It is an innate human quality to reminisce on the past as a better time than the present. We all do it. Elementary school was better when we sang a patriotic song, said a prayer, and then recited the pledge of allegiance. Those were the good ole days.
In August 2016, I preached for a congregation, which was the church at which I did my field education internship while attending Fuller Theological Seminary. The congregation is just a shell of what it used to be. It was great to reconnect with folk, and the past was fun to remember; then the sanctuary was always packed, high energy was palpable, and great enthusiasm for reaching others with the good news of Jesus Christ pervaded congregant conversations. Now, any given Sunday has less than thirty in attendance, limited energy and low passion for evangelism. Is it helpful to pine for the past when facing a difficult present?
The texts in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, Haggai 1:15b-2:9 and Luke 20:27-38 have similar contexts. The past seems more attractive than the present.
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17 answers the question, “Can there be effective giving and loving in tough times?” Answer. It must be motivated by tradition and the Holy Spirit. When tradition and the Holy Spirit are properly linked, they bring life, comfort and hope. No one knows when Jesus Christ will return and claim the church as his bride. So, no matter how difficult times become for the church, followers of Jesus are not to think Jesus is coming the next day. We are to remain faithful and connected to the vision Jesus has for the redemption and salvation of all creation. 2 Thessalonians 2:15,17 reads, “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter. Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself…comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.” Every good work and word is strengthened by our tradition and the Holy Spirit.
Haggai 1:15b-2:9 answers the question, “Can there be effective giving and loving in tough times?” Answer. It must be motivated by hope. Hope keeps us giving and loving when times are tough. Hope helps us stand firm in times of crisis and conflict. Haggai encourages the people to rebuild the temple, but more importantly, to build the temple of their lives. Haggai 2:9 reads, “The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.” Every good work and word is strengthened by hope.
Luke 20:27-38 answers the question, “Can there be effective giving and loving in tough times?” Answer. It must be motivated by a keen understanding of resurrection. In answering the Sadducees trick question, Jesus teaches that marriage is not a necessary relationship for all people nor will marriage be something we are given to in heaven. The Sadducees do not really care about resurrection. They want to trap Jesus with Moses’ teaching that if a husband dies leaving his wife a widow, and there are other brothers in the husband’s family, a brother must marry the widow. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not just revered citizens of a great heritage, but they are citizens of an age where God has triumphed over death. Their lives speak today to the truth of the resurrection. How the church takes care of the widows and downtrodden is a statement of citizenship. When we do it well, continue to give and love in tough times, it is because of our living in the strength of Christ’s resurrection. Luke 20:37-38 reads, “And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” Every good work and word is strengthened by Jesus’ victory over death, the resurrection.
Although we pine for the way things were in the church, it is dangerous to think that a return to the past will alleviate the pains of the present. The present state of the church is troubling. There seem to be two types. Consumer centered and emptying parking lots and pews. A return to a program centered church won’t cut it unless we want to be consumer driven. A third way is what we are attempting at Geneva. But we need a radical change in heart in our understanding and experience of giving and loving, of being church, in troubled times.
Yes, times are perplexing, and the past looks attractive. Thom Rainer writes, “A church without a gospel-centered purpose is no longer a church at all. I pray that each one of us… admit and confess the need for a change of mind and heart about the purpose of being a Christian and a participant in the church; recognize the slow erosion in your experience of Christian community; let go of the past as hero; build Geneva Presbyterian Church into a community of faith that looks like the community; focus the church’s generosity outwardly for the sake of others; make specific plans to minister and to evangelize our community (ies); practice the Great Commission; be motivated and guided by God’s ways and will not by preferences; value a long tenure for your pastor; make prayer a priority, both personally and corporately; and have a clear purpose of being church not going through the motions of church
Give and love motivated by tradition and the Holy Spirit. Give and love motivated by hope. Give and love motivated by a keen understanding of resurrection. Questions about giving in love have many functions. They can move us out of mediocrity and yes, even the death march of “doing” church. God’s ways and will, will change your experience of tithing from your cognitive, affective, physical, spiritual and financial resources from your life wallet. Living into legacy, the legacy of being known as a Jesus follower, is a life worth living.
In all three sections of textual analysis, I have benefited from the thinking of Matt Gaventa, Edith M. Humphrey, Lydia Hernandez-Marcial, Lauren F. Winner, Patrick J. Willson and Kenyatta R. Gilbert in Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery and Cynthia L. Rigby, editors, Connections, Year C, Volume 3 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 469-471, 471-473, 460-462, 462-464, 474-476 and 476-477.
Thom S. Rainer, Autopsy of a Deceased Church (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing Group, 2014), 75.