1 Thessalonians 5:12-28
February 9, 2003
Partners in Peacemaking
Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor
The Grantham Church

Two weeks ago, as most of you know, Deb and I traveled to Kentucky Christian College, where I delivered the Gemeinhart Lectures in World Mission. I was asked to speak on the theme “Mission and Peacemaking in a War-torn World.” Kentucky Christian College has no affiliation with the so-called “peace churches,” as we do here at Grantham, and it was immediately clear that I was speaking to people for whom the concept of Christian peacemaking was new and even offensive. “Do you mean that we should question the role that our government plays in the world from time to time?” some asked. “Doesn’t Paul instruct us to obey our government?” others chimed in. And yet, as the week progressed and I had the opportunity to explore this idea that a fundamental role of the followers of Jesus in the world is to model and articulate peaceful and redemptive alternatives to violence, walls gradually began to come down. After the closing chapel on Friday morning, the President stood up to thank us for coming, and he started to cry.

On Sunday morning—just two days later—I found myself in the 6th Avenue Church in Huntingdon, West Virginia. The 6th Avenue Church is in near total disarray. Two factions are vying for power. One group wants desperately to keep everything as it is, and the other group longs to celebrate what they have done while at the same time exploring new paradigms for ministry. The tension there is outrageous. It is so bad that members of the choir pass around mail order catalogs and discuss shopping—right in the choir loft—during the sermon on a typical Sunday morning. On the morning that I was there, I met with the pastor and elders, and they have decided to take a referendum to determine who is with them and who is not.

Needless to say, the sad irony of the situation was overwhelming to me. During the previous week, I preached with all of the energy that God gave me, encouraging the student body and faculty at Kentucky Christian College to help the people of their community and the world begin to imagine new ways of relating to each other. Rather than sustaining the unending cycle of repaying evil for evil, I invited them to stand up and demonstrate another way. Then, just two days later, I watched as the 6th Avenue Church—so-called followers of Jesus—self-destructed. Clearly, I thought, a church at war with itself has little to offer a warring world.

And I did, as you might guess, reflect for several moments on our own congregation—that is, after all, what I am here to do. I sense, as never before, a passion among many of you to see God moving among us in new and fresh ways. I hear it coming from you in so many different contexts. Whether in an e-mail, a phone call, or a conversation over breakfast or lunch, many of you are increasingly hungry for the things of God, and you want to see people grow to know him better. I wonder how many times Karen has said to me as she pours over our services, “I want people to know God better.” Two of you have even shared with me in the last few weeks that you are considering going into the ministry. I have felt, like Paul in 1 Thessalonians 1-3, a sense of excitement and anticipation. The Lord is moving among us, many of us believe, and he will lead us in the days to come.

It struck me, however, as I was sitting in the 6th Avenue Church in Huntingdon, West Virginia, just how important it is for us in the church to stay focused and to keep our own house in order. Paul feels much the same thing here in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28. Chapters 1-3 are a virtual litany of all of the good things that have been happening in the church in Thessalonica. Just think for a moment about many of the things that Paul nearly gushes about in these early chapters. His work in Thessalonica has produced genuine faith, and his congregants were now serving Christ out of love. They had received the Gospel with power, endured suffering with joy, put their sinful past behind them, and were now witnessing to a host of people all around them. The Christians in Thessalonica had become Paul’s “glory and joy.” He delighted in them, much as I do in you.

Our text in 5:12-28, however, suggests a certain degree of concern in Paul’s mind, a certain realism. There is, he suggests, a possible pitfall, something that could throw a wrench into the gears and mess up everything. And the pitfall? Division in the ranks, backbiting among the troops, and grumbling among the congregants. God is working among us, Paul so eloquently has stated. Now, let’s be careful not to shoot ourselves in the foot. Notice what he says. Respect those who work among you. Admonish trouble-makers, encourage the weary, assist the weak, and be patient with everybody. Don’t repay evil for evil, and always seek to do good to one another. Pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, and don’t, whatever you do, quench the Spirit. Follow his leading, be sensitive to his impulses, and quick to respond to his tugs on your heart. Hold fast to what is good, and abstain from evil in every form. And positioned in the middle of this series of exhortations? Be at peace among yourselves. As we seek to live our corporate life in this way, Paul continues, the same Lord who has called us will be faithful and he will see his work through to completion.

As I have reflected on this text during recent days, I hear Paul, not scolding a devilish congregation, but warning a faithful one. I felt much the same thing sitting in the 6th Avenue Church. Could this happen in the Grantham Church? I wondered. I have often said to young couples when I do their pre-marital counseling—and this might sound bizarre to you—that their marriage could end up in divorce. Deb and I said that to ourselves years ago—“our marriage could end up in divorce.” Once we recognized that and came face to face with such a possibility, we were freed to devote all of our time and energies into building the best marriage that we possibly could. Could what happened in the 6th Avenue Church happen in the Grantham Church? The sobering answer, as Paul seems to insinuate as he writes to the Thessalonian believers, is “yes.” So, now that we have admitted that scary possibility, we can be attentive to God and work together in carrying out his mission. We—you and I—can devote our best time and energy to building up this church.

We at the Grantham Church are at a significant point in our journey, I think. We have, to be sure, much to be thankful for. With God’s help, we have done many things well. When I look back on the past and think about people who have served here over the years, we have a rich and blessed tradition to build on. I came into the Brethren in Christ Church through the ministry of the Grantham Church. Deb and I got engaged on the balcony in the old sanctuary, and Pastor Ives married us in that building several months later.

But now, as we hold on to the good, new ideas and opportunities are emerging. Possibilities for ministry and service are everywhere. But as I sat in the pew at 6th Avenue Church, I couldn’t help but think: We can stop ourselves. After all, 6th Avenue Church is situated in the middle of a massive urban mission field, but they are at the point of going nowhere. We can, just like the believers in Thessalonica to whom Paul expresses his concerns, turn against each other and lose our way. And how is it that such a self-destructive process typically begins? The same way that that it begins in marriages and other relationships. Poor communication. Misunderstandings that go unchecked. People not being honest with each other. More often than not, rifts and divisions are directly related to the way that people talk or don’t talk to each other.

If that is true, I wonder how we at Grantham might, in the middle of all of our conversations about war and peace these days, build up our own defenses to ensure that we move ahead as a congregation in peace. I have two simple suggestions.

First, we need to further develop healthy channels of communication within our congregation. When I sat in the 6th Avenue Church and listened to their stories, I couldn’t help but realize that the people there simply did not talk with each other. They were polarized about various issues that had never been carefully discussed, and were now speaking two entirely different languages. I never want that to happen here, so we must work together to develop structures that promote good communication at all levels of our church life.
In the coming months, for example, the church board here will be considering ways of modifying our congregation’s organizational structure. While it seems as though our current structure functions reasonably well in some regards, I and others have sensed that various groups and commissions don’t have the opportunity to exchange ideas in vital and creative ways. While we might look at each other’s “minutes” from time to time, we rarely discuss how our particular areas of responsibility and ministry interface. The chairs of our commissions, as a case in point, don’t get together to explore ways of working cooperatively in living out the mission of our church. We need to change that.

But beyond that, I think we need to put the mechanisms in place that will foster a healthy and more vibrant exchange of ideas between all of us in our congregation. While we are always hoping for unity in our church, we are not longing for uniformity. Indeed, the diversity that we refer to in our purpose statement not only allows for but encourages a rich variation of ideas. We do not all have to think alike—God forbid—but we do need to work together toward the same goals. In order to help us stimulate such an ongoing conversation, we are going to have occasional “church rap sessions” or whatever we choose to call them. One of our newer members shared an idea with me over lunch a few days ago that came from a church that he previously attended. They had get-togethers in certain homes to which people in the church were invited. The sole purpose of such get-togethers was to provide a context for church leaders and others in the congregation to share ideas and raise questions and concerns. You will hear more about this later, but our first church rap session will occur on the last Sunday of February over lunch after the morning service. I would love for all of us to talk together.

Here is my second suggestion. In addition to developing healthy channels of communication within our congregation, we need to continue developing healthy habits of communication among ourselves as individuals. At 6th Avenue Church, stories were circulating and rumors flying through the air. I was almost afraid to walk down the hall, fearing that a two-headed monster might leap out of the closet.

Communication is a difficult thing, but if we are to take peacemaking seriously, we must work hard at it. We need to listen carefully to each other, and we must be honest with each other. I feel this deeply as a preacher. Do you know what it is like to get up in front of a large group of people as intergenerational as this and try to communicate? It is risky! Interpersonal communication is tough, but it is crucial.
This struck me so clearly when I arrived home from Kentucky and interacted with various people about the sermon that Jay McDermond preached a few Sundays ago. Some people thought the sermon was exactly what our people needed to hear, and others weren’t so sure. Some people clearly got Jay’s major points, and others seemed confused and even offended. Communication is a challenge, believe me.

So, I’d like to invite Jay to come up front this morning so we can work together at this thing called “communication.” I want to ask him a few questions that some of you asked me during this past week and see what he has to say:
1. What were you hoping that people would see and learn from watching the film clip that you included in your sermon?
2. In just a few sentences, what were the two or three most important points in your sermon, the ideas or concepts that you felt God placed on your heart.
3. As a former pastor yourself and one who loves the church, what would you want people to do if they had serious questions concerning a sermon that you preached?
Communication, once again, is difficult and risky, but we need to work at it. Peacemaking involves learning to talk with each other and learning to understand each other.

There I was, after just preaching to a college community about peace, sitting in a church in chaos. The 6th Avenue Church was a mess. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul writes to a healthy congregation, but he warns them to always be careful. Things can go wrong. Dissension can sneak in. Don’t be fearful, but be wise. Devote your energies to building up the body, and be at peace among yourselves.

We are going to keep working at the Grantham Church to develop structures and events that help us talk more effectively with each other. I’d like this morning, however, to ask each of you to reflect for a moment within your own hearts. Three weeks ago, we took 14 new people into membership here at the Grantham Church. During that service, Lynda Gephart asked those 14 people these two questions:
1. Do you promise to go and talk directly to a brother or sister in the congregation who has offended you?
2. Do you promise to graciously receive a brother or sister whom you have offended who comes to talk directly with you?
All 14 of those new people answered “yes.” Then I realized this past week that I have never been asked to make such promises to you, and most of you have never been asked to make such promises to me and to each other. So let me ask all of us these same two questions, and I’d like also to add a third:
1. Do you and I promise to go and talk directly to a brother or sister in the congregation who has offended us?
2. Do you and I promise to graciously receive a brother or sister whom we have offended who comes to talk directly with us?
3. Do you and I promise to instruct someone who has been offended by somebody else to go and talk directly with that person?
If you are prepared to make these promises, and if you are prepared to work actively at living in peace with each other, I’d like you stand wherever you are.