2 Thessalonians 3:6–13
I remember a couple of friends we knew, forty-odd years ago. At the time, they were Religious Studies students. They were patting themselves on the back. So many subjects that you study in a university are impenetrable to the rest of the world because of all the jargon, they said. Who has the faintest clue what lawyers are talking about? Or medics? Or even engineers, come to that. Unless you’ve read all the books and attended all the lectures, you have no idea what any of them are on about. And having congratulated themselves that, by contrast, theology is jargon-free; these two launched into a discussion of soteriological eschatology!
Jargon can certainly be used to confuse and humiliate. Those who know what all the long words mean must be cleverer than the rest of us. At least, that’s what they’d like us to think. But at it’s best, jargon just a convenience so you don’t have to spell out what you mean every time. Soteriology just means stuff to do with salvation, while eschatology has to do with the end times, and what this phrase might mean. Our readings this morning might have come up if we were attending a lecture on soteriological eschatology. Don’t worry: we’re not.
They may not have worried about climate change, cyber-warfare or the dangers of fake news in a post-truth political landscape. Nevertheless, our forbears in the faith were greatly concerned with the end times. From Old Testament prophets like Daniel and Malachi, through Jesus’ teaching at the end of Matthew’s gospel, or Jesus’ disciples in the passage we heard from Luke just now, through to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, and ultimately to Revelation: all look in part at the many questions we all have about the future.
How do you deal with two apparently conflicting ideas, for instance? You know God loves you, but the life you are actually living seems full of cares, and very far from blessed. What’s going on? Why doesn’t God do something? When life is going well, it’s an academic question; but for the Jews of Malachi’s time, and in the time of Jesus and the early Church, there can only be one answer. Things are now getting so bad that God must be about to wind up creation and put it right, once and for all. The prophets call this the great and terrible Day of the Lord.
The Day of the Lord is imminent, then; yet it never quite seems to arrive. A bit like a sort of biblical Brexit. But to the true believer, this is when everything will finally be made good. And when prophets like Malachi get going, the Day of the Lord involves a lot of smiting.
It’s easy for me to be flippant; but in these early churches dotted round the Mediterranean, Christians have staked their lives on their faith in Jesus. They face arrest and persecution, as Jesus predicts. They hear of wars and rumours of wars, they see the world in turmoil, yet they keep the faith. Some, like the Christians who continue living in Jerusalem, sell all their possessions, and pool their resources in order to devote themselves to worship and supporting the needy and each other. And they assume that when Jesus says he will return, he means: any day now.
But you have to eat. We heard a short passage tacked onto the end of Paul’s letter to the little Greek church in Thessalonika. It addresses a difference of understanding of all this among the believers. If the end is indeed nigh, and Jesus is about to return; ‘what’s the point in working?’ some of them ask. Why not live a life of ease while you still can? But by refusing to pull their weight, they are taking advantage of the generosity and community spirit of the others, as we heard. And Paul says to them, ‘if you want to eat, you have to work’. No free lunch, then.
We could have an academic discussion of how this passage helps underpin the so-called Protestant Work Ethic that has shaped the western world for the last five hundred years. We could debate the extent to which it influences the way we regard people who depend on benefits from the state to supplement their incomes. We could get very political. I could empty the church! But Paul is not being academic and theoretical, here. He’s being as practical as you can get.
Now, imagine if you will a scene from a couple of years ago. Hil and I are at a sort of house party near Keswick: friends who holiday there have invited us, and other friends of theirs as well to stay for a couple of days. It is all very convivial, and we enjoy meeting these friends-of-friends. Especially Keith, who plays croquet, because I rather fancy learning to play croquet once I retire.
A great game: deadly, but in such a polite way! There is a local club in Langwathby, and it would be the easiest thing in the world to pop along and enjoy a game every Friday. But we learn that Keith, who joined his local club a couple of years before, now finds himself the secretary; and he spends all the time we are together poring over spreadsheets and sending emails to arrange the club matches for the coming year.
Which makes me stop, and realise, and reconsider. Yes, I could simply pop along to the local club and join, and enjoy myself, and freeload. But there will be jobs that have to be done by someone; and sooner or later, I’m going to see a need, or feel that I have to volunteer, or be asked to take on some kind of role and responsibility, even if it’s only emptying the grass box for the groundsman. I won’t just be able to tag along for the ride. There is no free lunch, not in a croquet club, not any other organisation.
Paul could have stuck with unpicking the soteriological implications of his eschatology quite happily; and speculated and theologised and deduced all the implications of the coming Day of the Lord. He certainly does some of this academic stuff in his letters.
But when he writes to the churches he founded, he’s also intensely practical. He’s concerned with their life and relationships now. He wants us all to stop, and realise, and reconsider. In Philippians, for instance, he urges two of the church members to get on with each other. In 1 Corinthians he uses every emotional lever he can find to encourage the church to give generously. Here in Thessalonians, he commands those who are expecting a free lunch to consider what they asking of their fellow believers who are providing it. His letters are full of instructions and encouragements, exhortations and even commands, to live a life worthy of the faith we share, and not to grow weary in doing what is right. He does everything he can to ensure that churches live in harmony and mutual support. He fusses round them all, sometimes irritatingly so.
But he writes so prolifically, because he longs that our faith have an emotional impact and a practical grounding, rather than an merely academic and intellectual understanding of the jargon.
© Jon Russell 2019