Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 5:12-24
All of us are either above average or below average. The average I am referring to here is the average number of credit cards that an American adult has. That average is 2.6, so unless you actually possess 0.6 of a credit card you are above or below. What makes that number incredible is that it includes the people who have zero credit cards. Just under 1/3 of American adults do not have a credit card, so for the average to be 2.6 that means there is a sizeable portion of the population with an above average number. Credit cards have their uses, but many people have learned they can also get you in trouble. To dig out of these credit induced financial troubles, a lot of people have found resources like Financial Peace University to be very helpful. Dave Ramsey, the guru behind Financial Peace University, has several sayings he is fond of repeating in all of his resources. One of his most repeated phrases that really stick out is “live like no one else, so that you can live like no one else.” Ramsey encourages indebted people to live life differently than most of society. He urges them to live more frugally and deny keeping up with the Joneses so that they can be free of debt as quickly as possible. By living frugally like no one else the person will then be able to live with financial peace and freedom like no one else. Millions of people have found Ramsey’s words in this matter to be full of wisdom, and have indeed lived like no one else to find the peace they were looking for. The concept of “live like no one else” works for getting out of debt, but it is also a concept that should work in our faith. Specifically, living like no one else should be one of our key strategies for fulfilling one of the fundamental reasons we exist as a church. Every United Methodist Church in the world has as the basis of its mission, “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” As United Methodists we generally do well with transforming the world part. Members of Methodist churches are involved in good works and making big differences all over the place. We also tend to do a decent job at providing resources to help people on the path to discipleship become better disciples. There area where we struggle, at least in the North American branch of the UMC, is making new disciples. This is painfully evident in the fact that the American UMC has been declining in membership for 48 years. The only way we can turn this around is to live like no one else.
There is a deeply personal aspect to this for many of us as well. I have been blessed to have meaningful conversations with many of you over the years, and I know that for several of you the thing that breaks your heart the most are people you love who do not love Jesus. Many of you have asked in some form, what you can do to make your child/neighbor/friend come to (or back to the faith). On one hand, we have to realize that we cannot do everything. We do not save people, Jesus saves people. The sacrifice has already been made, and the gift has been given. It is up to the individual to say yes to God’s yes. We cannot force someone to make that choice to follow Christ. On the other hand though, we can be a great influencer. We can demonstrate what it means to follow Christ, and in this case our actions always speak louder than words. When it comes to sharing the gospel with family members who are not Christians, one of the most effective ways we can do this is through our actions. We can live like no one else.
A couple of months ago I ran into a person I know who is pursing vocational ministry. I also happened to have this young man’s sister in youth group. As we got up I was saddened to learn that his sister was struggling with and walking away from Christianity. Her problems with the faith had very little to do with Jesus, and a lot to do with people. Her thoughts are similar to that of Gandhi who once said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike Christ.” It pains me to admit that Gandhi’s point is just as true today as it was in his era. As disciples of Jesus we are called to live like no one else, but instead we tend to live, well like everyone else. Multiple studies have found that when it comes to supporting humanitarian efforts Christians show as much concern as non-Christians. Studies have shown that there is only a minor difference between Christians and non-Christians when it comes to consuming sexually explicit media such as music and movies. Similar studies have also found that regular church-goers tend to be worse tippers than non-church goers and church goers are less likely to recycle than their neighbor who sleeps in on Sunday. There is a common Christian sentiment that draws inspiration from a couple different scriptures that we are to be “in the world but not of the world.” The reality is though that by and large we are so good at being in the world that we look just like it.
This is not the way it is supposed to be and this is not the way it has always been. In the first couple of centuries Christianity spread like wildfire. One of the primary reasons for this is because the early Christians set to follow Jesus and in doing so, lived like no one else. In his book The Rise of Christianity Rodney Stark summarizes it like this: “Christianity served as a revitalization movement that arose in response to the misery, chaos, fear, and brutality of life in the urban Greco-Roman world. . . . Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. “
We still have a message of good news. From a generosity motivated by divine love, we can still offer charity and hope. However, that only happens if we live like no one else. That is where this morning’s scripture from Thessalonians comes in. It is full of practical advice on how we can live like no one else, and when we do that we demonstrate the power of our faith to change lives. This morning’s scripture comes from the very end of the letter to the church of Thessalonica, and it is a rapid fire set of final instructions. Specifically, there are four instructions from this scripture that we can begin putting in practice so that we truly do live like no one else.
When it comes to living differently, the first verse we should take to heart is the latter half of verse 13, “Live in peace with each other.” The each other specifically refers to people in the church being at peace with other people in the church. As Christians we are supposed to live in community together and actively live out our faith together. Being community is always messy. There will always be disagreements. Sometimes we disagree over absolutely ridiculous things like carpet color, other times we disagree over some big issues. However, it should be possible to disagree and still live at peace with each other. The love we have for one another as brothers and sisters in Christ should more than overcome any disagreements we might have. Unfortunately, the dysfunctional church board that spends more time in sharp disagreement about everything than being focused on making disciples is a shockingly common cliché. Snippy disagreements, outright hostility, backbiting, gossip, and smear campaigns are common in any large workplace. They should not be common in the pews or at church council meetings. We can live like no one else and live at peace with another. When we do this, we show something that is different and appealing to the world. Practically speaking, if we only have good and glowing things to say about our brothers and sisters in Christ, if we are at true peace with one another, then we do broadcast to our non-Christian friends and family that life is different and even better in Christian community.
The second instruction we should take to heart is “be patient with everyone.” When Paul wrote this there was a need for patience, and that need has only increased over the centuries. Paradoxically, the faster we are able to travel and the more efficient our technology becomes getting things done, the more impatient we get. We experience impatience daily. We experience inpatients in the reckless driver who has to pass everyone, the person at the restaurant who loudly complains about how slow everything is, and the person behind us at the checkout line who keeps sighing loudly to express their displeasure with having to wait. If we are being honest, many of us probably have to sheepishly admit that we have been those impatient people. We live in a rushed and impatient world. We can live differently, by being the patient ones. In a world that is caught in a frenzy, we can be a presence of peace by being the ones who slow down. We have all kinds of reasons why we can afford to be patient. We can be patient with our time, because we know it is our Father who holds all of time his hands. We can be patient with others because we know that they are flawed people just like us. We can be patient because in doing so we are being obedient to Christ and treating people the way we want to be treated. By intentionally patient because we are rooted in faith, we show others a different way to live.
Third is verse 16. It is only two words, but it is two powerful words: “Rejoice always.” Not only do we live in a rushed world we live in a cynical world. It does not matter what it is. Seriously, pick anything that someone finds some small amount of joy in, and there will be someone else to trash talk and belittle that thing. The world is full of pessimists who insist they are realist and critics who claim they are just being the devil’s advocate. The devil does not need any more advocates. We should live like no one else and be advocating for Jesus. Instead of finding things to complain about, we should find things to rejoice about. This is not approaching life with a Pollyanna, rose colored glasses approach. It is simply a matter of redefining our perspective. Simply put, if our mind, heart, and soul have Jesus as our main focus, then complaining should be the last thing on our mind. We can rejoice always because of the final instruction we should take to heart.
Verse 18 reminds us to “give thanks in all circumstances.” The reason why we can rejoice always is because we have reasons to give thanks in all circumstances. Even in the darkest and worst times of our lives, we still have reasons to give thanks. This does not mean we put our heads in the sand and hide when life gets rough. It means we weather the storm because we know that eventually the sun is going to break through the clouds. We give thanks because we know we are loved by the source of all love. We can give thanks because we know that no matter what we are forgiven. In all things we can give thanks with a grateful heart, because we know it is well with our souls. When we do this we live differently. In a sea of cynics we stand out as a beacon of hope.
As followers of Jesus Christ we should live like no one else. We should live like Jesus by loving God with all of our being and loving our neighbor as ourselves. We can practically do this by living at peace with one another, being patient, rejoicing always, and giving thanks in every circumstance. If we want people to know that the love of God and the forgiveness of Jesus is amazing and life changing, then we have to show it to them. Our lives have to demonstrate it. When we live differently because our faith has transformed us, then we become an irrefutable testimony to the power and love of God. We can say that God changes lives, because we are walking proof. May we join in lifting up the people in our lives who do not yet know Jesus as their Lord and Savior, but more importantly may our lives show them why following Jesus is worth it. May we convince them that there is something to this faith, not with our words but with our very beings. May we truly live like no one else so that we can make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.