Word Games

November 10, 2013   2 Thessalonians 2: 1-3a, 13-17   Luke 20: 27039

Rev. Catherine Purves


     There seems to be a kind of great divide among Christians.  I noticed this especially when I was taking a class at the Seminary this term.  You may remember that in my class we were reading biographies of influential people in American Church History.  I learned about all sorts of different church leaders.  Some were decidedly strange.  Actually, most of them were rather odd, but what I found particularly interesting was how the other members of the class responded to them.  The whole class seemed to be divided in our appreciation for the people whose biographies we read.  This made me think that there are at least two different perspectives on the Christian faith and what is most important.  I found that I was definitely in one camp and that some of my classmates were undoubtedly in the other.

     One sort of Christian tends to feel that they don’t want to be bothered by complicated theology, big words, or difficult doctrines.  They are practical and down to earth; at least that’s the way they think of themselves.  They want to know what works and what fits in with their experience.  So, I found that some of the prospective ministers in my class just wanted to convert people.  They weren’t really bothered about how we must think about what we believe or fit together different doctrines or understand our tradition.  If the person whose biography we were reading had a weak or an undeveloped theology, but still managed to convert people, then they didn’t see anything wrong with that, especially if they themselves had been converted through a para-church organization like Campus Crusade or Intervarsity.

     But there is another whole group of Christians who are firmly committed to understanding what and why we believe as we do.  Our experiences, they feel, can be misleading.  And there is more to Christian faith and ministry than just counting conversions.  These Christians are more than willing to debate big words and concepts in an effort to know God and God’s will and God’s ways.   The people in this group largely grew up in the church, they have an academic bent, and they like to think for themselves.  I don’t expect that you’ll have too much trouble figuring out which group I belong to.

     Having observed this great divide, however, I was quite intrigued to figure out how the young and aspiring ministers of the opposite persuasion related to those of us who were more critical of their heroes.  For example, one of their heroes was Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade who flunked out of two seminaries, but who managed to build an international organization for Christian outreach and evangelism.  He was disdainful of seminary education.  It was just word games to him.  All he cared about was changing lives, and by that he meant getting young people to pray his conversion prayer, then turning them into instant evangelists who would go out and convert their peers, using his Four Spiritual Laws.  Everything was boiled down to basics.  There was no ambiguity, no complexity, nothing really to think about.  The one thing that mattered was conversion.  We read about a few people in our American church history who shared this same perspective, and about half of the students in my class really liked the biographies of those individuals.  I didn’t.

     Now I’m wondering if you have a sense of where you belong, if there is this great divide among Christians.  Is that an easy question for you?  To be fair and accurate, we should probably say that this is more of a spectrum with extremes at either end.  Perhaps Bill Bright would be at one end and I would be near the other.  You probably fit somewhere in between.  What I find interesting to think about is where Jesus would be, and where the Sadducees would be, and where Paul and the early church would be on this spectrum.  Was theology just word games to them?  Was conversion really all that mattered?

     Let’s look first at the confrontation that Jesus had with the Sadducees over the whole question of the resurrection.  The Sadducees were a group of religious scholars who did not believe in life after death.  You may have already decided that the puzzle they posed for Jesus was simply word games.  They appeared to be justifying their lack of belief in the resurrection on a convoluted and improbable situation in which a woman married seven brothers in succession and left none of them an heir.  “In the resurrection,” they asked Jesus, “whose wife will she be?”  I can just imagine Bill Bright saying, “Who cares, as long as she was converted.”  He would have no time for these questions about how the resurrection might work.

     I’m actually willing to give the Sadducees the benefit of the doubt and assume that this was a genuine question.  This kind of pondering of theological puzzles grounded in Scripture was the way in which they worked out what they believed.  Our text certainly doesn’t say that they were trying to trick Jesus.  While their question might sound like word games to us, for them the question was deadly serious.  They based it on what Moses had taught about how a man should marry and care for his brother’s widow.  But how does that teaching fit in with ideas about the resurrection?  They didn’t see how it could.

     So Jesus explained it to them in this rare teaching about the resurrection.  You may be surprised to learn that Jesus actually spoke very little about the resurrection.  But here he was drawn into the Sadducees’ attempt to make sense of what Scripture said, so that they would know what to believe.  What Jesus did, by way of explanation, was not word games either, but a genuine effort to show them the truth, a truth that was also grounded in Scripture. 

     First, he told them that you can’t reason from the way things are on earth to the way things must be in heaven.  This certainly makes it hard to talk about the resurrection, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t real.  He then showed the Sadducees, in a way they could understand, that the Scriptures provide proof of the resurrection, because they speak of God as being the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.  If we assume that God is Lord of the living and not the dead, then we must assume that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive, and they are then proof of the resurrection.  Was this just a waste of time word game when Jesus could have been out converting people?  No, because it led to deeper understanding.  The Sadducees said to Jesus, “Teacher, you have spoken well.”  Jesus was a teacher.  Understanding the faith was important to him.  This was not word games.  It was a real and important lesson about the nature of the resurrection.

     If we turn now to our reading from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, we see that they too were struggling with false teachings about the resurrection and the second coming of Jesus.  Paul was concerned that they might be deceived by what they heard and that they might be shaken or alarmed.  Like the Sadducees who confronted Jesus, the Christians in Thessalonica needed to have some truths clarified, especially because they were in a situation that was calling their beliefs, and Paul’s teaching, into question. 

     First and Second Thessalonians are among the earliest writings in the New Testament.  Paul had founded the church there, but then he moved on in a relentless mission westward.  One commentary I read estimated that in the course of his ministry Paul travelled 10,000 miles in order to share the gospel.  Converting people and establishing churches was obviously very important to Paul.  But that was not all that he did, and that is why we have an invaluable collection of Paul’s letters preserved in the New Testament.  Like Jesus, Paul was also a teacher who believed that it was crucially important for new Christians and new churches to understand what they believed and to continue to grow in that understanding.  Getting the theology right was not simply a word game for Paul.  What was at stake for Paul was how we know God in Jesus Christ, and that is why he wrote so many letters to the churches he had founded.

     ‘Resurrection’ for Paul was not just a doctrine or an idea to be defended or dismissed, to be understood or misunderstood.  This was not just word games.  For Paul, and for us, ‘resurrection’ is a person.  Paul believed in the resurrection because he had encountered the risen Jesus.  This was his conversion on the road to Damascus.  But his understanding of what his new faith meant didn’t stop there.  It was not just about conversion.  It was about how the reality of the resurrection, as we know it in the risen Jesus, changes everything else, everything else.

     For the young church in Thessalonica that was experiencing early persecutions and the confusion of competing doctrines, Paul urged them to hold fast to the tradition that he had taught them.  And this was not simply abstract words or concepts, like ‘resurrection’.  It was a personal relationship that they had with God the Father through Jesus Christ.  It was the resurrected Lord himself who would give them good hope and who would comfort their hearts and strengthen them for the challenges they must face.  Paul’s promise and encouragement to them was that they would obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, that his resurrection would be theirs.  It mattered to Paul that they understood this.  It matters that we understand it, and that we continue to grow in our understanding through our living relationship with the resurrected Lord Jesus.     

     This is not just word games; it is what the life of faith is all about.  Conversion is just the beginning.  Faith must then seek understanding.  And understanding must be rooted in relationship.  Because our saving knowledge of life-changing realities like resurrection comes from knowing a person, the risen Lord Jesus.  Conversion may happen in an instant, but knowing a person takes a lifetime.  So keep on thinking and praying and seeking that understanding.  It’s not just word games.  It is the Christian life.