I am not embarrassed to admit that I spend a lot of time on social media, especially on Facebook. It allows me to keep in touch with friends and family who live all over the country; there are a whole bunch of different clergy groups where I can find support and camaraderie from other colleagues in ministry; and of course it’s a great place to find knitting and crochet ideas and cute pictures of cats, lol.
But I also get to see some really beautiful things happen on social media from time to time. There’s a whole informal network of people online who have found ways to help each other out. I think of it as a sort of Facebook “underground railroad.” A friend of someone’s friend reaches out asking for help, usually needing money, and this network mobilizes to respond. Last month, we helped a single mom in Chicago who was struggling after her car was impounded over a ticket. Earlier this year, I put the word out on facebook to help a friend of mine who was trying to escape an abusive partner. We raised over $6,000 for her in a matter of weeks.
There’s no formal organization at work here. It’s just a bunch of regular people who are connected by compassion, by the recognition that as humans we need each other and that none of us is in this alone. And the folks who volunteer their time and resources don’t ask a lot of questions about the requests that come through for help. People just trust that the need is there and they give if they can. And I often see the same people stepping up again and again to chip in and/or spread the word. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times the Facebook community gets called on or what else people have going on in their lives – someone is always ready to step up and help however they can.
I think of this community when reading the exhortation at the end of our second reading for today. The author of 2 Thessalonians – Paul, or one of his students – writes these words of encouragement to the Thessalonian community:
Do not be weary in doing what is right.
Now, these were words that the Thessalonian community really needed to hear. In their case, they actually weren’t doing a lot of good work like the Facebook “underground railroad” does. In fact, from the sounds of things, some of them weren’t doing very much work at all. And the Thessalonian church was struggling. To the modern reader, it sounds like the author of this letter is chewing out the Thessalonians for being lazy and unwilling to work. But there is actually a deeper, more theological problem at work here.
Just like us, first century Christians believed that Christ was coming back and that when he did, he would usher in the kingdom of God. However, there was a lot of confusion and misinformation flying around as to when this would actually take place. We can tell from Paul’s writings that some of these communities believed that Christ was coming like next Tuesday. But the Thessalonian community took this even further. In our second reading from last Sunday, the author of this letter writes:
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed… to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way…2 Thessalonians 2:1-3a
In other words, some members of the Thessalonian church didn’t just believe that Christ was coming back next Tuesday. They believed that his return was already happening, that the kingdom was already on its way in, like, now.
And in light of this, their behavior kinda makes a lot of sense. They believed the day of the Lord had come, or that it would be here soon. So what did it matter if they worked or not? What did it matter if they did the work that Jesus had commanded his disciples to do – to feed the hungry and to care for the sick and the vulnerable and to see to the needs of strangers and sojourners? Who cared? Jesus was back, baby!
But Paul strongly discourages the Thessalonians from thinking this way. The day of the Lord has not yet arrived, he clarifies. There is still more to come, including some difficult times for the believers. There will be struggle ahead. And so it is crucial that they continue to do the good work that Jesus has commanded, and to follow the path of discipleship. The work that they do matters. And so, this letter urges them:
Do not be weary in doing what is right.
Jesus has a similar message for his followers in our gospel reading for this morning. They are marveling at the temple with its huge stones and all its beauty and riches. But Jesus warns them not to be too attached: “The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another,” he says, “All will be thrown down.” This news isn’t so striking to us, but it would have been utterly devastating to the people who heard him say it. The temple was much more to them than just a building. It was the absolute center of their life and religious practice, the place where they came to offer sacrifice and prayer and praise – literally God’s house on earth. It would have been hard for them to imagine life without it.
And the people for whom Luke was writing his gospel account did not have to imagine. The temple actually was destroyed shortly before the Gospel of Luke was written. So the first people to read this story and these words from Jesus were people still deep in grief over the temple’s destruction.
And Jesus goes on to say that the destruction of the temple won’t even be the worst of it! He speaks of false prophets and wars and natural disasters, of famines and plagues, of betrayals and persecutions. The readers of Luke’s gospel would have already begun to experience some of these things and would have known how true Jesus’ words would turn out to be. And Jesus himself was betrayed and arrested in the very next chapter of Luke.
And yet, in the midst of all this chaos and turmoil, Jesus urges his followers to endurance and persistence. Even adversity is only an opportunity to testify, he says. He promises that he will be with them and that he will give them all that they need. He reassures them that not so much as a single hair from their heads will perish. He calls them to keep going. Temple or no temple, they have been given work to do: the work of discipleship – the work of witnessing and serving in Jesus’ name. In other words, Jesus urges them:
Do not be weary in doing what is right.
These are still words that we need to hear, some 2,000 years later. We still face some of the same struggles as the Thessalonian church and the community to which Luke was writing. Obviously, we don’t suffer violence and persecution like they did, but some of the theological temptations are still the same. Like the Thessalonians, there are still some believers who think that they know exactly when Christ is coming back – and it’s soon. There are others who think that God’s kingdom will have nothing at all to do with creation, and so none of what we do here and now matters. But as we read today in 2 Thessalonians, that is simply not true. The good work that we do now absolutely matters. It matters to God and it matters to our neighbor.
And I hear echoes of this text from Luke whenever I hear people now worrying about the future of the church. It’s true that the data does not look great for the institution of the church as we know it here in the US. Congregations are shrinking. The number of people who are religiously unaffiliated is growing. Younger generations in particular seem to show less interest in the church than previous generations. All these things are true. Even here at St. John’s, we know what it’s like to watch our programs dwindle and fade. We’ve known the grief of feeling like the church is failing. And all of this can start to sound a lot like Jesus telling his followers, “not one stone will be left upon another.”
But the gospel doesn’t end there. We need to keep listening for the rest of the story. God’s story – the story of God’s people – doesn’t end with the destruction of the temple, any more than it ended with the crucifixion of Christ. And it’s certainly not ending now. Because even in the midst of temples falling, in the midst of decline and conflict and famine and war, Jesus promises that he is with us. He promises that he will give us what we need when we need it.
And Jesus reminds us that it isn’t for us to worry about the signs of the times or to try to guess when the kingdom will come. Our job is to keep on doing the good work to which we have been called. Our job is to keep on walking the path of discipleship. It doesn’t matter whether the temple is standing or not; it doesn’t matter whether Jesus is coming next Tuesday or not for another 2,000 years; we have work to do.
So keep going. And do not be weary in doing what is right.