In this morning’s Gospel lesson, the people gathered around Jesus in the Temple are admiring the Temple’s magnificent adornments. Jesus is speaking to them prophetically about the chaos and tragedy of the coming destruction of the Temple. This glorious earthly Temple, the crux of Jewish religion and society, would be destroyed for the final time by the Romans just a few decades after Jesus’ time there.
Jesus’ words are rich in meaning and symbolism. It is more accurate to say that he is speaking metaphorically about the chaos and tragedy of the days surrounding the Crucifixion that is to come.
Even more significantly, he is speaking of the “birth pangs” of the end of time, which tends to strike fear in all of us. From our Gospel lesson, we learn that characteristic of these fear-filled times are false leaders exalted by others and claiming to be the “one” who will save the world. These times bring violence and turbulence – wars and insurrections; there will be arrests and persecutions. Being prepared to confront these times is to know Jesus Christ, so that keeping our eyes focused on our faith, we are led through the chaos, whether it be the simple chaos of our daily lives or the ultimate chaos of the end of time.
Those who are prepared will be able to endure the violence and persecutions. To be prepared requires the understanding that the true temple of our faith is not a magnificently adorned earthly building; the true temple of our faith is Jesus Christ. Jesus says, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” “Not a hair on your head will perish.”
The writer of the second letter to the Thessalonians implores us to be prepared by fulfilling our fair share of responsibility to one another. In these years not so long after Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension, the Thessalonians took to heart the expectation that Jesus would return again soon. In fact, they were so self-assured of Jesus’ soon-to-be return that they had become complacent in their ministry to one another; they began to see no need to do the work of the Church.
These words in the letter to the Thessalonians remind us that we are called to continue being faithful and recognizing our responsibility as members of the body of Christ, regardless of our life situation. It is our responsibility to explore the expectations of our faith – to be prepared to endure the “birth pangs” – to be prepared not as consumers of church but as members of the Body of Christ – the Church.
As consumers in the marketplace we expect, at the least, a fair deal that corresponds directly with our cash input. We want quality products and good customer service. From the Church, however, we too often expect way more than a fair deal. If we are consumers of Church, we expect high standards of perfection from the Church regardless of our input.
I use the example of the car going to the gas station. Once a week, I drive to the gas station; I get just enough gas to drive back home and get back to the gas station the next week. There is not any extra fuel that allows for trips to visit friends during the week, to drive a neighbor to the doctor, or to venture to the grocery store to purchase food, not even enough fuel to stop along the way for lunch with family as I make my weekly journey to and from the gas station. Even so, I demand that I have the very best customer service in response to my once a week limited purchase and that the gas I purchase be of the very best quality at a discounted price; I want my visit to the gas station to be pleasant, uplifting, and well worth my valuable time.
If my car could speak, it would say, “My purpose is to go to the gas station and get fuel; I have fulfilled my purpose in life.” But, life is an end in itself, not at all fulfilling, and my car and I are not at all prepared for any opportunities or emergencies that might arise.
If we are consumers of Church, we misinterpret our purpose and duty as going to church; we fail to recognize that we are the Church. We are the Body of Christ.
It is our responsibility to recognize ourselves as the Church – the Body of Christ – and to be prepared for the coming of the kingdom just as Jesus exhorts us to be prepared. It is in our preparation – our understanding of ourselves as the Church that we are able to endure the birth pangs of the end of time.
Stewardship is a huge piece of the theological practices expected of us as members of the Body of Christ – the Church. There are many misconceptions about stewardship, specifically, money and the Church.
We might feel that the Church is not doing the same great things that other charitable organizations are doing, or that somehow the Church should be able to go on meeting our high expectations for great ministry with limited funds. In tomorrow’s mail, as in everyday’s mail, millions of glossy eye-catching mass solicitations will go out across the country from organizations and institutions that have no shame or hesitation about begging for your money. In fact, these groups invest enormous amounts of your contributions in these well-crafted initiatives to solicit your continued financial support. They do that because it works.
Certainly, many of these are wonderful organizations that oversee great charitable and educational causes throughout the world. They build homes and feed the hungry and educate our children. But, they don’t baptize our children; they don’t visit us and pray with us and bring us Communion when we are in the hospital; they won’t be there to commit our bodies to the ground – earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. These organizations, as wonderful as they are, won’t be there to continue to pray that our souls may rest in peace; they won’t be there to console our grieving loved ones. Who will be there for these most sacred life changing events? The Church will be there.
On Wednesday afternoon a young woman arrived at the church office with a pickup load of items for resale. She is moving and wanted us to have these things to raise money for our mission and ministry. In the course of getting the truck unloaded and the items stored, the young woman said time and again, “Everyone in the neighborhood knows about this church; y’all are wonderful; you do so much for so many people; this is a wonderful church; everybody around here knows that, because you do such wonderful things for this community.”
Being prepared for the end times about which Jesus is speaking is to know Jesus Christ, to experience Jesus Christ in one another. Being prepared for the end times is accepting our responsibility to see that others around us know Jesus Christ.
Knowing Jesus Christ and making him known is the essence of our faith – the essence of our stewardship of God’s creation. “Brothers and Sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” [2 Thessalonians. 3:13]