A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Pentecost 22 ~ 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
There are several words in our theological vocabulary that cause people a significant amount of angst – words like atonement, judgment, salvation, sin, tithing, evangelism, and why don’t you lead the devotion today (!). Today we’re going to wrestle with another tough word – worthy. Worthy means having great merit, value, and character. It refers to someone deserving honour, respect, and admiration. It’s a good word to associate with Remembrance Sunday because without question, we name those who served in the armed forces in times of conflict as worthy of our honour, respect, and admiration.
Worthy is a word that easier to say about others than it is to say about ourselves. We don’t like to say it about ourselves. The word makes us uncomfortable because in order to claim it you need to make a value judgment and assessment about yourself and determine that you are, indeed, deserving. But that flies in the face of much of our religious thinking, right? We insist that this whole faith thing is about grace and has nothing to do with merit, and yet this word worthy suggests merit is involved. Don’t worry, I’m going to give you an out in a minute. But for now, let’s wrestle.
We love the idea of God being worthy, and Jesus being worthy – worthy of honour, and praise, and fidelity, and awe.
There’s no doubt whatsoever for us that God is worthy.
Of course God’s worthy! God is God!
And compared to God or Jesus of course we’re not worthy – at least not in the same kinds of ways.
But we need to be careful not to go too far. I mean, it’s funny in the movie Wayne’s World when Wayne and Garth meet famous rock stars and go “We’re not worthy, we’re not worthy!” But it doesn’t mean they think of themselves as vile worms. And that’s the problem with the way religion has tended to think about worthiness. God’s holiness is perfection, we can’t get anywhere near that so we’re not worthy.
But that doesn’t mean we’re worthless!
If we were worthless why would God bother with us?
If we were worthless why would Jesus call us friend?
We are worthy of their love and Presence apparently. Why not take them at their word and embrace it?
But we can’t go too far in embracing it, I guess, because then we risk being full of ourselves instead of full of God. We lack humility if we see God’s light shining through us and confuse it with our own light. The fancy theological term for this is imputed righteousness – we aren’t righteous on our own, but we become righteous as Jesus lives in us and we share in his righteousness. And yet we still don’t like to think of ourselves as worthy.
Paul clearly thinks he’s worthy. Many readers think he comes off as arrogant. Maybe he’s just super confident of his faith. The scripture passage we’re looking at today comes from the very earliest bit of writing we have in the New Testament. It’s from 1st Thessalonians which was written in the 0050s. Everything else in the New Testament was written down after this. Paul is writing to a church community in Thessalonica that he started, shepherded for a while, and then moved on to start or plant other churches. This letter is him writing to them to check in on them and solve a couple of problems that arose.
Paul is not shy about claiming his worthiness! He says, “You remember our labour and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers.” (1 Th 2:9-10)
So is he arrogant or accurate? Maybe both! And I think we can learn a lesson from him.
False modesty is just as unseemly as arrogance. When you know you’ve done well, taken the high road, acted with integrity, accomplished good things, why would you say, “No, that’s ok, it was nothing.”
It wasn’t nothing.
It was important, and you did it.
If someone offers you an estimation of worthiness you should graciously accept it and affirm it. Unfortunately, Paul doesn’t wait for someone to name his worthiness – he names it for himself. Nobody’s perfect!
Paul continues, verses 11-12, “As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”
That you might lead a life worthy of God. The words lead a life are modern. The actual Greek word used in the text is walk. Paul is exhorting, encouraging, cajoling, witnessing and testifying so that we can walk worthy of God. Walk worthy!
There’s that troublesome word worthy again.
What would it look like for you to walk worthy?
If you had to write up a lesson plan to teach someone how to walk worthy of God what things would you include? Is it even possible to walk worthy, to live a live worthy of God?
Yes it is, and most of us strive to do it all the time, we just trip on this language. So I’m going to give you another way to think about this.
The meaning of the word for worthy in Greek is really complicated and dense. It doesn’t directly mean having great merit, value, and character, and to be deserving of honour, respect, admiration. It more means “fitting with” or “matching” or even “resembling”.
In fact, the word in Greek is axios from which we get our English word axis. So the deeper meaning of being worthy in the way Paul intends is that worthiness happens when we revolve around God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit – when we are drawn by the centre that the Trinity is – when we live in harmony with, in congruence with, in the Way of – when we fit with, or match, or resemble Jesus. We walk worthy when we’re in communion with God and live connected to that centre, that axis.
I think the big stumbling block with the word worthy for us is that we associate it with the past, with a completed action, with an evaluation of something that has already happened.
If I say I’m worthy I’m claiming a status based on my past performance.
It’s impossible to not associate that with merit.
And that’s bad.
But if we can remember that Greek word axios and remember that worthiness is not about the past but about the present and the future it changes the interpretation of the text, and our task, dramatically.
Walking worthy doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll ace it, it means you’ll try.
Walking worthy doesn’t mean you’re an exemplary saint, it means you’re committed to journeying ever deeper into the Way of Jesus.
Walking worthy means that today, and tomorrow, and every day following I’ll give my all to try to focus on that centre, to stay in communion with God, to feel that spiritual tether (or lifeline!) holding me from wandering too far astray.
And of course, ironically, the more you invest your passion and conviction in walking worthy in this connected sense of the word the more other people are likely to look at your life, see the light of Christ shining through you, and think to themselves, “That person is living a life worthy of God!”
Here’s another big clue that this teaching from Paul is actually about the present and future and not about the past. This pericope ends with verse 13, Paul says,
“We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.”
Remember, in Paul’s day there were no bibles, there was no official denominational doctrine, there were barely even any theological traditions yet. It was all brand new, and the only way someone could know about Jesus was if someone else told them about him.
So how do you know if someone’s tale is true?
How do you know this Paul guy isn’t a snake oil salesman looking to make a buck?
I mean, I have it easy by comparison. I have a sanctioned bible, that’s been around for 1600 years or so, I have a denomination, I have a church, and robes, and a collar, and an ordination.
All these things work together to give me authority.
What did Paul have? A personal experience and a story. That’s it.
And how did these Thessalonians receive that? “When you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word.”
They heard Paul’s words as God’s word. How amazingly awesome and convicting must his presence and passion have been! Have you ever heard something that resonated so utterly that you absolutely, without doubt knew in your bones that it was truth? That’s what Paul had going for him.
So, they heard it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word… – now get this – …which is also at work in you believers.
God’s word is at work in them.
Not worked and now that they’re saved and perfect it’s all done with them.
At work in you!
God’s word is at work in each and every one of you, right now!
Don’t worry if you’re not a paragon of virtue necessarily. God ain’t done with you yet!
But you do need to stay connected – stay centred around that axis of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.
That is what it means to walk worthy.
And you are!