Power for the Present

Acts 17:1-10
I Thessalonians 1:1-8
April 17, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

[Intro to scripture]

The apostle Paul was a contemporary of the disciples but he didn’t know Jesus personally. He was, in fact, initially opposed to the Christian movement and as a zealous Pharisee, he abhorred the message of the disciples and persecuted the young church. We don’t know exactly what Paul disliked about the gospel but since after his conversion, he writes about the scandal of the cross, we can assume that his objection was the same as that of most of his fellow Jews, namely that God wouldn’t choose a man who was crucified as a criminal to be the Messiah, God’s appointed one. The Jews believed that the Messiah was supposed to bring in an age of political, economic, and spiritual liberation for the Jewish people but Jesus criticized the Temple and was convicted and executed by the authorities. Remember, the first Christians still considered themselves to be Jews so the conflict over Jesus’ identity — is this the Messiah we have been waiting for or not? — was an internal one and Paul, in his own words, “a zealous Pharisee”, initially despised the disciples’ claim and saw it as dangerous to his understanding of the faith.

Around 37 AD, however, about 7 years after the death of Jesus, Paul had a vision of the resurrected Christ that was so powerful, he converted to Christianity and committed himself to spreading the gospel. He persuaded the other disciples to appoint him as missionary to the Gentiles and over the next three decades of his life, Paul made three missionary journeys: he took advantage of the great Roman network of roads and walked thousands of miles across the countries north of the Mediterranean Sea to start house churches in modern day Syria, Turkey, and Greece. His plan was to travel all the way to Spain but he was arrested for causing civil unrest with his preaching and was executed in Rome by the emperor Nero around 64 AD.

Though Paul spent most of his life on the road, he kept in touch with many of the congregations he had started through letters that were carried back and forth. A few of those letters were preserved by the early church and the scripture reading for this morning is from his letter to the church at Thessalonica, on the western coast of the Aegean Sea, 260 miles north of Athens, Greece.

After he had left Thessalonica, Paul continued to be concerned about the congregation of that church knowing that they had faced a lot of persecution and social pressure on account of their faith so while he was in Athens, Paul sent his fellow worker Timothy back to check on the church and see how the congregation was faring. When Timothy returned, he told Paul that the people were hanging in there; they were remaining steadfast in their faith in spite of their suffering. Paul then wrote them this letter expressing his admiration of their faith and persistence, and it is the oldest surviving letter we have of Paul’s; in fact, this letter is the earliest Christian writing that exists today, written about twenty years after the death of Jesus and before any of the gospels.

I’d like to read to you the opening paragraph of Paul’s letter, I Thessalonians 1:1-7

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.

Paul commends the Thessalonians for their continuing faith, their inspiring commitment, and for the steadfastness of hope in the face of their suffering.
How steadfast is your hope? Today, I want to talk about hope.

Last year, the Huffington Post, an online site for news and commentary, generated some mild controversy among the blogging world when the site’s founder, Arianna Huffington sent out a memo to all of her staff which described a change in direction that she wanted her reporters to take. Her memo read: “While we will continue to cover the stories of what’s not working —political dysfunction, corruption, wrongdoing, etc. — as robustly as we always have, we want to show that the era of ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ is over, and start a positive contagion by relentlessly telling the stories of people and communities doing amazing things, overcoming great odds, and facing real challenges with perseverance, creativity, and grace.” In other words, Arianna Huffington wanted the Huffington Post to begin to promote stories that give us hope as well as covering the stories that weigh us down in despair.

This change did not sit well with many journalists and pundits, and one blog writer summarized the arguments of the critics when she wrote, “To privilege happy stories over ‘unhappy’ ones is to present a false view of the world.”

Regardless of what you think about the Huffington Post and its founder, I wonder what you think about that critic’s statement. What do you think about the claim that to favor happy stories over unhappy ones is to present a false view of the world? The Huffington Post said that it would try to feature more stories of people doing “amazing things, overcoming great odds, and facing real challenges with perseverance, creativity, and grace,” and the critics said, “That’s not what the real world looks like.”

What do you think? Are human beings more apt to demonstrate goodness, beauty, and compassion or are we more inclined to corruption, dysfunction, and cruelty? Is life valuable and meaningful or is it just a long road of suffering at the end of which you are nothing more than dust, fodder for the worms? Which is the more accurate view of the world?

As a Christian, I come down on the side of the former, on the side of a belief that human beings are created for goodness and that the worst sinner can be redeemed. I come down on the side of a trust in the healing power of love, a conviction that beauty and joy can persist even in the worst of circumstances, and in the confidence that as Martin Luther King, Jr. declared, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

The cynic would say that I am naive and to hope in such things is to present a false view of the world, and right now, in our society, cynicism has the upper hand. Cynicism has become the predominate view, not hope. The rise of cynicism in the last few decades has been analyzed and dissected by numerous authors: some blame it on the loss of community and the fragmentation of society brought on by cable television and the internet; others point to the turmoil of the 1960s, or to the Watergate era, and the resulting loss of trust in our governmental institutions; but I tend to agree with those who trace the origins of today’s cynicism all the way back to the rise of rationalism and the loss of belief in anything that cannot be explained by intellectual inquiry and a direct experience of the senses.

Rabbi and author Michael Lerner said, “[Many people in today’s industrialized rational society] think that human beings can never be motivated by a purpose higher than material self-interest. To these reductionists, the fundamental motivating forces that drive human beings are food, sex, power, and individual or species survival…..”

The philosophy of materialism that came to prominence in the 1700s says that all reality is physical, and that there is no such thing as spirit or even mind. What you see is what you get. Well, when life is stripped of anything beyond the physical experience of matter interacting with matter, when there is no spirit, no consciousness outside of the brain, no purpose beyond the promotion of one’s physical survival, a person is left with little to believe in beyond the present moment, and that loss of meaning results in cynicism.

I am not suggesting that every atheist is a cynic, nor am I suggesting unfortunately, that every cynic is an atheist. There are unfortunately, many people who profess a faith in God yet who live mired in cynicism. A cynic is anyone who, whether they claim to be a person of faith or not, in fact lives as if what they really believe is that human beings are motivated only by an instinct for survival, and there is no meaning to be found beyond the present pleasures of the day. A cynic is one who is afraid of change because they can only trust what has worked for them in the past and they will not trust what they have not personally experienced. A cynic will be wary of others: other people, the cynic says, are out to protect their own interests, so the cynic has no other choice but to work to protect their own. Suffering breeds resentment, despair, and apathy in the cynic, because when you believe that life ends at the grave, that there is no meaning beyond the momentary pleasure of our short span of days, then what do you have to hope for? What do you have to place your hope in?

A man who had spent many summers in Maine in his earlier life shared his observations of a little town there named Flagstaff. In 1950, the town was abandoned and dismantled because the state had decided to build a dam on a nearby river submerging the town in a large lake. In the months before it was to be flooded, the man said, all improvements and repairs in the whole town were stopped. What was the use of painting a house if it were to be covered with water in six months? Why repair anything when the whole village was to be wiped out? Week by week, the whole town became more and more bedraggled, more gone to seed, more woebegone. The man concluded, “Where there is no faith in the future, there is no power in the present.” (Halford E. Luccock, Unfinished Business.)

Jim Wallis, the editor of the Christian magazine Sojourners, said the greatest battle of our time is not between belief and secularism, “But the choice in our time is between cynicism and hope. It’s ultimately a spiritual choice –­ and one which has enormous political consequences.”

Paul commended the congregation at Thessalonica for remaining steadfast in their hope. They had endured persecution and their present lives were no picnic. If they believed only in the experience of the moment, they would have given up the faith long ago because it didn’t seem to be producing any immediate benefits, but they trusted in a future conformed not to the present but shaped by the promises of Christ’s grace. Where did that hope come from? Paul said, “Our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit.” The people of Thessalonica didn’t just read the words of Jesus recorded by a human hand on a physical piece of paper, nor did they just hear the words of Jesus passed by word of mouth to be conducted to their brain by their auditory nervous system; they experienced the gospel through the power of the Holy Spirit. In other words, they believed in something that could not be described in material, physical terms. They believed that there is more to the world than the eye can see; that there is a dimension to the universe that cannot be fully explained by the neurological processes of the brain. They believed that spirit is as legitimate as matter; that life is more than survival, and that there does truly exist a grace filled power we call God who permeates the universe and lures us even forward to greater goodness and a future full of possibility.

In Acts, the opponents of Paul accused him of overturning the world with his gospel, and ironically, they were right because when we believe that God is a God of grace and forgiveness, and that God’s love reaches into eternity, we have such hope that we can do amazing things, overcome great odds, and face real challenges with perseverance, creativity, and grace. Hope makes the impossible possible and hope can change the world. Cynicism is resigned to accept the limitations of today but hope believes in the amazing possibilities of tomorrow.

Self-made millionaire Eugene Land was once asked to speak to a class of 59 sixth-graders in a poor neighborhood of predominantly black and Puerto Rican children, most of whom would drop out of school. As he looked at the cynical faces of the kids in front of him who had experienced only poverty and the limitations of racism and classism, he wondered what he could say that might make a difference. He tossed aside his notes and decided to speak to them from his heart.

“Stay in school,” he promised, “and I’ll help pay the college tuition for every one of you.” At that moment the lives of these students changed. For the first time they had hope and where there is faith in the future, there is power in the present. One student said, “I had something to look forward to, something waiting for me. It was a golden feeling.” Nearly 90 percent of that class went on to graduate from high school. (from Parade magazine)

Hope is a spiritual choice; it is a choice to believe in the spiritual; to have faith in things unseen, and to believe that God is alive in the universe shaping us in goodness and grace, moving us toward justice and peace, and fitting us for eternity. If we hold fast to hope and have faith in Christ’s promise for the future; we will have Christ’s power for the present.