Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Interim Pastor
Rev. Millie Myren, Support Minister
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Sermon November 22, 2015
1 Thessalonians 2:5-8
5As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; 6nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others,
7though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. 8So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have
“THE FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT IS GENTLENESS”
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
And so we come to the eighth fruit of the Spirit: gentleness. Let me begin with a story from two years ago that, for me, epitomizes gentleness. This story is about a 65 year-old Jewish man, wearing a yarmulke, who was riding the New York subway. “A young African-American male, head covered by a hooded sweatshirt, fell asleep on the shoulder of the older man. When someone offered to wake the young rider, the older man quietly said, ‘He must have had a long day. Let him sleep. We’ve all been there.’
“Then he let the tired fellow-rider sleep on his shoulder for the better part of the next hour, until the older man gently eased away to get up for his stop. In the meantime, another passenger snapped a photograph and posted it on social media, and it became a well-known act of kindness.” For me, a true act of gentleness.
Sisters and brothers, what might we have done in this situation? Would we have let the young man rest on our shoulder for the better part of an hour or would we have pushed him away? A good question for each of us to ponder!
So what are we to make of gentleness? The New Testament Greek word for gentleness isprautes, a word that can be translated as gentleness, mildness, or meekness. We know from our preaching text that Jesus himself famously describes himself as “gentle and humble in heart.” (Matthew 11:29) But what does this gentleness look like? In one very true sense, we can say that gentleness looks like Jesus.
We can run into difficulty, however, when this word is translated as “meek.” We can easily make the claim that meekness is vastly under-appreciated in our aggressive, narcissistic culture. But let me say that “meek” doesn’t mean weak. Gentleness is but one layer of what is meant by this ancient Greek word.
As the revered Bible scholar, William Barclay, has it: the gentleness ascribed to Jesus, the meekness ascribed to Jesus, is not what we understand by the term. Barclay speaks of gentleness, meekness, as “strength under control.” The gentle person is a person under complete control of his or her powers and passions – as was Jesus.
Think about this, brothers and sisters. Here we have the Son of God – one of the three persons of the Trinity of God, walking the dusty roads of ancient Palestine. What powers did Jesus possess? He possessed all the powers of God – absolute and almighty powers. But Jesus refused to use those powers to defend himself – even unto a profoundly shameful death on the cross.
Jesus refused to use his powers to defeat his enemies – of which he had many. He controlled those almighty powers and, thusly, presented to us the real portrait of who God is: the gentle reallity of divinity.
Sisters and brothers, I repeat a very important theological truth: what we know about God is what we know about Jesus. If it is true of Jesus, then it is true of God. If it is not true of Jesus, then it is not true of God. A simple equation!
Jesus did not return anger for anger, rage for rage, even though he could have crushed his enemies in the flick of an eye. But he did not do this because while Jesus possessed divine strength, that divine strength was under complete control. There was no arrogance in Jesus. There was no retaliation in Jesus. There was no meanness in Jesus. Jesus was meek and humble in heart.
And if this is true for Jesus – then it must be true for God. God, as unveiled to us most clearly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; God as revealed to us in the Gospels, in the teaching of this same Jesus, is not a God given to retaliation. The God revealed to us in Jesus is a God who does not kill or murder – even in self-defense! This is a strange God, to be sure, but it is the God we must worship as followers of Jesus Christ.
Therefore, to claim that you have a mandate from God to bring divine vengeance upon anyone blasphemes the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To say you have a mandate from God to murder others in God’s name is against everything we know about God in and through Jesus.
And, yes, I am very aware that in many places in the Old Testament, we have God portrayed as wrathful and murderous. But I believe such passages and such images of God have been healed through the gentleness and example of Jesus.
Did Jesus retaliate against his murderous persecutors? No! And if Jesus himself didn’t retaliate – then we must also assume that God does not retaliate. This may be difficult to grasp but it is the core of Jesus’ example. It is the core of his teaching. “Love your enemies!” What could be clearer?
Jesus, in his most famous teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, proclaims this message: “Blessed are the meek (the gentle) for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5) Are you kidding us, Jesus? When will this happen? Right now it appears that the arrogant rule the world. Right now it appears that those who seize everything they can in an uncontrolled orgy of greed – rule the earth.
Yet we easily deny the Gospel because we fail to grasp what real gentleness involves – what true meekness is about. Meekness is not weakness. The following thoughts from Barclay’s book,Flesh and Spirit, might help us:
“When we (possess) prautes (gentleness, meekness), we treat everyone with perfect courtesy; we can rebuke without rancor; argue without intolerance; face the truth without resentment; we can be angry and yet sin not; we can be gentle and yet not weak.”
Sounds like a perfect description of Jesus, does it not? Then why is it so hard to find gentleness in our country and in our world. As the spiritual writer, Ronald Rolhesier, writes: “In both civic and church circles, there is little to be seen in the way of gentleness!”
Brothers and sisters, the Gospel teaches us to show gentleness to all – not just for those who agree with us. When the Gospel of Jesus breaks through into the deepest parts of who we are, we are transformed into people of gentleness – people like Jesus. The Gospel cannot generate anger unless we twist and distort the Gospel – which, unfortunately, happens all too often!
Part of the challenge here that many of us believe our interpretation of God’s Word is the right interpretation – and we will battle anyone who says otherwise. We demonize those who disagree with us about how the Word of God is to be understood. Is this not easy to do? Yet it goes against the core teaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Again from the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you …” (Matthew 5:43-44) Words we should embrace with every part of who we are!
Let me add something about biblical interpretation – how to understand the Word of God. This comes to us from the Letter of James: “… welcome with meekness (gentleness) the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” (James 1:21-22)
Our brother James challenges us to accept the Word of God in gentleness – without arrogance – without antagonism. We, Baptists, believe the Holy Spirit helps us understand the Word as we stand in need of that Word. But also as Baptists – we are not to fight over who has the interpretation right and who has the interpretation wrong! This is not gentleness. This is not meekness. Often we seek to ridicule our opponents – those who see things differently than we do.
Sisters and brothers, if we trust in the Holy Spirit, then we must trust in what the Spirit does. Let that same Spirit lead and guide us as we immerse ourselves in the Word of God. Let that same Spirit open up the deepest levels of our hearts and souls to the transforming, challenging Word of God – especially the Gospels of Jesus Christ.
Let those same Gospels cleanse from us every impulse to rancor, every prompting to meanness, every impulse to pettiness, every temptation to violence in any of its many nefarious forms. Brothers and sisters, if the Gospels do not help us to become like Jesus, gentle and humble of heart, then we have failed to take the Gospels seriously enough. It is the Gospels of Jesus Christ that show us the way to life – both here and in the hereafter! Amen!