Yr C ~ Pentecost 25 ~ 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17
Do you do things based on what you’re going to get out of them? In other words, do you think about the benefits before you do something? It’s ok to say you do. We’d be lying if we said we didn’t think about “what’s in it for me?” ‘What’s in it for me?’ is a perfectly valid question. If there’s nothing in it for you why would you do it?
I don’t mean it has to be a tangible thing like money or material goods, or even an intangible thing like prestige or respect. Those are benefits for sure. I’m saying that even doing something seemingly selfless probably makes you feel good inside even if no one ever knows you did it. So you don’t obtain any outward benefits, but you certainly derive a personal benefit from it. If there’s no benefit then we’d be doing the thing grudgingly. So, ‘what’s in it for me?’ or ‘what are the benefits of this?’ is a perfectly reasonable question.
It’s funny, when we talk about benefits at work or in social contexts it seems completely natural and expected. Of course you have a benefits package at work. Of course it’s one of the major parts of your compensation. And of course you derive pleasure or satisfaction or joy from those benefits. The definition of a benefit is something that promotes or enhances well-being.
So what about church? What’s your benefit package at church? What about church or your faith journey enhances your well-being? What are the benefits of a life of ever-deepening faith? Can you name them?
How about the list from Galatians 5 – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control. Those are great benefits. Or how about being on an incredibly life-giving and life-transformative journey that’s making you a better, kinder, gentler, more open, more caring, more joyful, more loving person who sees the Sacred in more and more places. That’s quite the benefit package!
Does it feel weird to talk about benefits of faith like that? Does it feel like maybe you’re doing it for the wrong reasons or you’re being selfish when we’ve heard that we’re supposed to be all sacrifice and selflessness?
Again, I think it’s silly to think we’d do anything without a sense of it having benefits. I think it’s awesome that we get so many benefits from faith. And I think we’re crazy that we don’t advertise how awesome that benefit package is!
Quick, tell me about your benefit package at work. What do you get? It’s probably stuff like dental, eye care, prescriptions, continuing education, holidays, retirement contributions, etc. That’s great!
Now, tell me about your benefits package at Faith United! I want to really encourage you to spend some time and find some language that works for you. IF you’re experiencing spiritual benefits from your journey then make a list and don’t be shy about sharing it with people in conversation. And if you’re NOT experiencing spiritual benefits…then why bother coming? What’s in it for you?
Do you think this is a new thing – this tentativeness of naming and claiming the benefits of the spiritual life? Of course not. Today’s scripture reading is about this very thing. This early Christian community in Thessalonica had issues with it too. And as the author of this letter lays it out for them we get to feast on some great theological language.
2 Thessalonians 2:13 “We…give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth.”
Salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. That’s a very complicated sentence with three words with very complex meanings – salvation, sanctification, and belief. I’ve heard versions of Christianity that would interpret these words as meaning that the benefit of church is “you get saved (from Hell, presumably) by being made right by the Spirit (sanctification) and believing the right things (belief)”.
I think that’s a very problematic and misguided interpretation. Let’s unpack those words and see if we can come up with something more life-giving.
Sanctification means the process of making or becoming holy. Being sanctified means being progressively transformed by the Spirit into Christ-likeness. And the word translated as belief more fully means faith or trust. We hear the word belief and usually associate it with whether we accept the intellectual meaning of something. In the bible it usually means having faith or trust instead.
So, how does a person experience salvation? Through being progressively transformed by the Spirit into Christ-likeness and having faith and trust in the reality of the Presence of God. There’s nothing there about behaving or thinking a certain way, instead it’s about this journey into the Sacred.
Then in verse 14 it says, “For this purpose…” – for what purpose? For the purpose of progressive transformation and trusting in God’s Presence – for the purpose of transformation and trust God drew you to a religious community “so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Obtaining glory is another benefit!
What does glory mean to you? The Greek word in the bible is doxa which literally means that something has inherent, intrinsic worth – it’s related to the Hebrew word kabo which means to be heavy. Anybody remember the 60s? Glory is heavy, man! Glory is honour, renown, the splendour of God. That’s what we’re being transformed by the Spirit for. Glory. Honour. Something “heavy” which has inherent, intrinsic worth. It’s the splendour of God.
Let that sink in for a second. People who trust in God’s reality and Presence and allow the Spirit to work in them progressively transforming them into being more Christ-like in their heart and actions are “saved” from a life of meaninglessness and disharmony and it’s all for the purpose of obtaining for ourselves the splendour of God’s glory.
Wow! What an awesome benefits package!
Now, benefits packages aren’t free. There’s a cost. Receiving the benefits requires something of you. In the case of your work you have to do and keep your job to maintain your dental plan. You don’t get the benefits if you’re not an employee. How does that apply to this passage of scripture? Let’s look at verse 15!
“So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught…” The word for traditions is the same as the word for instructions. You get the benefits by standing firm and holding fast to what you’ve been taught in your faith life.
Stand firm and hold fast. That doesn’t mean to dogmatically lock your brain into one way of thinking and never change it. It’s more about having faith in the reality of this Holy Mystery we call God, and trusting that the path of progressive transformation we’re on is a path toward wholeness, love, and shalom – these are the glorious benefits of holding fast to the ever-deepening journey.
Now we just need some strength to stand firm with. Here’s the blessing the Thessalonians got:
“Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.” (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17)
May the Christ and the Father who love you and gave you comfort and hope comfort and strengthen your heart in your work and words. Isn’t that nice! So comforting – except that’s not what it means. It’s an unfortunate word choice. The Greek word here is parakaleo which is literally para which means ‘close beside’ and kaleo which means ‘calling, urging, advocating’. It’s not really a pat your head and say “there, there” it’s more of a holy urging, motivating, inspiring, encouraging – it’s a holy kick in the butt!
When you put it all together it’s saying that we’re enjoying the benefits of transformation, trust and glory, and it’s our challenge to hold fast to the journey and to let that Presence that is so near to motivate and urge us into faithful living. You’re on the Way. There are awesome benefits. Name them! Enjoy them! And use them for good!
It’s a shame that Christians in general are not more conscious of these benefits and are reluctant to name them. Maybe we can learn a lesson from Remembrance Day.
Remembrance Day reminds us of the benefits of living in this prosperous country marked by peace, safety, freedom, equality, respect. These aren’t benefits we earned, but ones we enjoy, and hopefully ones we’ll use for good. It’s a benefits package we get for being citizens of Canada, and we mustn’t take it for granted, and we mustn’t forget to take days like today to name them.
And equally we need to remind ourselves of the wonderful benefits package that comes with our citizenship in the kingdom of God. What’s in it for you? – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control, a life-transformative journey that’s making you a better, more open, more caring, more joyful, more loving person who sees the Sacred in more and more places.
It’s not right behaviour and right ideas that earn you those things. They are the benefits of opening yourself to the Spirit, allowing it to move in you and through you, and being propelled into the world to share them. It’s your benefits package, but it isn’t just for you. You are being transformed for the benefit of the world!