Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection June 21, 2020
"To Strengthen Our Hearts" - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
On Wednesday, June 17, we’ll conclude our Bible Study of the Acts of the Apostles. We have been discussing Acts for many months now. While we learned that the accounts in Acts are sometimes historically questionable, we’ve enjoyed the journeys of Paul and his companions as set forth through the inspired imagination of Luke.
As we know, Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians is the oldest Christian document we possess. It was written in the year 50 or 51 and stands as the first book of the New Testament. The Christian community at Thessalonica was located in present day Greece, a city named for a half-sister of Alexander the Great. It was and is a vital port city in northern Greece and the second largest city in Greece.
According to Acts, Paul, along with his companions, Silas and Timothy, came to Thessalonica during his second missionary journey. Paul had just finished his time in Philippi where, according to 1st Thessalonians 2:2, he “had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated.” In Thessalonica, Paul preaches “in power and the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” (1st Thessalonians 1:5) His preaching, however, is met with great opposition as it was so often.
Paul had some success in Thessalonica as Acts 17:4 notes: “Some of them (the Jews) were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.” Because of Paul’s success, jealousies arose. As Acts continues: “But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces, they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar.” (Acts 17:5)
This mob heads off to the house of Jason, around which the early church gathered and may have been where Paul was staying. Jason and some believers get dragged before the city authorities and Jason winds up having to pay bail money. The believers that evening send Paul and Silas off to Berea. (Remember when we discussed this in our Bible Study?)
But even after having to depart Thessalonica so quickly, Paul had a great affection for the believers there. 1st Thessalonians 2:8 notes: “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our very selves, because you have become very dear to us.”
In this relatively short letter, consisting of only 5 chapters, Paul addresses the people 14 times as “brothers and sisters.” He clearly cared for the people he had encountered and preached to in this city. He clearly wanted them to know of his care.
He sent Timothy back to the city to help with the teaching and proclamation of the gospel and to see how the new believers were faring. When Timothy returned to Paul in Corinth, Paul was encouraged by Timothy’s report. He decided to write this first letter, perhaps to answer some questions Timothy brought back with him from Thessalonica.
Paul’s first Letter to the Thessalonians is a wonderful encouragement to the disciples of Thessalonica. It remains a wonderful encouragement to us today. In this letter we have the first proclamation of Jesus’ Second Coming. In this first letter Paul prays that believers might “abound in love for one another and for all.” And that God might “strengthen your hearts in holiness.” I believe our current time, our current challenges, demand a strengthening of our hearts in holiness.
But what might it mean to have our hearts “strengthened … in holiness”? Can any one of us become holy on his or her own? The answer, of course, is no! None of us can ever achieve holiness on our own. To believe we can become holy thorough our own actions and through our own will is a seriously misguided belief. On our own we can only make a muddle of any attempt to become holy. On our own we can only stumble about in the darkness. I preached this message during our exploration of Jeremiah this past Sunday.
As Catherine Mowry LaCugna notes in God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life: “Only the Holy Spirit can make us holy.” When we allow the Holy Spirit to do what the Holy Spirit does, then our hearts do, indeed, become transformed – strengthened in holiness. I’ve preached this message many times during my 12 plus years as pastor of our beloved church.
Our hearts are holy ground. Our hearts are much more than mere pumps to push blood through our bodies. Our hearts are where the Holy Spirit of God works to bring about our complete transformation into the holiness of God.
And what does it mean to be transformed into the holiness of God? It means we begin to more fully love everything and everyone the way God loves everything and everyone.
Why did God create? God created all there is in order to unite with all creatures and all creation. As LaCugna states it: “God is not self-contained, egotistical and self-absorbed but (is) overflowing love, (an) outreaching desire for union with all that God has made.”
“God conceives every creature ex amore (out of love) … God is assiduously with us and for us, desiring nothing other than to become fully one with each of us, to eradicate sin and death, and to live with us for all eternity … Entering into divine life therefore is impossible unless we also enter into a life of love and communion with others.” (Might be good to re-read this!)
To become holy means to become more loving, more God-like! To be unholy means we’ve chosen not to be like God, not to love or to love narrowly or exclusively. To be holy means we embrace everyone everywhere in an inclusive community of all God’s creatures. This is harder than it sounds! We all harbor prejudices of some kind or another.
To be unholy is to set up barriers of exclusion to anyone or any group. I touched on this during last Sunday’s service, with words from the Chicago poet, Carl Sandburg, who described the dirtiest word in the English language as “exclusive.”
LaCugna writes: “Language that eclipses some persons, language that silences, denigrates, or disheartens persons … is unholy.” We could all well look at our language during these weeks of protest and necessary debate. Only with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit will we be able to speak to one another heart-to-heart. Unfortunately, I fear most of our leaders are just not capable of heart-to-heart conversations.
Only in heart-to-heart conversations can our hearts be strengthened. Yet how often we fail in our attempts. I know in my past, I have not always spoken heart-to-heart. I communicated in a more guarded way, the opposite of speaking heart-to-heart. I believe a great deal of our common communication is guarded and guarded communication does not come from the heart. We fear each other. We do not trust each other. Heart-to-heart becomes impossible.
Only heart-to-heart communication can truly heal. Often in our world we live and communicate from the mind. Mind-talk isn’t bad but it’s not holy in the way heart-to-heart talk is holy. As the 12th Century Spanish rabbi Moses Ibn Ezra taught us: “Only words that come from the heart (can) enter the heart.”
To truly communicate heart-to-heart necessitates openness and vulnerability. To communicate heart-to-heart means we actually speak from our hearts, from the center of who we are. To communicate heart-to-heart requires courage to open our hearts to the scrutiny of another.
This way of communicating demands trust in the working of God’s Holy Spirit. As the Lutheran Jurgen Moltmann notes in The Source of Life: “Through the Spirit, God confers inexhaustible trust on human beings, and through this trust we ourselves again become trustworthy … Through this great trust which God shows us, we acquire a firm trust in ourselves, and trust in our neighbor.” Trust in each other has been carpet-bombed in our country!
Moltmann continues: “The Christian congregation is a matter of trust. It is a place where we put aside our natural mistrust and the protective cloak which we don in the day-to-day competitive struggle and fight for survival. Here (in the Christian congregation) we can open ourselves and trust ourselves to other people.” We do this when we communicate heart-to-heart. We are called to holiness and this call is heard most fully in the quiet sanctuary of the human heart.
St. Paul in 2nd Corinthians 3:3 tells us that we are all “letters” of Christ, “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” I’m sure Paul wrote these words from the context of the prophet Jeremiah‘s proclamation of a new covenant written by God on hearts rather than on stone (Jeremiah 31:31 and following).
As believers, as American Baptists, we cherish the Bible and rightly so! The Bible is the work of God’s Holy Spirit writing on many authors’ hearts over a period of almost a thousand years. So we rightly understand the Bible as sacred.
But what the Holy Spirit has written on each of our hearts is also sacred, also holy. The more we share what is written on our hearts, the more we become holy. The more we share what is Spirit-written within us, the more closely we are bonded together in love and in Christ. The more bonded together we become in love and in Christ, the more holy we become. Our world is in dire need of hearts strengthened in holiness!