“People Pleasers” Colchester Federated Church, October 25, 2020, (1 Thessalonians 2:1-8) Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost & Reformation Sunday

Today we’re continuing on with Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy’s letter to the community of believers in Thessalonica.  We hear more about Paul’s ministry among them.  Paul relates that his visit wasn’t a waste of time and that God gave Paul the courage to speak the good news in spite of plenty of opposition.  Paul had already suffered in Philippi (which we just heard about a few Sundays ago.)  Though in Paul’s mind, that suffering led to being examined and approved by God to be trusted with the good news.

Then Paul writes something truly remarkable—let all of us with ears to hear listen.  Paul writes, “We aren’t trying to please people, but we are trying to please God, who continues to examine our hearts.”[1]  Paul faced human opposition in his ministry over and again.  But he focused on pleasing God and not being a people pleaser, a lesson that many of us would do well to remember as people pleasing can be a soul crushing experience.  Let’s face it, nobody ever truly succeeds at people pleasing because some people can’t be pleased.  Moreover, people have different beliefs and opinions about the way things should be done anyway.  So who do we spend our time and energy trying to please?  It was Dr. Ed Stetzer who once gave advice in the church world by stating, “If you want everyone to like you don’t be a Pastor!  Go sell ice cream.”

So speaking of not everybody liking us, today is the Sunday in the liturgical calendar where we commemorate the Protestant Reformation that Martin Luther began.  The last Sunday of October is Reformation Sunday and it’s good to remind ourselves just how important that movement remains.  We wouldn’t be here as a United Church of Christ and American Baptist Church if it weren’t for church reformers like Martin Luther who ushered in the Protestant branch of the Christian faith. 

When Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church in 1517, he didn’t know that this act would lead to a split within Christianity and the formation of hundreds of Protestant denominations after his lifetime.  He opposed what the Roman Catholic Church was doing—selling indulgences for the forgiveness of sins among other corrupt actions.  People would give what little money they had to the Church so that their sins would be forgiven.  That act would supposedly guarantee them a place in heaven.  Though in the end, the poor just got poorer and the Church just got richer from these practices.  Luther saw this as corruption and passionately argued against it.

Luther’s beliefs led to five Latin phrases being used during the Protestant Reformation that codified the beliefs of the Protestant Reformers.  The first was Sola Fide: by faith alone.  The idea that salvation came through faith (not works or the sale of indulgences.) Sola Scriptura: by Scripture alone.  Protestants argued that the Bible is the sole source of authority for Christians, not years of tradition or the Pope.  Solus Christus: through Christ alone.  Jesus is the one who offers access to God, not priests.  This idea would be developed into the priesthood of all believers.  Sola Gratia, by grace alone.  Salvation comes from what God has done, there’s nothing we can do to earn God’s grace.  And finally, Soli Deo Gloria: glory to God alone.  Our goal as Christians is not to please church leaders, keep a list of rules, or look after our own interests.  We live as Christians to glorify God.

Now Martin Luther had a rough go of sharing these beliefs.  And if he had been a big-time people pleaser, he wouldn’t have even begun this reform movement in the first place!  He was excommunicated by the Church in 1521 and made many enemies.  At one point, Luther shuttered himself away in a castle to translate the Bible into German.  Sometimes we may forget what a gift this is.  We have the ability to read the Bible in our spoken language—this was one of the greatest gifts of the Protestant Reformation, the empowerment of the laity by translating the Bible into vernacular languages.  So when Martin Luther was holed up in that castle translating the Bible he struggled with doubt and discouragement.  Remember the lines we heard from “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” (a hymn that Martin Luther himself wrote): “And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God has willed the truth to triumph through us.  The powers of evil grim, we tremble not for them; their rage we can endure, for lo, their doom is sure: one little word shall fell them.”

Luther wasn’t in good health—many scholars think that he suffered from kidney stones, vertigo, heart problems, arthritis, a cataract in his eye, and a digestive disorder.  Luther was known to throw inkpots around to scare away his demons.  He would shout around the castle during his period of Biblical translation, “I am baptized!”[2]  Basically saying I am named and claimed by God.  Now he was far from a perfect saint.  Some of Luther’s writings are anti-Semitic and he can be partly blamed for the slaughter of many innocent peasants during peasant revolts in Germany in the 1520s.  Martin Luther was not a perfect person by any means (rather like Paul in that way.) And he dealt with his own demons—the demons of self-doubt, the pain from his health conditions, and the stress from constant theological battles when he was doing his best to reform the Church and change the way it had always been done. 

So Martin Luther was not a perfect man, though his legacy lives on.  Many of those central teachings of the Protestant Reformers remain in Protestant churches like ours.  Protestants came onto the scene claiming that religious professionals were not the only people with direct access to God.  The Bible should be read by everyone in our own language that we speak daily.  We’re saved by our faith and God’s grace which we can’t earn.  And we certainly can’t earn God’s favor by doing more and more and spending our lifetime inheritance to somehow guarantee ourselves a place in heaven.  Plus our goal as Christians isn’t to be people pleasers or keep a list of rules or look after our own interests.  We live as Christians to glorify God.

In the year 2020 (503 years after the Protestant Reformation began in Germany), what are ways the Church will change and continue to be open to the spirit of reformation?  Perhaps the pandemic is already making us realize that the Christian Church is less about any particular building and more about the group of people gathered to worship and glorify God and go out to serve our neighbors.  Perhaps we’re realizing that we can provide support both in-person and virtually.  Perhaps we’re going to appreciate the beauty of gathering together as the Body of Christ when the time comes that we safely can have everybody inside the walls of church buildings.  Because what we do in person really matters.  It may be too soon to tell what the future will look like and what the lasting impacts will be (anymore than Martin Luther knew the ramifications of his actions in Wittenberg).  Though it’s uplifting to think that all of us can spend less of our time trying to please people and more of our time trying to please God.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] 1 Thessalonians 2:4, Common English Bible.
[2] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, 141.