorry.  On behalf of Christians who have been hateful, I am truly sorry.”  Why did I do that?  Because on a playdate, you have to say sorry if you hit your friend.  Also, I did it because when the Holy Spirit prompts us, we need to follow that lead.  
            I believe the Holy Spirit prompted me to go on Sabbatical and prompted my church to celebrate this decision.  I believe the Holy Spirit prompted me to study racial reconciliation as an act of discipleship and to read One as a part of my study.  I now proceed seeking to learn, to love my neighbor, and to follow the next prompting of the Spirit as it comes. 

[i] D. Riggs (2017), One: Unity in Divided World, Baker Books (Grand Rapids), p.24.
[ii] In this paragraph, I am not suggesting that specific individuals who claimed faith in Jesus but also supported racist systems and held racist thoughts in their own hearts are condemned to Hell.  Eternal destiny and eternal condition are God’s to determine and I make no effort to say who’s going where after death.  What I am saying is white people who grew up in the Jim Crowe south knew it was wrong at the time.  Failure to stand up to racism is a sin of omission.  To stand idly by and watch as black people are lynched and degraded is as bad as participating in the lynching and degradation.  
[iii] Riggs, p.26.
[iv] Riggs. p.33.
[v] Riggs, p.34.
[vi] Riggs, p.41.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Is Multicultural Worship Necessary?

“It is no longer a question of whether we like or want diversity.  The church is diverse.   And congregational worship should reflect the diversity of God’s people, even if a local congregation itself is not diverse.”[i]
            I don’t know quite what to do with this statement from author/pastor/worship leader Sandra Maria Van Opstal.  I agree completely that “congregational worship should reflect the diversity of God’s people.”  I am praying, thinking about, hoping for, and working toward greater diversity in the congregation where I am the lead pastor.  I am visiting with pastors who serve in multiethnic contexts.  I am listening to non-white people in ministry to hear their perspectives. I have heard perspectives of whites all my life and I am one.  I am trying to see through the eyes of others.
            So, I agree with Van Opstal, don’t I?
            I think I do.  I then think about the little church my family visited in Penhook, VA a few years ago.  When we walked into this rural congregation in a quaint, inviting country sanctuary with our adopted black children, the church was instantly integrated.  Prior to that it was a group of white people worshiping God together.  It is highly unlikely that non-white people are there very often; maybe only when we show up.  They were extremely hospitable to us. 
How would that church’s worship reflect the diversity of God’s people? 
            Maybe, as a part of their communal prayer life, they could focus on the worship of Christians in other parts of the world, say Namibia, or Bolivia, or Vietnam.  Believers in those places look very different than those in Penhook.  Those country folk in Virginia could expand their sense of God’s people by praying for believers.  Maybe there are other ways they could reflect that diversity.
            However, there is a particular cultural timbre in southern Virginia.  Should that be compromised in worship so that the church goers have a greater sense of God in the world? Maybe the answer is yes.  But one culture is not superior to another.  God can be glorified in the warp and woof of life on the farms that make up Penhook.  The people who live there will most likely hear God when God speaks in ways they can understand.  That speaking by God begins in worship that is done in familiar cultural expression.
            This is challenging for me because one of the foundations of my own faith is the willingness to plunge into the unfamiliar and the uncomfortable.  I don’t believe a person can grow in Christ until he or she willingly gives up his/her tastes and preferences and fully (even if temporarily) enters another’s cultural world.  I think those white, rural worshipers should do partnership ministry which would involve trips to Ethiopia or Bolivia, or at least to the sections of Roanoke, VA dominated by African Americans.  Just as I recognize their need for worship in familiar language, I also see their need for new experiences.  In the new experiences, we grow into a bigger sense of just how big God is.
            It is both.  We need times when church feels like church (in our own understanding of church).  And we need to see church happen in ways we never could have imagined and in people who are new (and maybe strange) to us.  I’ve only just begun my engagement with Van Opstal’s ideas, but I have to say, I am very excited to read her book as a part of my Sabbatical journey and as a part of my exploration of the possibilities of developing our congregation as a multi-ethnic church.

[i] Van Opstal, Sandra Maria (2016), IVP Books (Downer’s Grove, IL), p.14.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Review of Eugene Peterson's 'As Kingfishers Catch Fire'

I am extremely thankful that this sermon collection has been released.  Eugene Peterson is the person, in my own reading, who has put the dignity into the work of the pastor.  Peterson was a scholar through and through, but he saw the daily, weekly, yearly work pastors do as being just as important as any work done by anyone in any field.  In fact, he saw a unique dignity in the work of the pastor.
            This collection is one record of how he did it.  ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’ is an anthology of his sermons.  Tracking his preaching, one can see how a pastor dealt with the major movements of history as they affected a suburban congregation in Maryland.

            My own preaching is quite different.  However, I am my own person and I live in a different time.  I find myself blessed and educated as I observe how Peterson preached on Moses and Adam and Eve and creation and law.  His work informs and shapes mine.  I recommend this book as a guide to pastors and as a primer in discipleship for all Christians.

"I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review."

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Sabbatical theme lived out in Daily Relationships

            I am a little over one week into my Sabbatical.  For 4 months I will be away from the church I lead as senior pastor, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship congregation HillSong Church, of Chapel Hill, NC.  For much of the Sabbatical, I will be in Chapel Hill, just not at HillSong.  So far, I have had to go back to the office once to pick up something I accidentally had delivered there instead of my house.  And, I have seen two church members, on separate occasions bumping into them at the Chapel Hill Public Library.
            I’ll spend much of the Sabbatical at the library.  I am here as I type this.  On this occasion, I’ll be needing to put some music on (headphones, of course) because someone behind me keeps snorting.  I am sorry for the cold that is clearly irritating her, but her snot is not helping me concentrate.  However, it is a helpful reminder that life with God happens in normal, everyday places.  Sabbath may be a palace in time, but space is shared with people who have colds and with people who have crying babies.  Space is shared with my own children who try my patience and, more than anyone else, expose my flaws.  Space is shared with my wife.
            As I hiked this morning, it became clear that Matthew 10:39, die to self, is one of the themes of this Sabbatical.  If I truly am to die to self and live to Christ, one of the arenas in which this happens will be my marriage.  Obvious as this may seem, I need to make a spiritual discipline out of putting my wife’s needs ahead of my own.  I need to, out of love, swallow my first reaction to any little habit or tic she has that annoys me.  When my hackles are being raised, I need to shift my mind and spirit.  I need to shift from focus on the annoyance to focus on loving my wife.
All married people annoy each other.  If you think that won’t happen when you get married, I promise, it will.  We marry people, human beings, and human beings do things that get on our nerves.  And each and every one of is a human being who does things to irk those nearest to us.  But, I need to zero in on this: to be married to her is a pleasure.  She makes my life better and she is enormously patient with me.  I need to keep that joy that I find in her ever in front me.
            I need to also focus on honoring God by how I love my wife.  This is scriptural – Ephesians 5.  Matthew 10:39 & Ephesians 5 together produce a pretty clear message.  As an act of discipleship, I must be a self-sacrificing husband.  I’ve said this type of thing in pre-marriage counseling dozens of times.  Now, on Sabbatical time, I need to step back and listen to the sermon instead of preaching it.  That’s true of this sermon and of many others.

            One last thing for this post.  When I sat down to write, I had an entirely different post in mind.  I am still going to write that one.  However, I am committed to yielding to the flow of Sabbatical.  I may have certain plan, but God may have it in mind to alter my plan.  If that happens, ok.  I sat down to write something.  I ended up writing this.  I will still write that other piece.  I’ll just write it later.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

My Sabbatical Blog - to Die to Self

            After a wonderful worship service and send off from the church, my family and I went home.  We had a relaxing Sunday afternoon.  At 4PM, I made a final pastoral visit – to our church’s most senior member, Esta Mae Johnson.  She and I talked about 45 minutes, I left, and Sabbatical had begun.
            Monday morning, I saw my kids off to school, and then hit the road.  I drove 3 hours to Ft. Caswell at Caswell Beach, the North Carolina Baptist retreat center directly across the Cape Fear and Elizabeth Rivers and Intracoastal Waterway from South Port, NC. 
            As I drove, I listened to Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.  She tells a history many Americans don’t know, but should.  It is the horrible, tragic, and hopeful and inspiring account of Post-reconstruction black life in the Jim Crow south and the efforts black people made to get out from under the inequality of Jim Crow to the American Freedom they hoped they’d find in the west and north.  The black populations of Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, and other cities are largely descendants of the children and grandchildren of former slaves.  This post-civil war generation of African Americans left the miserable lives to which they were relegated in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and other places in the south and sought their fortunes in the North.
            Listening to these stories as I traveled, so unencumbered in all my male, middle class, white privilege as well as the tremendous blessing I have for a season of sabbatical rest, was poignant.  I felt free and in my freedom I was ready to embrace and enter the stories of others, stories of people forced to live harder lives than I have lived.  I cruised east along I-40 and inhabited stories of cotton picking for pennies, lynchings, and people powerless to change it.  But they weren’t powerless, and when they had had enough, they left.  This movement had no central figure, no Martin Luther King Jr.  It is the anthology of stories of people who knew their own self-worth even though the white south did all they could to beat it out of them. 
            I drove along and listened.  And then I got to Caswell and walked the ground.  It’s a large retreat center with numerous dormitories, a chapel, a PX, a gymnasium, a theatre, and a hotel (where I stayed).  Mingled in with these typical retreat facilities are the ruins of World War I era batteries which were set up as a war-time military installation.  These bizarrely shaped concrete structures, long abandoned, are now weed strewn, but were once the foundation of the coastal defense. 

            I climbed around on the batteries.  I walked the beach.  I sat in the sand and unending wind.  I wrote the opening entries in my Sabbatical journal.  I began releasing the cares of a pastor.  For the next four months, I exist in a different space, a “castle in time” (Abraham Joshua Heschel).  Caswell, which at times is crawling with North Carolina Baptists, either screaming teens or adults on retreat remembering when they used to be screaming teens, was all but empty.  For several hours I had the place to myself.  In my journal I wrote that I had found solitude.  The beach was gloriously abandoned. 

            So I walked and prayed and let go.  I played chess on my computer with people from Morroco, Brazil, and Poland.  I ate so many Oreos and fried clams I got sick (almost).  And I let go. 

            Gazing across the Atlantic, it struck me that I haven’t settled on a scripture passage for Sabbatical.  I have not been led to that one word from the Bible that will provide the undergirding and the theme for this time.  As I sat atop one of the batteries ocean Tuesday morning, I found what might be it.  Matthew 10:39 – “Those who find their life with lose it, and those who lose their life for Jesus’ sake will find it.”  I don’t know what this Sabbatical has in store, but I know this.  I have to die to self.  I have to stop worrying about who I am and stand upon whose I am.
            Midday Tuesday, I drove up to New Bern.  I went there to interview a woman, Daynette Snead who is African American, has her own real estate business, and is the associate pastor of a Chin Church.  The Chin are another people group (like the Karen who meet at HillSong) exiled from Burma (Myanmar).  This African American lady from Richmond, Virginia is killing it in business in mostly white New Bern and getting it done in ministry among Chin refugees. 
            She and I discussed race and life and ministry.   She graced me by sharing with me her story.  I won’t go into it because it is hers, but in what she shared, I found symmetry with what I was hearing in The Warmth of Other Suns.  Listening to that, talking to Daynette, hearing God in the wind and the waves of the ocean, listening to Jesus in Matthew 10 – it all came together for me.  I have big dreams for the future of the church I pastor, HillSong Church of Chapel Hill.  Big dreams.  Those dreams forming and have been for some time, but they will be set aside temporarily.  For now, I am awed by how God has brought things together for me. 
God is dropping me into the stories of others. 
            I hope this expands my ability to love others.
            I hope this enriches my telling of the Gospel story.  I know it is deepening my understanding of it. 
            I pray that in all of this, I will learn to see more clearly that God is in control and that my life is to be spent following Jesus, not worrying about things.  As I learn to die to self and as I am enriched by other people’s stories, my own dreams will take shape.

            Next for me in Sabbatical is a lot family time, and, I hope, a lot of reading.    

Monday, May 1, 2017

A Word of Blessing

I wrote this as a benediction for my church family before going away for 4 months on Sabbatical.

            “Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you.  And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.  And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13).
            I wanted my final column before a 4-month Sabbatical to be a word of blessing.  Candy, Igor, Henry, Merone, and I will be away and in all likelihood not see people from HillSong until September 17.  However, I know our God and Father will guide us back.  And when we return we will have the experiences of the summer affixed to us, tattooed on our psyches and souls.
            Furthermore, God will be at work within the church.  People will make new spiritual discoveries and will grow in Christ.  New ministry will be birthed in my absence.  New people will come.  I hope this happens.  I am sure it will happen. 
            I pray the church will support Heather in her leadership.  I know you will.
            I pray the church will encourage Enam and give her space to grow as a pastor.  I have confidence this will happen and that the church will show her great love and great grace.
            I pray the church will welcome Holly onto the staff.  I know you will and I know this will be a great experience for her as she learns the ins and outs of ministry.
            I pray the church will embrace Hong and a new work; a ministry to Chinese people.  What a great opportunity!  I am confident God is in it. 

            The most important things are found in the blessing that Paul sent to the Thessalonians.  I now pass Paul’s words on to you.  Increase in love for each other and for all who come to worship at HillSong.  May love abound; may it be a defining characteristic of our church family.   Turn to Christ, allowing yourselves to be vulnerable and exposed before him, and His Holy Spirit will strengthen your hearts as you grow in holiness.  HillSong, you are numbered among the saints because you are in Christ.  I look forward to seeing you in September and hearing about how God has been at work among you and sharing with you how God has shaped our family’s life.

The Origin of the Church

“Called out, called into” (1 Thessalonians 1:1-10)
Sunday, April 30, 2017

            You open your Bible.  You flip past the Old Testament and turn to the New, but you skip the four gospels.  You skip the most quoted of Paul’s letters, Romans.  You keep turning pages until you’re at 1st Thessalonians.  What do you see?  Do you see the word Paul invents there? 
            An experienced Bible reader knows many of the New Testament books are attributed to a man named Paul.  Romans is the letter from Paul to the church in the city of Rome.  That letter says in chapter 1, verse 7, “To all God’s beloved in Rome who are called to be saints.”  First Corinthians is so titled because it is Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth.  It be begins, “To the church of God that is in Corinth” (1:2); and so on with Second Corinthians, Galatians and so forth.
            Note the opening to 1 Thessalonians.  In the others, it was ‘God’s beloved in Rome,’ ‘the church … in Corinth’, and so on.  But here it says, “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1).  It does not say ‘to the church at Thessalonica,’ but rather, ‘to the Thessalonians.’  I never noticed this in over 25 years of reading the Bible.  What is it about that city that led Paul to write in this way? 
            We find the story of Paul’s time Thessalonica in Acts 17.  He was there with his colleagues Silas and Timothy.  They were hosted by a man named Jason.  Many of the Jews in the Thessalonian synagogue decided to become followers of Jesus because of the preaching of Paul, Silas, and Timothy.  However, many more were violently opposed to the Gospel.  Furthermore, the religious conditions in the city made it certain that any Thessalonian who came to follow Jesus, Jew or Greek, would run into trouble. 
            A mob from the synagogue came looking for Paul and when they couldn’t find him, they forcefully dragged his host, Jason, and several of the other new Christians before the magistrate and accused them of violating Roman law by virtue of their practice of Christianity (Acts 17:5).  It’s an accusation that would have legs because of the dominant religion in Thessalonica – emperor worship.  Ancient coins discovered there indicate that the emperor was seen as a god and was to be honored as the Lord above all others.  Thessalonians believed in many gods.  They didn’t care what god you bowed to as long as you and your god bowed to Augustus and his descendants who served as emperor of Rome.
            The Thessalonian church was born in the midst of accusations coming from Jews in the city and then outright persecution by the Greek city officials who ran the city.  That all hit right at the outset.  This group – the gathering of Thessalonian Christ followers – claimed to be inheritors of the story of Israel.  Israel’s story was fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah.  However, though they were birthed in the course of Israel’s story, the early Christians were part of something new, a new group.  And in Thessalonica, they saw themselves as a distinct group.[i] 
There was no word in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek for our English word ‘church.’  When you read in 1 Thessalonians 1:1 “to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” it makes perfect sense, in English.  In Greek it says, ‘th ekklhsia, the assembly.’  What is translated ‘church’ in our English Bibles is actually the word ‘assembly,’ and it had a definite meaning in Thessalonica and other Greek speaking cities.  That meaning was not ‘a gathering of Christians who make up the body of Christ and worship God together in Jesus’ name.’
When Paul writes to the Thessalonians and calls them ‘ekklesia,’ he is defining a new entity, one that had not existed prior to 35 AD.  The first followers of Jesus stayed together in Jerusalem after the resurrection, the ascension of Jesus to the right hand of the Father, and then the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  If those events are unfamiliar to you, you can read all about them in the first two chapters of the book of Acts.  That gathering of Jesus followers that stayed together eventually became what we now know of as church.  Paul, who became a Christian a few years later, traveled all over the Mediterranean world, sharing the news that God had fulfilled Israel’s story by coming in the person of Jesus, and in doing so had rescued all of humankind from sin and defeated death forever.  But the first believers didn’t realize they were the first church because they didn’t know what church was.
As Paul preached this message, Jews accepted that Jesus was their Messiah.  Pagan gentiles accepted that their life of pantheism was a lie and that they needed Jesus.  The Jews and gentiles joined together and formed communities.  The letters Paul wrote to these communities helped them define what they were – a people joined together in Christ.  The Thessalonians were one of the first to recognize that by coming together in Christ, they were apart from the culture in which they lived.  Being in Christ collectively, they were apart from Greek culture.  They were set apart from emperor worship.  They had decided to leave behind the culture of their birth.  They did this knowing it would mean harsh consequences.  They could see the goodness of God, and so they accepted persecution to join something new.  When they read what Paul wrote, ‘Thessalonian Ekklesia,’ they knew he was talking about something new and they were part of it.    
What do you make of the title of the sermon that’s in the bulletin, ‘Called out, Called into?’  We see ‘to the church of the Thessalonians’ in our Bibles and don’t blink.  How many churches are in Chapel Hill and Carrboro?  I don’t know.  Over 50?  How many churches are in North Carolina?  When Paul wrote the letter and began with the phrase ‘assembly of Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,’ he was naming what they were.  They were called out of the only world they had known and into something – church – the world have never seen.
Verse 6 sums the enormous significance of this.  “In spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.”  In some pockets of American Christianity we see great efforts made to make coming to church an easy, comfortable, attractive thing to do.  Churches try to package the Gospel so that it is palatable.  Some churches go to great lengths to accommodate seekers, unchurched persons, and nonbelievers.  I get it.  The motivation is to help more people who don’t know Jesus come to saving faith in him.  But, what kind of Jesus do people meet when their salvation is packaged with no struggle, no tears, and a sanitized cross?  What kind of Christianity are they embracing, when they Gospel they’re taught is contorted to fit their lives and not inconvenience them in any way?
It is a Christianity out of touch with Gospel we get in the Bible.  Paul preached at Jason’ house.  The group that gathered managed to get Paul, Silas, and Timothy out of Thessalonica, but Jason and others around him were roughed up and arrested and had to pay bail.  In this ordeal of suffering, Paul remarks, you joyfully met Jesus, decided to follow him, and thus became not just an ‘assembly’ like the other assemblies in Thessalonica.  You became his church
I found this definition of church from a scholar writing about Thessalonica.  Church is “the arena in which God’s revelation in Jesus Christ has become present and active.”  In other words, we know it is church because God is here and is doing something.  The definition continues, “The Holy Spirit is present and active preparing those called” for the end time when God will bring everything together.[ii]  Church is not like any other group; there is no analogy.  Church is the “gathering of those who are in Christ,” linked in baptism, commissioned to give witness, and prepared for eternity. 
This sense of being called out of the world was clear for the Thessalonians and they accepted it and the hardship that went with it.  Do we?  (A) Do we truly believe that by gathering with others who are in Christ we are called out from the world?  I’ve made the case this morning that church is an entirely unique gathering, unlike anything else.  Do we believe that?  (B) If we do, do we then accept that by being part of the church, then the church is our top loyalty precisely because when we are joined together in church, we are joined together in Christ?
Chapel Hill of 2017 is not like Thessalonica of 40AD.  You will not have one a group declaring that you are causing society turmoil because you decided to join the church.  You will not have another, more powerful group believe the accusations of the first group and thus beat you up and imprison because you joined the church.  That won’t happen.  When you leave here and go to a restaurant, they’ll welcome you and take your money just like they do for all customers.  Your neighbors will smile and wave, and if you have any trouble and need to dial 9-1-1, the police will come and help you.  As church, we won’t face what the Thessalonians face as Church.  But we are called out of our world just as they were.
I reject the notion that churches should bend over backwards to accommodate the tastes of attendees.  We can and should have a pleasant, welcoming atmosphere.  We must extend generous hospitality.  When people come here, we want them to know that they matter.  When we people meet us, we want them to know they are loved by God and by us.  But love is different than doing whatever is necessary to get people to come and try to force people to be happy.  We want to help people meet God and receive God’s love.  Upon receiving that saving love of God, we want to help people live life as followers of Jesus.  In this kind of life, he is Lord of everything, and we submit everything in our lives to Him.  What do we think the Gospel asks of the individual believer?  We think the Gospel asks you to submit everything in your life to Jesus as Lord. 
We’re called out of the world and into the church, into the family of God, into His eternal Kingdom.  That is our destiny.  Life as his disciples is our current reality. 
We’re called out, but that doesn’t mean we abandon the world.  As we are called into the Kingdom, we are given a mission.  We sent to the world, lost and dying as it is, to call out others who don’t know the saving love of Jesus.  Besides being a worshiping community of person that are linked in Baptism and prepared for eternity, the church is a commissioned community.  We are sent back into the world as God's representatives tasked with helping others hear God’s call.
Paul expresses great admiration for the witness of the Thessalonians on this count.  Verse 7.  He says to them, “You became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Acaia.  For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you … in every place your faith in God has become known.  For the people of those regions report about … how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God” (v.7-9).  The Thessalonians answered God’s call by following Jesus no matter the cost.  They became known for their faith.
For what are we known?
Called out of the world and into the Kingdom, our answer to the call is seen in how we love each other and in how we give witness to Christ in the world out of which we have been called.  To be called out doesn’t mean we leave the world behind.  It means we become different people within it.  We are in the world as persons and as a people in Christ.  In verse 3 Paul summarizes the values that must be what defines us.  He mentions the Thessalonians’ “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”  These same values and attributes – faith, hope, and love – are listed in 1st Corinthians, the great “love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13.  We will draw others to Christ when they look at our lives and see faith, hope, and love. 
This came from Jesus, not from Paul.  We have this letter because he was apart from the church, appreciating who they became in his absence.  Our church does not depend on the preacher to provide the faith, hope, and love.  That comes from Jesus.  As has been said for many weeks, after next Sunday, I begin a 4-month Sabbatical.  I won’t be here.  But, I will still be part of this place and no matter who is preaching, we are called together to be God’s church, a people joined in Christ, bound for His kingdom, and sent out into our town to call others out of the world and into the church, the body of Christ.  As long as we remember that this is who we are and as long as we stay attentive to the present, active Holy Spirit, God will speak in this place and we will hear. 
As Paul said to the Thessalonians in chapter 1, verse 4, I now say to HillSong Church.  “I know brothers and sisters, beloved by God, that he has chosen you.”

[i] K. Donfried (2002), Paul, Thessalonica, and Early Christianity, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids), p.143.
[ii] Ibid, p.145.