Scripture: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Celebrity Chef Gordon Ramsay has made a reputation for himself as being a talented cook with a fiery personality. He became a household name from the cooking competition show Hell’s Kitchen. When the competitors messed up in the kitchen the way that he verbally berated them was colorful to say the least. Given that many people were a little surprised when it was announced that Ramsay would be the coach for MasterChef Junior, a cooking competition for kids. Amazingly, Ramsay showed a completely different side. With the kids he was patient, kind, and encouraging. This side of Ramsay has been well received. It earned him an Emmy nomination, and the show has been on now for multiple seasons.
Unfortunately due to Ramsay’s language I cannot show you any clips that compare how he treats kids vs. adults, but it is almost like two different people, which he is not. An article on the website Fatherly summed up Ramsay’s personality the best, “He is merely fanatical about potential.” With kids he is kind and gentle because the children are still learning, and he wants to help them grow into their potential. With adults he is with people who are already claiming to be among the best, so he is a lot tougher. He does not settle for anything less than perfection, and sometimes harshly demands that is what they deliver. In his interaction with adults and kids, Ramsay’s motivation-to get people to reach their true potential-is the same. Depending on his audience though, he uses different tactics to reach that potential.
I think that it is important to understand that dynamic when we read scripture. Because we read the Bible in one book, it is easy for us to assume that it was written for one audience but that is not the truth. While every book of the bible is divinely inspired by God, every book of the Bible was also written at a specific time, to a specific audience, and written to communicate a specific message. Like Ramsay, Paul’s writings have a different tone depending on the church he is addressing. This is why Paul can write two statements that are seemingly contradictory. For instance in this morning’s scripture Paul wrote the very hash phrase, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” Yet in Romans, Paul wrote this sweet, encouraging verse:, “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”
When we read the scripture, remembering the context is important. Initially this morning’s scripture seems quite harsh. If applied as a societal universal, it would be. To deny food to anyone who needs it is draconian and cruel. However, that is not what Paul is advocating for. In fact, in the Roman Empire the early church was known for how well they fed and cared the poor. Those followers of Jesus were not gatekeepers who established that only people who did a certain amount of work got assistance, they helped all who were in need. This morning’s scripture, even the directive that those unwilling to work shall not eat, was never ever meant to be social commentary. Instead, it was a directive written to the members of an early church about their responsibilities as a part of the church. Even though this scripture was written to the congregation of the church in Thessalonica at a specific time and a specific place, it is still the inspired word of God. That means I believe it still has an important message for us today.
In both 1 and 2 Thessalonians one of the big issues that Paul is addressing to the church are questions about when Jesus is going to come back. Biblical scholars have long surmised that one of the issues at play in the Thessalonian church is that some of the people of the church had assumed that Jesus would be returning immediately. The reasoning then is that if the second coming is nigh, why worry about mundane things like work. The thought is these people were doing little more than waiting around for Jesus to come back. This kind of attitude was not well received, especially by those outside the church. Paul addresses this in 1 Thessalonians in 4:11-12 where he wrote, “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hand, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders.” It seems this message did not quite get through the first time and this was still an issue by time Paul wrote his second letter to the church. This morning’s scripture is Paul’s second time to emphasize this point, which is probably why he is a bit blunter.
Another aspect to consider in understanding this scripture is how the early church was organized. Early churches, like the one in Thessalonica, often met in the homes of people. When they gathered for worship, the also gathered to break bread together. They were smaller, tight-knit groups. We know from Acts and some of Paul’s letters that in these early churches the Jesus followers were quick to share with one another. The pooled their resources, and if someone was without they quickly provided. Given that level of relationship, it makes sense why idleness would be a problem. If someone was perceived as taking advantage of kindness that would indeed be disruptive to a faith community. A sad reality that we still face today is that whenever there is kindness, there is someone who seeks to take advantage of that kindness and profit from it.
In this scripture Paul does encourage work, but again this is not an imperative to silently judge the quality of another person’s labor and then make a call if they did enough work to deserve food. Paul is primarily writing about spiritual idleness. Paul is writing to the church and he is writing about the responsibility that they had to one another. What Paul was saying is if someone was not doing their part in the faith community, then they should not participate in faith community. In his commentary on this morning’s scripture Matthew Henry continues this theme when he writes, “It is the will of God that every [person] should have a calling and mind [their] calling, and make a business of it, and that none should live like useless drone in the world.” In the Thessalonian church this was not happening, instead of working to make disciples people were sitting idly by waiting for Jesus to come back. This is why Paul takes such a hard line in this morning’s scripture. They were not doing their part in “doing what is good.” Same as then, today all who seek to follow Jesus have a job to do. We all have a role to play, a calling to mind. In our own way we are to labor diligently to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. In other words, to make the dream work it is going to take team work.
Ultimately, it could be argued that this morning’s scripture is really about accountability. It is about holding people who have pledged to follow Christ to love Godly lives. The early Methodist movement took it seriously and placed a high value on accountability. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, led the Newcastle Methodist society for a time. The Methodist society would meet weekly for worship and communion. Wesley, perhaps looking to this morning’s scripture would remove people from the society and not allow them to enter if they did not participate in the overall life of the society. All said, John Wesley removed sixty four people from the society, including one person for being habitually late. Kind of like Gordon Ramsay, John Wesley had a high standard and he expected people who followed Jesus to be serious about following Jesus. I am not convinced going back to removing people for being late is a great idea, but it is clear that over the years the level of Methodist accountability has decreased.
Spiritual idleness was a problem in Paul’s day, it was a problem in John Wesley’s day. It is still a problem today. This is clearly seen in national church statistics. Twenty years ago a regular church goer was considered someone who attended three out of four Sundays, but by most measurements today what qualifies as a regular church goer is someone who attends at least once a month. I was taught in Seminary and I have heard it repeated often that in churches you can expect 20% of the people to do 80% of the work. While most people are familiar with the concept of a tithe, on average American Christians only give 2.5% of their income to any charitable cause. My intention in mentioning these statistics is not to shame or guilt anyone. I understand that that there are reasons why people cannot make it to a worship service every Sunday, I understand that everyone struggles with having too much to do and not enough time to do it, and I am sympathetic to the reality that there are financial hardships. I mention these statistics to point that in the American church we have set the bar of expectations for church membership very low. I think that the question this brings up is why is this way?
I think in a large part some of the problems that the American church faces is the same problem that faced the church in Thessalonica. Specifically, there are people who have a consumer mindset to faith and church. A consumer mind set sees faith as a good or service. A consumer mindset primarily understands faith in the terms of what do I get out of it, how does this benefit me, and what is my return of investment? This was the issue that Paul was addressing in this morning’s scripture. There were people in the Thessalonica that were taking advantage of the benefits that being part of the community of faith offered without actually contributing to the community of faith or the work of the gospel. In the same way, a consumer mentality to faith makes the primary focus inward and on our self instead of putting the focus where it belongs: On God-The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The focus of our faith should not be ourselves. We should not put Jesus in the box of being just our personal savior, because he is the savior of the whole world. To paraphrase one of our Country’s presidents, ask not what can you faith can do for you, ask what you can do for your faith. Following Jesus, being part of a faith community, is something that we are to actively participate in. I think an apt analogy is being on a sports team. If you are on a team then you are either on it or you are not. Being on the team means participating. It means taking part in conditioning, it means showing up for practice, it means listening to and honoring the coach. If someone only showed up for games and demanded to play their favorite position, then they really are not on the team and they probably will not end up in the game. If someone did the bare minimum without really engaging in the activity, the coach would probably rightfully ask that person if they truly wanted to be a part of the team. In the same way being a part of a church is like being a part of the team. We each have a job to do and a way to contribute to making disciples and transforming the world. We are the church, we can make a real difference in this world, but to make that dream work it is going to take teamwork.
Every member of the United Methodist Church makes a promise before God and the community of faith to consistently participate in the church’s ministries by their prayers, their presence, their gifts, their service, and their witness. What would happen if we took those membership vows seriously? The conventional church leadership statistic is 20% do 80% of the work, but if we all took our membership vows seriously then we would have 100% of the people doing 100% of the work. If all of us worked together in a way that was outwardly, missionally focused, then you do know what happen? The people of North Judson would better know the love of Jesus. More of the hungry will be fed, more of the cold will be clothed, and those without hope will see a reason for hope. They will know we are Christians by our love. I am fully convinced that if we never tire of doing what is good, if we fully participate in the life of the faith community, then what will ultimately happen is souls will be saved, new disciples will be made, and this community will be transformed to look a little more like the kingdom of God.
This morning’s scripture has a bit of a harsh tone, but that is because it is meant to motivate those in the church to actually be the church, to be the hands and feet of Jesus in a lost and hurting world. May we, the people of North Judson United Methodist Church, rise to that challenge. May we not have be idle in our discipleship and may we not have a consumer mentality to our faith. May we never tire of doing what is good. May we dream big God sized dreams of how we can serve, care, and love this community in the name of Christ. Then may we all work together to make it so, because it is teamwork that is going to make the dream work.