Monday, 18 November 2013

expectations and standards

Crystal and I aren’t really into reality shows, but one that we did enjoy was America’s Best Dance Crew.  Our favorite group was called “Quest Crew”.  Through their dance they would often tell a story. They would show an amazing physical ability as they flipped through the air. They worked together amazingly. … But, if any one of the members didn’t do their part it wouldn’t work. The story wouldn’t be told, and watching it would become awkward. All the attention would be on the person who let the group down. 

In our reading from 2 Thessalonians Paul is describing members who are letting the group down. The church is like a dance. There are many parts to play and it works best when all the parts are played well. 
Paul is warning the Thessalonian church about those who are “living in idleness”. The word in the original Greek has a couple meanings. It could refer to a person who is slacking off, but it can also refer to someone who is disorderly. Those meanings bleed into each other. If someone is refusing to play their part they are slacking off on their duties and causing disorder because the group isn’t able to function well if everyone isn’t doing their part. The whole dance is disturbed if one of the dancers isn’t dancing well.
The early church functioned very much like a Mediterranean family. It was a large household and everyone was expected to contribute to the life of the family.  It seems like in the Thessalonian church had a few members that were taking advantage of the generosity of the community. These are not people who are unable to contribute because of age or illness. Paul is speaking about people who are able, but unwilling.  They were happy to take, but not to contribute. On top of that they seem to have been busybodies- spreading gossip and poking their nose into other people’s business. Paul states that he and his companions set an example for them by working hard and not expecting anyone to support them, even though it was their right to expect to be supported. Paul and his companions went beyond the expectations in order to set an example for them.
The effect of these idle people is that they breed disorder in the church. The bar becomes lowered. If someone is slacking and causing disorder then what they are doing it might spread through the community. Others might see that as the example to follow and the community is weakened. Others learn not to take their duties seriously. The community is then weakened.                 

No doubt many of us have been confronted by people who are happy to take advantage of us. We are especially vulnerable as Christians because we are supposed to be nice, and generous, and that can make us easy marks for those who are looking to take advantage of us. I have been conned numerous times. Some of them have fantastic stories. Paul’s words mean that we are allowed to be wise when dealing with people. We are allowed to have boundaries and defend against manipulation.
Paul is not trying to be cruel in telling the Thessalonians to keep away from those who are idle and causing disorder. Paul is trying to protect the Thessalonians by protecting the community. In the end, keeping away from the troublemakers might actually help the troublemakers to realize what they are doing. Paul says that anyone who is unwilling to work should not eat. In the early church it was very common to have a common purse to care for the needy. No doubt some just saw an easy meal. Paul says that those who can work, but don’t shouldn’t be allowed to draw from the common purse. In reality they are stealing from those who truly need it. They are causing a disturbance in the community by setting a bad example. Really they are putting the health of their own souls at stake.
What Paul is talking about is church discipline. It means that there is a certain standard that we agree upon. It means that there are expectations to being a part of a community. There are expectations about how we treat each other and expectations about how we will function in the world.
Church discipline has become a very nasty concept in our minds. We think of heresy trials and shunning and other kinds of mistreatment and cruelty. The opposite extreme is also unacceptable though. The opposite means there are no expectations for the Christian community.  No expectations about how we treat each other, or how we act in the world. That may lead to a church full of disorder. It leads to a church full of hypocrisy where we claim to follow Christ, but our actions and lives don’t show it.                   

While Paul’s words might seem harsh, he is trying to protect the community from those who would harm it. Here we have to be careful to not always be pointing our fingers at people in the church. We also need to be self-aware and in humility we should on occasion question our own effort in the community. How much to we receive and how much to we contribute. In what ways are we contributing to Christ’s work in the world?
If I remember my moral philosophy class accurately the philosopher Immanuel Kant said that one way to decide if an action is ethical is to contemplate what the world would be like if everyone behaved the way you do in a particular situation.  I think we can apply this thinking to the situation in Thessalonica. What if these slackers were the norm in the church? What would happen to the church? What if everyone was drawing on the church’s resources but not contributing to the church. What would happen to the church? What would happen to the slackers? The result is that if the church was feeding them that they would go hungry. Paul is helping them to feel the consequences of their actions. Paul is trying to help them to see that they are taking unfair advantage.  

Obviously Paul thinks it is very important to protect this community. So what is this community that he is protecting? This community is not a club or a hobby for those involved. This community is the body of Christ. It is the hope that there can be a new way of being human.

Once in a while I meet people who say something like “I don’t need to go to church because I meet God in nature when I go for a walk”. I think that is true. I often feel God’s presence in nature as well, but church isn’t just about where I “feel God”. Church is also the place where I learn to be a new kind of human being. It is where we gather as a variety of different kinds of people who would otherwise not really be with each other and we learn to be a family. I need church because I need to learn to be patient and there are all kinds of opportunities to learn that in the church. I need church because I need to know what it is like to be deeply loved and it is amazing to experience people loving you like you are family. I need the church because I need to be made aware of ways that I need to grow. In church I learn to not always have things my way because the point of church is not me. The point of the church is God, and the family God has created to be a part of his mission in the world.
It is by being a part of the church that I learn to be the kind of person God is hoping I will become. … What Paul is concerned about is that the community could get watered down by people who just want to greedily consume the church’s resources but not offer anything back. This sows all kinds of destructive seeds into the community. This community is too important to allow it to be destroyed by a few selfish members.
So what can we do? First, we need to honestly examine our contribution to God’s kingdom. The church is part of that, but it extends beyond the church. Some are called to worship and are called to offer themselves in service to God outside these walls, and that is the way it should be. But, it is important that we look realistically at how we offer ourselves according to our ability and the call God has placed on our hearts. Second, we may be called to encourage people we are close to who may be stuck in a consumerist mode of being a part of the church. We all need reminding that we are here to love and serve God not to have our wants fulfilled.    
The church has always struggled to be self disciplined. It has always struggled to call itself to a higher standard, but we can be certain that God is using it- using us- to help create that new humanity that looks like Jesus. That means the struggle is worth it.


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