Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow titled “Working Quietly” from 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13.
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 NRSV
6 Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us.
7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8 and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you.
9 This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.
11 For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.
12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13 Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
A Community Within the Community
“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Those are the words of the Apostle Paul, and they sound very contemporary. In the run-up to the recent election, lots of solutions, and lots of rhetoric was tossed around concerning government spending and the responsibilities we have a citizens of this country.
Interestingly, Lenin adopted Paul’s words for his idea of communist Russia — “He who does not work, neither shall he eat.” So, Paul sounds right at home in our 21st century political debate. If you don’t work, you don’t eat. That would solve a of our federal deficit problems, but unfortunately, that is not what Paul means. Paul is not speaking to 20th century Russia, or to 21st century America, but rather to a different community, a community that itself was under attack by the government of its day.
Paul is writing to the church in Thessalonica, a city he visited only briefly with his traveling companion, Silas. As was his custom, Paul preached first in the synagogue in Thessalonica. After all, he was proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah of the Jews. But the Jews in Thessalonica didn’t believe Paul. Some of the Greeks did, and some of the leading women, but the Jews “became jealous” Luke tells us in Acts.
So, they gather some thugs, and the frenzied mob starts searching for Paul and Silas. Not finding them, they attack Jason’s house. Jason was a believer who had welcomed Paul and Silas into his home.
It’s interesting that the leaders of the mob shout, “These men who have been turning the world upside down have come here also.” Even though they recognized that Paul and the followers of Christ had an extraordinary message that changed everything, they still sought to silence them.
The night Jason’s house was attacked, and Jason arrested, Paul and Silas were sent off to Berea for their own safety. But the church in Thessalonica took root, and with the help of courageous believers like Jason and his family, it flourished.
A Community Looking For A Way Out
But the opposition to Paul, and the attack on Jason’s house were not the only incidents against the Christians in Thessalonica. After Paul and Silas leave, more trouble sets in. Now that the Christians have been identified, they become targets of both the Roman government and the Jewish community.
Remember in Acts 17, the protest of the Jews was that “They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.”
Caught between a political rock and a hard place, the Christians became a persecuted minority within the city. Because of this persecution, many began to talk about Jesus’ return. They believed the return of Christ to rule and reign, and to bring judgment on their enemies, was imminent. They believed it much like the slaves sang the songs of freedom we now call “spirituals.” They believed there was a better day coming, and prayed for it to come soon.
But what happened in the process was that some were counting so heavily on the immediate return of Christ, they stopped living normal lives. They quick working, they drew their social circles more tightly around them, and were in danger of becoming what we would call a modern day cult.
So much so that the Apostle Paul feels it is necessary to write them a second letter to outline events that would surround the return of Christ. And he warns them to “keep away from believers who are living in idleness…”
Paul isn’t warning them about pagans, or Jews, or any other group. He’s warning the church in Thessalonica about fellow Christians who have gone too far in their anticipation of the return of Christ.
Paul has some advice to those who have quit their jobs, who roam from house to house in idleness, acting like busybodies — I’m not sure what the Greek word is for that but they had the busybodies in the 1st century just like we do in the 21st century.
Paul’s command is to “work quietly and earn your own living.”
The Gospel In Community
But Paul’s words — “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” — sound almost cruel to us today. We hear Paul speaking to us individually because we have individualized most of the Christian faith today. But in the first century, Christians were not believers in isolation because they would not have survived. The New Testament knows nothing about the solitary believer, only those who follow Christ in community.
“But,” someone asks, “what about the Ethiopian official? He was alone when Philip preached to him, and he was baptized alone, and that is the last we heard of him.” Not exactly.
Because the Ethiopian had come to Jerusalem to worship God, and because he was reading the scroll of Isaiah, we have to conclude that he was at least a God-fearer. God-fearers were foreigners who followed the God of the Jews, the one true God. They worshipped him in the Temple in Jerusalem when they could, and gathered at places of prayer, like Lydia, when they could not go to Jerusalem.
So, while the Ethiopian is alone, he is headed back home. After his encounter with Philip, he goes on his way, presumably back to Ethiopia, rejoicing. One must believe that the Ethiopian takes news of his encounter with Philip back to his homeland, and gathers around him a group that also comes to follow Jesus the Christ. The evidence of this is the survival of one of the most ancient forms of Christianity in the world. Legend has it that the Ark of the Covenant was taken from Jerusalem, and is hidden in Ethiopia.
But back to my point. Christianity began with a band of 12 disciples who followed Jesus. It grew to the point that over 500 saw at least one appearance of the risen Christ. It exploded at Pentecost into a community of 3,000 persons. It flourished as daily these new believers moved from one house to another, eating, praying, singing, and worshipping together.
This community cared for its own, the widows especially. They fed them, and the forerunners of those we know as deacons today were charged with managing the daily distribution of food. They had all their goods in common, they sold their property and gave all the money to the community to help others among their ranks. In short, the beginning, growth, and establishment of Christianity all was centered around the community that worshipped Jesus.
Paul Wrote To Strengthen The Community and Accomplish Its Mission
When Paul hears that some in the community at Thessalonica have stopped working, and are idly waiting for the return of Christ, he writes to strengthen the community and get it back to its mission.
Paul tells those who have quit doing what he, Paul, taught them to do, to get back to work. His specific instruction to them was to “work quietly” so they could “earn their own living” and not to be “weary in doing what is right.”
In other words, the Christian life is lived in community, and the community must continue to function until the heavens open and Jesus sets foot again on the earth. We are to be about “doing what is right” in the face of opposition, persecution, and discouragement.
We are not to fold our hands, quit our jobs, and live off of the kindness of others who are working, and doing what is right.
The question was not, “Is Jesus coming again?” The question was, “What do we do until he comes?” For the Thessalonians Paul’s answer was to “work quietly, earn your living, don’t get tired of doing good.”
That’s pretty good advice for the church today, too. While we might seek to understand the return of Christ, we cannot do like Willie who lived in Irving, Texas. I’ve told you about Willie before. Willie was a member of our church, and Wilie quit his job with NASA because he believed Jesus was coming back on a specific day. He wrote some books about the return of Christ, and expected others to support him by buying those books. And when Jesus didn’t come back when he predicted, Willie’s only response was that somehow he had missed the date, but he knew he was mostly right.
Our mission is the same as that of the first century apostles. It is the same as that which Jesus taught us to pray in a prayer we will pray again in a moment. Our mission is that God’s will would be done on earth as it is being done in heaven. Which means until the last moment, until our last breath, we are to work quietly, and do good faithfully, until God’s will is done here in God’s creation, just as it is being done in God’s presence. And we do that as a community gathered around Jesus Christ, whose table we feast from today.