St Barnabas & St Michael’s, October 5th 2014
Readings – 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12; Matthew 21:33-46
David Moyes, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Michael Laudrup, Alan Pardew … when a football team is losing, who gets the blame? The manager. It always seems rather unfair to me … they’re not the ones who fail to connect with the ball, or who give away penalties, or who allow the opposition enough space to score. The manager is responsible for strategy (how to play the game), fitness (stamina to play the game) and motivation (desire to play the game), but in practice, they can only direct from the sidelines and in the heat of the moment, they have little control over the attitude and skill of the players.
But they are the ones who take the blame for failure … and we see a steady stream of sackings throughout the season as owners and chairman are disappointed with results. As if changing the manager is going to make all the difference … well, sometimes it does, look at the difference in Manchester United under Alex Ferguson and David Moyes or Louis van Gaal.
Leadership is key … not only to a football team, but to any group or organisation, including the local church. Leadership shapes not only the direction but also the character of an organisation … ask any teacher what effect a head teacher has on a school.
A couple of weeks ago, before being interrupted by Harvest, we started a new sermon series in 1 Thessalonians, called The Marks of a Growing Church. In our first sermon, we saw that although Paul spent only a short time at Thessalonica, a church started and grew quickly, becoming well known throughout the region, bringing Paul great joy.
Because he’d had to leave so soon, Paul has been anxious about the new believers he left behind in Thessalonica, so as soon as he could, he sent Timothy to find out how they were getting on and this letter is his response to the report Timothy brought him (3:6).
It is probably only a year or so since Paul’s visit, yet we know from chapter 1 that the church has grown rapidly, gaining a wide reputation for their committed faith in God, their hope for the future and their love for each other.
But a growing church always has a few problems … not least opposition … so in chapter 2, Paul looks back to his short visit, to remind the believers of his message, his example and his affection for them. Paul may no longer be with them but they have his example of how to lead and love a church through difficult times.
Time and time again in this passage, Paul reminds the Thessalonian believers to remember how it was when he was with them …
1 You know, brothers, that our visit to you was not a failure.
5 You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed – God is our witness.
9 Surely you remember, brothers, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.
10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed.
11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children …
Paul is reminding them of his own example of how to lead, love and build a church.
1 You know, brothers, that our visit to you was not a failure.
It’s clear that Paul’s time in Thessalonica was not a failure; although he left suddenly, and after only a short time, he left a growing, faithful, vibrant church.
But that’s not the best translation of this word … it means empty … our visit to you was not empty. One of the greatest failures of the modern, western church is that we have nothing to say. We want to make people welcome, we want them to feel loved, we don’t want to offend them or put them off … so we say nothing that might be at all confrontational, controversial or offensive. For many, the gospel is offensive … it tells us that we are sinners, that there’s nothing we can do to please God or to earn his favour, that we’re no better than anyone else, that our precious values of equality and tolerance are unimportant to God. Many find that offensive.
Or it may be that some church leaders don’t actually have anything to say … I recently heard a bishop speak about church growth. He was an engaging speaker, intelligent, subtle and what he said was quite stimulating, even wise … yet he said nothing about the need of repentance and the availability of forgiveness, the very foundation of the transformation that is possible only in Jesus, and which builds the church. He completely missed the point.
In a letter to another church, at Corinth, Paul wrote,
… we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:23,24)
Paul’s visit to Thessalonica was full of the gospel …
2 … with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in spite of strong opposition.
4 … we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel.
8 … we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.
9 … we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.
12 … encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.
Paul and his companions told the gospel, lived the gospel, nurtured the gospel.
What is the gospel? It is the call of God to come into his kingdom and glory … indeed to share his glory. How is that possible? Only through repentance and faith in Jesus’ death on the cross. Something else that many find offensive.
So Paul’s visit was not empty, a failure; it was full of the gospel, the good news about Jesus and the hope of salvation.
Already then, we have two important characteristics of Christian leadership … someone who sets an example to follow, and someone whose ministry is full of the gospel.
There’s more to come … look at v3,4,
For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts.
Perhaps there were some who said that Paul was a false teacher … he was only interested in being popular or making money, after all he’d stayed only a short while and hadn’t returned (though we learn why later in Ch 2) … we don’t know, but for some reason Paul now feels it is important to defend his ministry …
The Thessalonian believers had been transformed by Paul’s ministry … how could they be sure that his teaching was trustworthy? They knew from their own experience that Paul’s message had power … now he reassures them that he and his companions spoke as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. He himself had been tested by God, and they knew that he wasn’t looking for approval or praise from men, only from God, v5-6,
You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed – God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else.
So a good leader is someone who sets an example to follow, whose ministry is full of the gospel, who is approved by God to preach the gospel, and whose motives and methods are open for all to see, without deceit or ulterior motive, who seeks only to please God not men … and yet, a leader will also love his people, v6b …
As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.
… you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God …
Paul could have expected to be supported by the new church. Elsewhere in his letters, Paul makes it clear that churches should provide for those that lead them. But rather than making demands on the fledgling church, he cared for them as both mother and father would … gently, lovingly, teaching them how to live as God’s children with patience and understanding.
A good leader then, sets an example to follow, has a ministry full of the gospel, is tested and approved by God to preach the gospel, seeks only to please God and loves the people under his care.
Of course, it’s not a one-sided relationship. Look back at 1:5-6,
… our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.
For good leadership to succeed, however you define success in ministry, it requires a response from the people, a willingness to listen, a desire to learn and to be like those who lead them.
Yet, the relationship between church and leader is not simply a two-way relationship … it’s not just between the leaders and their church. When the Thessalonians first heard Paul’s message, the Holy Spirit confirmed it with power and conviction and joy. When both leaders and people are focussed primarily on their relationship with God, through their trust in Jesus, then the Holy Spirit is free to work through their words and in their lives.
Think back to our football manager. However hard a football manager works, however brilliant his tactics, unless the manager can find a way to communicate his vision, and his players listen to his instructions and practise hard, they will never win the league. There has to be give and take on both sides.
But while the game remains on the practice pitch, it contributes nothing towards the final result. Only when they play on match day, with a referee and a crowd, does the excitement grow … when they are down, the crowd can lift them; when they do well, their joy is shared with thousands.
A church needs leaders who are sent by God, who set an example, preach the gospel and love the people. The church needs to respond by recognising their ministry and receiving the word with joyful obedience, and both need to rely on God who calls them to service through his son Jesus.
So then, the role of the church is to identify such people, encourage, nurture, follow and imitate them, so that as the body of Christ together, we can all serve God with joyful obedience, in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
1 Thessalonians 2:13 …
And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.