Commentary on 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
The epistle for this last proper of the church year is concerned with the life of local Christian communities, and in a thoroughly down-to-earth way: we live by faith, but we live the life of faith with our feet firmly planted on planet earth.
And here on earth, even Christians need to work so that everyone can eat. A community living in eager expectation of the Lord’s imminent return is not released from this obligation. Possibly this fledgling congregation modeled its common life on the communal economics of the earliest Jerusalem communities. Some had quit their trades, expecting the wealthy few to support everyone until the imminent Day of the Lord.
This text may seem homiletically awkward in some communities these days. Where unemployment is high and many, far from trying to shirk daily labor, are desperate for it, simply repeating the text’s exhortation to work would be insensitive and unhelpful. Driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike recently, I passed a car with the license plate “H8 2WORK” — “Hate to work.” Maybe it was a hot day or maybe it was just that I had heard about too many lost jobs and long-term unemployment recently, but that vanity license made me mad. I wanted to wave the guy (it just happened to be a guy) over to the shoulder and give him a piece of my mind: “Hey, buddy, if you’re too good for work, why don’t you give your job to any one of about three million people who would take it in a heartbeat?”
Careful reflection is in order, as well, for preachers whose church members include the great-great-grandchildren of African-American slaves. For these men and women, labor meant not blessing but degradation and oppression. The prosperity of broad regions of the emerging United States was built on their bent, scarred backs.
A starting point for preaching is to make crystal clear that a grim work ethic is most definitely not the premise on which this text is based. This text cannot become good news if it is reduced to little more than work-ethic-based moralism.
First, the text assumes the freedom and dignity of the children of God. The point is not to abuse this freedom. Some have translated Christian freedom, combined with an avid expectation of the return of Christ, into idleness. It is like busying out the phone line at 4:00 PM on Friday to chat with the guy in the next cubicle until quitting time, or explaining on voicemail that we are “making sales calls” and heading for the trout stream instead. Trusted with freedom, we take liberties.
Second, the freedom of the children of God implies living with others in equality and mutual accountability, and it is this that undergirds the admonition to work. Believers are summoned to a life of mutual effort for mutual service, based on equal regard of each for every other. A few congregations may face the Thessalonians’ problem: idle members who expect others in the congregation to take care of them. But in most settings, relevant preaching on this text will take another direction.
A problem for many congregations today is the over-preoccupation of some in the faith community with their work. Anxieties about paying college bills and building a retirement portfolio are understandable; yet when talented people in a congregation are work-obsessed, it can leave a few hard-working souls carrying most of the freight in congregational volunteer ministries. Could this pattern of inequity in “doing what is right” (verse 13) be a modern expression of the distortion of our Christian freedom with respect to work? Certainly it can damage the mutuality of Christian community. This topic would have to be approached with great tact and with due pastoral concern for the anxieties that drive over-work.
A key phrase occurs in verse 12: “… we command and exhort you in the Lord Jesus.” Everything about our life is qualified by the reality that our lives have been redeemed and redirected “in the Lord Jesus.” We work, or seek to work, not for work’s sake, or for profit’s sake, but for the reign of God–and, again, in the freedom of the children of God.
In other congregations, all too many willing to work cannot find work to do. In such settings, refusing to “grow weary in doing what is right” may look like a prayerful congregational focus on supporting those who seek work and using congregational networking to help them find it.
Another homiletical angle is to focus on the way the author of 2 Thessalonians teaches by example. Although he had a right as a religious teacher to expect the community to support him, he and his companions “worked night and day” so that they “might not burden” any of the Thesssalonian Christians (verse 8).
We teach the faith as much by passing on traditions of practice as by our hymns and creeds. What are those practices for which a particular congregation is known and which it needs to pass on to the young and to new church members? When a congregation widely known for the vitality of its small-group approach to discipleship formation ran into rough waters due to leadership change and other factors, the small group model of “being church” flagged for a time. But now, stabilized under fresh leadership, they have revitalized their practices of small-group formation and their share of their know-how. Whether a congregation’s strength is ministry with the homeless, generous mission giving, or outstanding leadership education, any congregation can get distracted by budgetary or other troubles and “grow weary in doing what is right.” Preaching can encourage recommitment to a neglected vision.
God gifts us all to contribute, in Christian freedom and mutuality, to the good of all. “In the Lord Jesus,” we owe one another our best efforts, doing good work and serving human need out of love for one another and our Lord.
November 14, 2010