The Language is Plural

The last couple of weeks we’ve been exploring a theology of thankfulness.

Towards the end of his letter to the Thessalonians,
Paul writes these words:

(5.16-18) Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

We’ve been reflecting on those three short verses.

This is God’s will for us.
This is the kind of life God desires for us.

This is what God wants.

God wants us to be the kind of people who are
absolutely overflowing with celebration and thankfulness.

Always. In all circumstances.

Two weeks ago we said that a good place for us to start
is probably in small circumstances,
in some circumstances.

A good meal or or sunshine or snow or the smile of a someone we love
the small gifts that just float on the surface of life
are the gifts for which we can actually practice being thankful.

And perhaps the choice of thankfulness for small giftsgrace in the smallness
will help us begin to recognize the immeasurable largeness of the gifts and graces
that we’re surrounded by every single day.

We walk a world of goodness.

And it’s a world that God wants us to celebrate.

Then last week backed up a little and reflected on
what Paul wrote before these three verses.

We talked about the painful reality
that this world of goodness still has shadows.

There are events and circumstances and happenings

in the world and in our lives that are painful and broken and even evil.

The Thessalonians knew dead people—
and so do we.

And so the only hope we have for cultivating lives of thankfulness in the shadows
is to be caught up in the life of Jesus.

To have the stories of our lives retold by the story of Jesus.

Jesus who died.

Who shouldered the worst darkness imaginable.

Jesus who rose from the dead.
Who showed us that grief and wrath and death do not have the last word.

Jesus who will come again.

Who will reveal his power and love to reclaim and transform this world.

The person of Jesus is where we find hope.

Hope is how grief and thankfulness can live together.

Hope is what holds us together in a broken world.

Today we’re going to starting with these three verses
and see what comes after them:

(5.16-28) Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Do not quench the Spirit.

Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all;

hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.

May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.

Brothers and sisters, pray for us. Greet all God’s people with a holy kiss. I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers and sisters.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

As Paul is finishing his letter,
you can almost see him spreading his arms
to bring the Jesus family together—to pull the Jesus family into a hug.

Greet all of the family with a holy kiss (v26)—
read this letter to all the brothers and sisters (v27).

If you have been captured by the person of Jesus then you’re all in this together—
so stand together and listen to this letter together. 

It’s easy for us to forget that
all of what Paul has been saying
has been to all of them.

That we’re being addressed together.

When Paul says
to rejoice always, to pray continually,
to give thanks in all circumstances,

Paul isn’t talking to “me.”

All the language is plural.

Paul is talking to “we.”

Paul is talking to us—to “we” as a community.

Paul isn’t just broadcasting blindly—
telling whatever individual might stumble across this letter
to always be rejoicing and praying and thankful.

Paul isn’t even sending his message to an individual.

Paul is writing to a community.

Paul wants a particular kind of community to exist in Thessalonica.
Paul (for that matter) wants a particular kind of community to exist in Westminster.

We’re invited to become a community

caught up in the life and story of Jesus.

We’re invited as a community to learn to practice

continual celebration and blanket thankfulness.

When we read Paul’s words as individuals,
they feel impossible.

Even if I practice thankfulness in the small,
I can’t fathom thankfulness flooding every moment of my life.

Even when I remember that the story of Jesus give me hope,
I might not actually feel or experience hope at every particular moment.

But when I remember that
Paul is interested in forming us as community

suddenly his words make a lot more sense.

What feels impossible for “me”
makes more sense for “we.”

There are plenty of days, hours, seasons,
when I—as an individual—may not be able to rejoice or be thankful.

About a year ago, Joy and I experienced a miscarriage.

With trembling hands and tears of joy
we saw two lines on a pregnancy test.

And it’s pretty instantaneous—
our thoughts and plans and imagination were captured by this new little life.

But before the end of the first trimester we had lost the baby.

The same pregnancy test that captured our thoughts and imagination
also led us into some of the deepest grief and mourning
that we’ve ever experienced.

And when I thought about Paul’s words during the aftermath of that:

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances.

I thought, “No way. I can’t do it.”

It’s not that I didn’t want to.

Get to know me a little bit—

I’m someone who wants to get the life of faith right.

Praying continually during that season—
that made sense.

I find that I pray more during seasons of tragedy than I do any other time in life.

Talking to God.

Weeping before God.

Lashing out in anger at God.

Sitting in silence before God.

But rejoicing. Being thankful.
Those things I could not do.

I remember struggling through that season and wondering
how I could possibly rejoice and give thanks
in the middle of a miscarriage.

And then we had another miscarriage a few months later—
we lost a little girl.

If Paul right here is talking to “me,”
then he’s advocating the impossible.

I could not give thanks for the death of a daughter.

Nor do I think I should have—
Paul himself calls death “the last enemy.”

Death is something to be defeated, to be vanquished, to be destroyed
death isn’t something to rejoice in.

I could not rejoice.

I don’t think I should have—
the Bible is full of lament and protest and prayers that ask,
“How long, O Lord, will things be like this?”

If Paul is primarily talking to “me,”
then he’s advocating the impossible.

The great task of continual celebration and blanket thankfulness
is too heavy for “me.”

I can’t always do it.

I can practice thankfulness in the small.

And I can find hope in the death, resurrection, and coming of Jesus.

But I can’t always rejoice.
I can’t always be thankful.

I can’t always be pray.

It’s too great a task for me.

And that’s exactly why Paul isn’t primarily talking to “me.”

Paul is talking to “we.”

This is where we’re invited to a healthy dose of humility,
and to understand ourselves as being a part of something bigger than ourselves.

I could not celebrate—I could not be thankful—
in the middle of our miscarriage.

If it were up to “me” during that season
thankfulness and celebration would have stopped.

But it wasn’t up to “me.”

Paul is talking to “we.”

The language is plural. 

And the Church continued to give thanks.

While Joy and I were struggling and grieving and hurting
and finding some things absolutely impossible

the church wasn’t missing a beat.

The local church continued practicing thankfulness
for the goodness of life

The church universal continued rejoicing
in the goodness of God.

What was impossible for “me,”

was possible for “we.”

That’s because the language is plural. 

The task of continual celebration and blanket thankfulness
is the great task of the Church.

This precisely why these three verses
are a gift and not a burden.

Why the invitation to continual celebration and prayer and thankfulness
doesn’t crush each of as individuals.

Because the Church—the local church here and the church universal
does what we as individual Christians cannot:

continual celebration, perpetual prayer, blanket thankfulness.

That’s why “we” are so important.

The Church is the place where “what God wants” becomes a reality for the world.

We—together—are the place where each of us individually
are patiently led back into celebration and prayer and thankfulness.

Our friends, our tribe, our community, our family—
whoever our “we” is
—that’s really important.

Because “we” shapes “me.”

The people that we surround ourselves with
profoundly shape our individual lives.

I need something outside of myself to led me.

Joy and I were led back into
practicing celebration and thankfulness
by those who are outside of us.

By our friends, by our family—
by our church.

It wasn’t because anyone was telling us,
“You need to heal. You need to rejoice. You need to celebrate.”

(That would probably would have been really destructive for someone to say to us.)

It wasn’t primarily through anything anyone said.

We were led back into joy
mostly through people praying for us and being present with us.

That’s because “we” shapes “me.”

The Church isn’t just an optional extra for the life of faith.

The Church is essential to how we as individuals learn to be like Christ.

The Church is where we learn to be Christians.

And that’s because
the Church is the community of people
learning to recognize what God is doing in the world.

The good news is about God
and the great “We” of the Church
remembers and retells that good news.

The Church is community who remembers
that God came as Jesus

that God has defeated death and will raise the dead and recreate the world

that God includes us in the life of Jesus—in the story of Jesus.

And God is continuing to speak and work in the world.

That’s what Paul is talking about in verses 19-24.

That’s why he warns them—
“don’t quench the Spirit.”

Despite some stupid stuff that sometimes gets said,

God himself is working and speaking—don’t shut him up.

“Don’t reject prophecy outright, Thessalonica.
You’re the community of people learning to recognize what God is doing in the world.”

You’ve got to learn to look deeper
than just what’s floating on the surface of life—

what’s being said at a particular moment,
what’s happening on a particular day,

how you feel at a particular time.

You’ve got to learn to look beneath the surface.

When it comes to prophecies (v19):

Test it all.

Weigh it all.

Discern it all.

Reject every kind of evil
and hold on to the good.

When it comes to the rest of life (v23):

Remember that despite the way things may appear,
God is the God of peace.

And God himself is already at work
to cleanse
and transform you
(to “sanctify you”).

And God has a good work ethic.

He’s just more patient than we are.

God is faithful (v24).

God will do it—God will finish it.

God will get what he wants.

Our world and our lives filled
with peace and joy and faith and hope and love.

That’s where this story is headed.

That’s what’s going on beneath the surface.

All of ustogether
as part of the great “We” of the Church
are invited into lives of joy and thankfulness.

We start with the small.

We start with the surface.

Perhaps that’s where thankfulness begins.

But then—together—we’re invited to remember the depths.

To remember that God is at work beneath the surface.

And to remind each other that God is faithful—
he will finish what he has started.

Our lives are not our own.

The life of joy and thankfulness especially
cannot exist as island.

We need each other—
we need the Church.

In quite a few traditions,

this table is called the Eucharist.

“The Thanksgiving.”

In just a few moments we’re going to come to this table—
and we come together.

Maybe take a moment or two this morning
just to be aware that you’re not alone in this room.

You’re not alone at this table.

You’re not alone in this life.

You’re with others.
You’re with the Church.

We need each other.

We come to this table each week
not because there’s something special going on beneath the surface here

but because there’s something special going on beneath the surface everywhere.

We live in a Spirit-drenched, God-soaked world,
where God is always working, always present, always speaking, always loving.

And this is the tangible, touchable place
where we come to practice receiving God’s love and God’s grace,

where we come to practice thankfulness for mysterious depths that we cannot see.

In just a moment you’ll be invited to come and receive from this table,
to receive a bit of cracker, to dip it in the cup, and return to your seat.

We practice an open table.

If you hunger for God, if you thirst for thankfulness,

then this table is for you.

Let’s stand and prepare our hearts for communion:

On the night in which he gave himself up for us,
Our Lord Jesus took bread, gave thanks to you, Father, broke the bread
gave it to his disciples, and said:

“Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.”

Likewise, when the supper was over, he took the cup,
gave thanks to you, gave it to his disciples, and said:

“Drink from this, all of you,
this is my blood of the new covenant,
poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

And, Father, it’s in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ,
we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice,
in union with Christ’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith:

Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here,

and on these gifts of bread and wine.

Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ,
that we may be for the world the body of Christ,
redeemed by his blood.

May we remember that Paul’s language is plural,

and join the Church’s great task of thankfulness in the world,

may we, by your Spirit, pray for each other
and be present with each other,

may we learn that all things are possible with you—
especially the life of joy and prayer and gratitude,

and may we learn to glimpse your love and your goodness
shimmering beneath the surface of our lives.

In the name of the Father and the Son and Holy Spirit,