The Philadelphia Story

God’s people here in Crafton Heights are reading our way through I Thessalonians.  This week’s reading, I Thessalonians 4:1-12, contains some pretty explicit advice on how to behave.  Here’s a take on why it’s easier to figure out what to do when we are sure of who we are…

Grandpa's Stories, Georg Johann Christian Urlaub (1846-1914)

Grandpa’s Stories, Georg Johann Christian Urlaub (1846-1914)

Think for a moment about the stories of your family.  What are the tales that are told over and over again, and why are they told?  It seems to me that a part of why we continue to point towards particular events or stories is because we need to be told, or reminded who we are.  For instance, here are stories that I was told as I grew up:

The blizzard came through western New York and closed everything.  Snow was piled so high that roads were closed.  The phones were down.  And yet my grandpa Shutt walked three and a half miles one way up the hill to take a pound of coffee to his sister and her husband.  He wasn’t worried about them, he said.  He wasn’t checking in on them.  He was simply thinking that with the state of emergency and all they might be getting low on coffee.

One Easter we went to stay with my grandma and grandpa, and he shocked me by announcing that he wasn’t going to church.  When asked why, he said, “I have a great seat in that building 50 weeks a year.  There are a lot of people who only come out on Christmas and Easter.  It seems fair that I should give up my prime spot to someone who only comes twice a year.  I’ll be there next week.”

Right before he died, my grandfather gave me a set of books: The Best of the World’s Classics, containing ten volumes of the world’s great learning.  He told me that he’d had to stop schooling after the 4th grade and had never really left home, but as long as he read, there wasn’t any place he couldn’t go and nothing he couldn’t learn.

Why was I told those stories?  What did my family need me to know about myself?  That I am a part of a group that cares for each other, that values every day acts of faith and obedience, and that knows that learning does not only take place in schoolrooms.  We tell our stories so that we know and remember who we are, don’t we?

So far, Paul has done a lot of work in his brief letter to the Christians in Thessalonica.  He has reminded them about stories that tell them who they are – they are faithful servants from a variety of backgrounds who have been chosen by God for service in the world.  He has reminded them about who he and Timothy and Sylvanus are: apostles – people who have been sent to be examples of the love of Jesus in the world.  Paul has reminded them that the Thessalonians and Paul’s group have been forged together as a family of faith – one that shares deep and intimate bonds of love and affection.  And he has reminded them that God is using the Christians in Thessalonica to bear witness to the love and grace that is found in Jesus Christ – a witness that is pointing to truth for the first time on the continent of Europe and that is encouraging the church in faraway places like Jerusalem and Antioch.

That, says Paul, is who we are.  Do you remember who you are?  Once they can see and claim that identity, then Paul shifts his line of thinking to what they should do.  I Thessalonians 4 is the first real ethical instruction of the letter – and I would suggest that it comes here because what we do is grounded in who we are.  When you know who you are, you have a clue as to what you should do.  In I Thessalonians, Paul reminds his friends that they are brothers and sisters in long-term relationship.  In the strength of that relationship, then, Paul dares to speak to them about how they should live.

perapatienOur passage today starts and ends with an important word: in both verses 1 and 12 we see the word peripatein – the Greek word that means “walk” or “live”.  This is a passage that tells the believers that their faith in Jesus Christ is more than a set of ideas, it contains an imperative for right living as well.  And for Paul, writing to the believers in Thessalonica two thousand years ago, the hallmark of what it meant to live well was to live a life that was marked by faithfulness and integrity in the intimate relationships of life.

This is a passage that has some very confusing and very interesting translation issues.  If we were to look in the pew bibles, verse 4 would read as follows: “that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor…”

4-4And as you heard a few moments ago, the NIV and other more current translations read: “ that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable…”

That seems like a big leap!  The literal translation is, “that each of you should know of himself a vessel in a way that is holy and honorable…”

Earlier translations read the word “vessel” and saw that there were some sort of property rights involved, and so assumed that the “vessel” was the wife that you would possess.  However, better translations indicate that the vessel that we are each most likely to possess is the body that God has give to us.  In other places, Paul speaks of his own body like a “tent” or a “vessel”, so why not here, too?  If that’s the case, then, the point is not that the measure of my faithfulness is the way I control my wife; the measure of my faithfulness is the way that I control myself.

I want to say that again, because I think it’s pretty darn important.  One important measure of my maturity in Jesus Christ is my willingness to exercise a measure of self-control in regards to the choices I make about what I do with my body.

The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo (1511)

The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo (1511)

Why does this matter?  Well, to start at the beginning, how did I get here, according to the Bible?  I was created.  I was given a self that is comprised of body, mind, and spirit.  And when I was given that self, what else was I given?  According to Genesis, I was given a job.  Remember when God put the man in the Garden and told him to take care of it?

The physical plane matters to God. Humanity, in our present form of body, mind, and spirit, is a whole that relates to the Creator and the creation in ways that are supposed to reflect the intentions of the creator.  If I go around treating my body, or this world, as if it’s not important or somehow disconnected with the rest of the universe, then I am failing to honor God for who God is.

And let’s pay attention to what this passage is not saying.  Nowhere does it say that if we live in a measure of purity or self-control, God will like us any better.  There are no bonus points in heaven for acting a little better than the person sitting next to you.  No, we act with self-control and discipline because we want to please God.  Because it is right.

The truth of the Christian life is that no one is free to do whatever we feel like doing at the moment.  Such utter and absolute freedom is a Divine attribute.  We are not God.  God is God.  We are created to live lives of holiness and honor that point to God.

Now I understand how it’s a lot easier to think about this in the negative. Christians read passages like this and say, “See!  It’s right there in the Good Book.  God doesn’t want you sleeping around, or chewing tobacco, or getting drunk.  Nope, God doesn’t like any of that stuff, so straighten up and fly right, Mister.”

The problem with that is that it sets a low bar and a negative expectation.  We were not created to avoid wrong; we were not created so that we could try hard to do a little better tomorrow.  We were created so that we could honor God.

And how do we do that?  How do we live positively?  It’s right there in verses 9-12.  The way in which we respond to God’s gift of life is to love and care for one another.  Paul closes this section on “right living” with a call for “brotherly love.”  The Greek word is philadelphios.  The best way to live, he says, is with an eye towards and a care of one another that is rooted in self-care, self-respect, hard work and gracious behavior.  I know that when you hear “Philadelphia”, you think of self-care, self-respect, hard work, and gracious behavior, right?

I think this is why Paul chooses to use human sexuality as a focus for right living.  Remember, Paul is writing from Corinth.  Perhaps the defining characteristic of this town was its focus on sexual pleasure.  A Greek traveler wrote this about that town:

The temple of Aphrodite was once so rich that it had acquired more than a thousand prostitutes, donated by both men and women to the service of the goddess. And because of them, the city used to be jam-packed and became wealthy. The ship-captains would spend fortunes there, and so the proverb says: “The voyage to Corinth isn’t for just any man.”[1]

For people in that place at that time, worship of a goddess (Aphrodite) was wrapped up in sexual behavior.  Paul says that what we do with our bodies does matter.  When I decide to do what I want, when I want, where I want, and with whom I want – in any area of my life – then the focus is on me, my rights, and my desires.  And that kind of living makes sense in a closed universe where there is no greater good, no larger story in which I see myself.

But what if we are called to live the philadelphia story?  What if I realize that if all I focus in on is me, and what makes me happy and what I want, then that negates the idea that you are valuable, that you have needs and hopes and fears and wishes too?  What if I realize that while I may want all kinds of things, none of those things may be best for me?  That what I want, in fact, could wind up diminishing you or leading to pain for someone else?

Our story, Paul says, is one of interconnectedness and interdependence. We are all given gifts of life and possibility by the Lord.  The way that we respond to those gifts is not by going out there and grabbing all that we can, treating other people as either objects to fulfill my desire or impediments to it.  The way that we say “thank you” for the gifts that we have received is by living with humility and grace, with honesty and service.  With love.

What would this community look like if we committed to living this way for the next six months?  If the church of Jesus Christ acted like this, I believe that we would see more joy and more celebration than we ever have before.  The dull grey routine of religious monotony would be replaced by a celebration of the gifts that God has showered upon us.  Paul is not telling us to be holy because God is angry at us wants to limit our fun.  Paul is telling us to be holy because that’s the way that we were created and when we live into our design like that, good things will happen.

Listen again to what Paul says here, this time in a translation by Eugene Peterson:

One final word, friends. We ask you—urge is more like it—that you keep on doing what we told you to do to please God, not in a dogged religious plod, but in a living, spirited dance. You know the guidelines we laid out for you from the Master Jesus. God wants you to live a pure life.

dancing 3Keep yourselves from sexual promiscuity.

Learn to appreciate and give dignity to your body, not abusing it, as is so common among those who know nothing of God.

Don’t run roughshod over the concerns of your brothers and sisters. Their concerns are God’s concerns, and he will take care of them. We’ve warned you about this before. God hasn’t invited us into a disorderly, unkempt life but into something holy and beautiful—as beautiful on the inside as the outside.

If you disregard this advice, you’re not offending your neighbors; you’re rejecting God, who is making you a gift of his Holy Spirit.

Regarding life together and getting along with each other, you don’t need me to tell you what to do. You’re God-taught in these matters. Just love one another! You’re already good at it; your friends all over the province of Macedonia are the evidence. Keep it up; get better and better at it.

Stay calm; mind your own business; do your own job. You’ve heard all this from us before, but a reminder never hurts. We want you living in a way that will command the respect of outsiders, not lying around sponging off your friends.

That, my friends, is your story.  That is our story.  May we be blessed to live into it and share it with those who are yet to come.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1] Strabo, a geographer, is quoted at http://thesmartset.com/article/article11210701.aspx

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