01 Nov Church Reimagined: Cooperation Among the Saints
Church Reimagined: Cooperation Among the Saints
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
November 1, 2020
Calvary Presbyterian Church
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Picture an experiment in which a couple of 3-year-olds face a challenge. They pull together on some ropes, and the result is a flood of gummy bears pouring out. They are, of course, delighted by the candy reward.
But what happens when one child gets more than the other? A meltdown, a tantrum or a fight? No, surprisingly, they tend to make adjustments to arrive at an equitable distribution. If one points out that she is deprived of gummies, the other quickly corrects the imbalance.
A number of studies are pointing to the same conclusion: human beings have a desire to cooperate. Despite what you see in halls of power around the world, people have an inborn desire to work jointly toward a common goal.
Duke professor Michael Tomasello is an expert in this field, and his research reveals that “we want to cooperate because it’s mutually beneficial to do so. But we also want to cooperate because we want to distribute the spoils of our joint effort fairly, because we ought to.”
You might say that cooperation deepens the sense of “we”—the notion that we’re all in this together, that we all deserve a fair share. Cooperation is a quality worth celebrating, especially on All Saints’ Day, when we remember the holy men and women who worked together through the centuries to faithfully accomplish the ministry and mission of Jesus—and then handed that ministry and mission on to us. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, the apostle Paul prayed that God would “so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (3:13).
Paul’s first and second letters to the Thessalonians are thought by many scholars to be the earliest writings in the New Testament, so they give us a good idea of what was important to the first Christians. Written to Greek followers of Christ in the port city of Thessalonica, Paul spoke of the second “coming of the Lord” (4:15), which most members of the community assumed would happen in their lifetimes.
He also described how they should endeavor to live in ways that are pleasing to God, reminding them that “you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia” (4:9-10). Love for one another and cooperation in the community were clearly a part of life in the Thessalonian church. Paul wanted them to have their hearts strengthened in “holiness” so that they would be “blameless” before God, ready to meet “Jesus with all of his saints” (3:13).
Paul is talking about a circle of love, cooperation, and holiness—characteris-tics and practices that the Thessalonians were to live out in the here and now in anticipation of being part of God’s eternal kingdom with Jesus and the saints. Paul is encouraging them to reimagine their experience of church as a deep sense of the “we,” the idea that they were all in Christian mission and ministry together.
Paul and his colleagues, Silvanus and Timothy, set a good example for the Christians at Thessalonica. “We might have made demands as apostles of Christ,” wrote Paul. “But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” (2:7). Paul elevated the “we” over the “me,” not expecting an extra portion of praise or support. If gummy bears had been available, he would have wanted to share them fairly.
“You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters,” Paul reminds them; “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. 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” (2:9-12). Paul deserves his status as a saint of the church, working to proclaim the gospel and behaving in a pure, upright, blameless way. He is inviting the church, both the 1st century one and us, to emulate him, to be the same kind of example of love and cooperation to the Christian community that he was.
This is the part we might find surprising: it seems this kind of cooperation may actually be part of the way God has made us. More than 10 years ago, Dr. Tomasello was running experiments with infants who were just beginning to walk and talk. “He had the infants engage with an adult stranger they had met moments before,” reported Duke Magazine. “They were put in situations where they could help the adult solve some simple problem, from fetching out-of-reach objects to opening cabinet doors when the adult’s hands were full. They were, as it turned out, eager to help.” From a very early age, says Tomasello, they could understand the goals of another person and cooperate with them in a self-giving way.
If we are going to “lead a life worthy of God,” we are challenged to follow the ways of Jesus and become the people that God made us to be. This means receiving the word of God, as the Thessalonians did, but also seeing that God’s word is already at work in us. God wants us to cooperate with one another, and he sends this message through both Holy Scripture and through our bodies, hearts, and minds.
Not surprisingly, our model is Jesus. He lived a life of cooperation, always elevating the “we” over the “me.” In an article on Jesus and cooperation, Clive and Cara Beed make the point that one of the major themes of Jesus was “collaboration between people who assist each other to achieve common goals.” How so, we might ask?
First, Jesus cooperated with God. Even before his ministry began, he made clear that he was obedient to God. “One does not live by bread alone,” he said during his temptation in the wilderness, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” He went on to say, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” and “worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (Matthew 4:1-10).
Throughout his ministry, Jesus stated in both word and action that he was serving God and not himself. Instead of satisfying himself physically, spiritually or politically, he put God first. Jesus embodied the Lord’s Prayer in everything he did: “Your kingdom come, your will be done…” (Matthew 6:10). At the moment of his deepest distress, when his anguish seeped out as droplets of blood, his prayer was still, “Not what I want, but what you want.” Collaboration with God the Father was always his top priority.
Second, Jesus cooperated with the people around him. He built a team at the very start of his ministry, calling twelve disciples to follow him and share his mission. In the Sermon on the Mount, he called for cooperation in the teaching we call the golden rule, saying: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
When it came to forgiveness, Jesus challenged his followers to collaborate with God and with each other in this most crucial work. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14-15).
Nothing, it seems, is to be done in isolation. When it came time for Jesus to send out 70 followers to nearby towns and villages, he sent them out in pairs to “cure the sick” and to proclaim, “The kingdom of God has come near to you” (Luke 10:9). For Jesus, the point of his ministry and mission was not to make it about himself. It was all about collaboration, always pointing to the Father, always elevating the “we” over the “me.”
Following the example of Jesus, we are invited to cooperate with God and with one another. This is what Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy did among the Thessalonians, dealing with each of them “like a father with his children, urging and encouraging” them to lead a life worthy of God (2:11-12). And when the Thessalonians accepted the message that was brought to them, they accepted it “not as a human word but what it really is, God’s word” (v. 13).
Cooperation with each other. Cooperation with God. Both are imperative.
I think the challenge for us today, as we reimagine what it means to be church in our contemporary world, is to be solid at the center and soft at the edges. By that I mean that we are devoted to the worship of God, solid at the center of our preaching and teaching and mission. We are clear about who we are and who God has called us to be—people formed in Christ’s image; people called to ministries of prayer and healing, care and service; people called to live faithfully and cooperatively in community with one another.
But at the same time, we need to be soft at the edges, willing to collaborate with people of different faiths or no faith to serve a world in need. This could mean partnering with Muslims and Hindus to feed the hungry; working with local or national agencies to address issues of homelessness or poverty; reaching out across whatever “aisles” separate us—political, socio-economic, or educational—to engage in dialog and work for common goals around racism or violence or healthcare. The church can and should lead the way in modeling a desire and ability to build relationships with a diversity of partners and to compromise as we work for the common good. Church reimagined in this way is more about how we include and invite rather than demanding uniformity of thought or belief.
When we are solid at the center and soft at the edges, we are in a good position to cooperate with God and the people around us, living “a life worthy of God” (v. 12). It is a demonstration, an embodiment of our love of God and love of neighbor—not love that we just talk about but love that requires that we put skin on it, walk around, and meet people exactly where they are. If three year old’s can share their gummies, then surely, men and women, we can endeavor to love and cooperate with people who, let’s not forget, were made in and bear the image of Christ. It’s what the saints of old did. It’s our turn now.
Thanks be to God. Amen.