For the past six weeks, we’ve been in a series called Life at Liberty Grace. We’re right on the cusp of launching our charter membership, and so we’ve been looking at how the church is a really big deal. We’ve been looking at the mission of the church. We’ve even been looking at some of the dealbreakers — things like gender and sexuality and church discipline.
And today we’re at the end. How do you finish a series in which you want to launch the first membership of our church? I feel the pressure to be profound and to close the deal. I’m not going to do that. Instead, I want to open my heart to you about this church.
You could call this message today my farewell sermon. No, I’m not leaving. But one day I will, and I hope it’s a long time from now. The day that I leave, I’ll want to share two things with the charter membership of this church. Here they are.
First, let me tell you what you can expect from me (1-12).
To tell you what you can expect from me, I want to look at a letter that the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica, a church that he had planted. Paul only spent a small amount of time there. We read about it in the first part of Acts 17. In fact, this is the passage that I used when I spoke at the very first vision night for this church.
Thessalonica was the provincial capital of Macedonia. It was a bustling trade city with a lot of diversity. It probably would have had some of the same feel as our own context — a melting pot of different beliefs and lifestyle choices within a busy community.
Here’s what happened. Paul visited there on his second missionary journey. We don’t know exactly how long he stayed, but we do know that he stayed long enough to see the church planted, for a lot of pagans to turn to Christ, and for them to get a sense of his life and character. However long it was, Paul’s time there ended in a riot, and so Paul and Silas were compelled to leave the city.
In 1 Thessalonians, we have one of Paul’s earliest letters, possibly his first. Paul wrote to them not too long after he had to leave them. Because he had so little time among them, he wanted to answer some of their questions and to encourage them. And in chapter 2, he opens up his heart about the kind of ministry he had among them. I want to piggyback off of Paul’s thoughts and reflect on the kind of ministry that I want to have among you.
Here are two things that you can expect from me by God’s grace.
I commit to serving you even when it’s hard (1-2).
For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain. But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict.
I don’t know how many of you know the story of the beginning of this church. Before we moved to Liberty Village, I was warned that church planting would be hard. Our director of church planting in the Fellowship warned me that we would go through more spiritual warfare in one year of church planting than in ten years of pastoring. I nodded, and of course, we continued.
But then we began our first year of church planting. We discovered that he was right. Within ten days of beginning the process of planting this church, we were going through one of the most severe crises we’d ever experienced. I wish I could say that it was only one crisis, but it wasn’t. Within the first year we went through three major crises, one of which almost cost the life of someone in our family. To say that we were battered and bruised would be an understatement.
One day I was complaining to Charlene. I told her that I’d hoped to plant out of a position of having it altogether and having something to offer. She said, “What if our suffering and weakness isn’t a distraction from the ministry, but rather is the way that God wants us to plant the church?” Smart woman.
We’ve been through some of the hardest crises of our lives in the five years that we’ve been planting this church. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. As Paul writes to the Thessalonians, he’s also been experiencing some significant crises. He’d been mistreated in Thessalonica. He also mentions his treatment in Philippi, where he’d been derided, stripped, flogged, and jailed in violation of his rights as a Roman citizen. And yet he says that he’s had boldness to proclaim the gospel in the midst of all of this conflict, and that God’s been at work despite this all.
I want you to know that, by God’s grace, I want to follow Paul’s example. Look, we would have quit already if we weren’t prepared to suffer. I commit by God’s grace to continue to serve you even when it’s hard.
I commit that I will not serve you out of a desire for money or recognition (3-6).
It’s tempting to do good things with wrong motives. Paul mentions a couple of the dangers that those in ministry faced back then, and they’re not too different from the temptations that pastors face today:
I’m not in this for the money. I want to be clear: I do make my living through the church. I work 75% of the time for the church, and 25% of the time for our denomination. I’m devoting the best hours of my life to serving this church, and there’s a good biblical case for doing so. But I’m not in it for the money. Paul says that he’s not operating out of a desire to trick them or to use his position for greed or financial advantage — as a pretext for greed. And so we’ve taken pains to ensure that we’re above reproach financially, including financial controls, and including going out of our way to make sure that the church benefits rather than us. For instance, whenever I do something outside of the church, like a wedding or a guest speaking engagement, the money goes to the church. Although we’re all caught up now, there have been months — sometimes many months — that we haven’t been paid by the church and we’ve had to dip into our line of credit. I’m not telling you this to brag. I just want to commit to you that I’m not in this for money.
I’m also not in this for the recognition. It’s a crazy thing. Who would ever go into the ministry for recognition? And yet it’s easy to begin to pastor with an eye for human approval, a desire for applause from people. It was a temptation back then, and it’s a temptation now.
For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. (1 Thessalonians 2:4-6)
I want to serve you with integrity, not out of what I can get out of it, but so that I can care for you. In fact, Paul gives the flip side. He’s covered what he doesn’t want his ministry to be about; here’s what he wants it to be about — and what I want ministry to be about too.
I commit to care for you humbly and sacrificially (7-12).
1 Thessalonians 2:12 (ESV)
But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.
For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (1 Thessalonians 2:7-12)
Paul gives some powerful images for ministry that capture what I need to be like. Here’s what ministry looks like, according to Paul:
- the gentleness, affection, and nurture of a good mother (2:7)
- the low status of a manual worker (2:8-9)
- the love of a good father with his children (2:11)
All three involve sacrifice, and that’s what I’m committing to you. This is the kind of ministry, by God’s grace, that you have a right to expect from me.
In America, credentials qualify a person to lead. In Jesus, the chief qualification is character. In America, what matters most are the results we produce. In Jesus, what matters most is the kind of people we are becoming. In America, success is measured by material accumulation, power, and the positions that we hold. In Jesus, success is measured by material generosity, humility, and the people whom we serve. In America, it is shameful to come in last and laudable to come in first. In Jesus, the first will be last and the last will be first. In America, leaders make a name for themselves to become famous and sometimes treat Jesus as a means to that end. In Jesus, leaders make his name famous and treat their own positions, abilities, and influence as a means to that end. In America, leaders crave recognition and credit. In Jesus, leaders think less of themselves and give credit to others. In America, leaders compare and compete so they will flourish. In Jesus, leaders sacrifice and serve so others will flourish. In America, leadership often means “My glory and happiness at your expense.” In Jesus, leadership always means “Your growth and wholeness at my expense.” In America, the strong and powerful rise to the top. In Jesus, the meek inherit the earth. (Scott Sauls)
I want to lay my heart before you. I will fall short of being the leader you deserve. But this is who I commit to be and what I intend to do, and I hope to say these things to you whenever I leave this place one day.
And friends, here’s what I desire for you.
I want you to receive God’s Word and be changed by it.
And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. (2:13)
I want us to grow as a community around open Bibles, looking at what God says and receiving it — not as a human book, but as God’s very Word to us. The Word works in our lives when we do this, Paul says. That’s the kind of church I want this to be.
I want you to imitate the obedience of more mature churches.
Paul writes to this young church and commends them because they’ve followed the example of the Judean church, a much older and more mature church. The Judean church stood up under persecution, and they are too. Paul commends them for following the example of more mature churches.
I’d love to see us do the same. We don’t have the resources of more mature churches, but we can aim to have the gumption, the obedience, and the passion that they have. I want us to strive to do everything we can with what we have and to keep pace with churches that are even farther ahead than we are.
Finally, I want you to be my greatest work and source of joy and even boasting before God.
What Paul says in verse 19 is startling. If he didn’t use this kind of language, I wouldn’t dare to either. But he does, and I will too.
For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.
Paul is so tied to these people that he can say that they are his greatest joy, his greatest crown of boasting, the greatest accomplishment of his life. He wants to point to them and say, “See that? That matters! That church in Thessalonica really is worth celebrating, really worth rejoicing in, not just now but for eternity.”
It’s the kind of thing that happens with deep relationships. It’s what happens when a church planter sacrifices to plant a church, and when lives begin to be changed within that church. It’s what happens when pastors don’t act in self-serving ways, but instead pour their lives into the church. It’s what happens when a church commits to open the Bible and to obey it because it’s God’s Word and not a human word. It’s what happens when a church gazes long enough at Jesus and what he’s done to bring us back to God by living and dying for us, and rising again.
In other words, I want to serve as a faithfully so that you become the kind of church that will hear the Word of God, obey, and be worth rejoicing in for eternity.
As we close this series, I don’t have a fancy pitch to present to you. What I do have is my heart and the confidence that God is doing something here that really matters. I’m in with all my life. And I’m inviting you in too. Let’s see what God can do through a weak, imperfect pastor and a group of people who are serious about following him in Liberty Village. Because it matters, not just now, but for eternity.