In her article “The Great Reversal” historian of religion Diana Butler Bass points out that for centuries, the church has placed a primary emphasis on belief. The first step has been to decide what we believe and then determine how that belief asks us to behave and then finally, to solidify our belonging—to make a decision to join a community. Bass argues that in the Gospels, Jesus put things in the exact opposite order. He made belonging primary. She says:
Christianity did not begin with a confession [of belief]. It began with an invitation into friendship into creating a new community, into forming relationships based on love and service.
She offers an analogy:
If you want to knit, you find someone who knits to teach you. Go to the local yarn shop and find out when there is a knitting class. Sit in a circle where others will talk to you, show you how to hold the needles, guide your hands, and share their patterns with you. The first step in becoming a knitter is forming a relationship with knitters. The next step is to learn by doing and practice. After you knit for a while, after you have made scarves and hats and mittens, then you start forming ideas about knitting.
The letters of Paul are the earliest writings in the New Testament and I Thessalonians is likely the oldest letter of all, possibly written as early as 40 years after Jesus’ death. In contrast, the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life were all composed much later, between 70–100 CE. I’ve been thinking about how odd it is that we read these letters of Paul as scripture today, since they were never intended to be shared with a wider audience nor to speak with relevance to people two thousand years later. They are addressed to particular communities in specific circumstances, with distinct needs. In today’s passage from I Thessalonians Paul alludes to all sorts of barriers and difficulties in his ministry. The suffering and mistreatment in Philippi likely refers to the experience of being jailed by the Roman authorities. It sounds; however, as if the “great opposition” Paul faced came also from the people he sought to teach and lead. Paul spends much of this letter in a defensive posture, insisting his motives are pure, which suggests that some thought otherwise. And he refutes the apparent perception that he and his fellow apostles are burdening the community financially. And yet, even as Paul fights to establish his credibility and trustworthiness he also expresses deep care for the Thessalonian community. “We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” “We dealt with each one of you like a father with his children.” “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves.”
It strikes me that the tensions that Paul and his community experienced around belonging are still very relevant to us today. In a culture that prizes independence and individuality, how is it that we belong? To each other? To a community? What does it look like, practically speaking, to root our belonging in the Way of Jesus? Is it possible for us to experience the deep connection that Paul describes sharing with the Thessalonians—even while remaining realistic about the betrayals, disappointments, and misunderstandings that always accompany our human attempts to form community?
In our final session of studying After Jesus, Before Christianity, we asked folks what they were taking away from this book, how it helped them better understand our identity as progressive Christians. The group pointed to the description of how these first followers of Jesus gathered in what the authors call supper clubs. These early gatherings were not like our scripted worship services. Instead, they were meals that allowed for informal conversation, touching on all aspects of life. At the same time, these gatherings were rooted in sacred texts, in prayer, and in the practices Jesus taught his followers. These supper club communities bravely created a space of equity and inclusion in a society that rarely allowed people of different social classes to even interact.
In our own community, we reach toward the kind of deep care for each other and sharing of ourselves that Paul describes in his letter. Like our ancestors in faith who gathered with a rare kind of inclusivity that unsettled the Roman authorities we, too, seek to be a community that resists and reimagines the values of capitalism and white supremacy. Mutual sharing is a key aspect of our belonging to this countercultural way of Jesus. So, as we prepare to dedicate our 2024 pledges next week let us celebrate all the ways we give and receive. We take turns offering one another a listening presence that is loving, wise, and healing. We make music together. We learn and grow through study. We work shoulder-to-shoulder on tasks and teams. We call each other to acts of confession and repair. We show up to express the values of justice in the larger world. And, we share our money and possessions to support the well-being of all.
When it comes to financial giving, not all of us are in the same situation. We inhabit an economy of exploitation and inequity, in which some folks are struggling simply to meet their own basic needs. So, it seems to me that those who are comfortable and privileged have a different kind responsibility to share financially. My spouse Jen and I seek to discern what we really need to care for our family so that we can release the rest to care for others. This coming year, we will offer about 8 percent of our income as pledges to our two churches. And approximately 4 percent to organizations beyond the church. Though this commitment to sharing sometimes means foregoing discretionary wants, it is not something we do grudgingly. We feel an incredible sense of joy about what we can help make possible when we release what is “more than enough” for the good of community. That’s why I chose this morning’s poem by Bonnie Thurston; for me, it captures the connection between happiness and generosity of all kinds.
When I was on a plane this week, my eyes were repeatedly drawn to the screen of a person in front of me, which displayed a war movie. It was a couple solid hours of flashing explosions and gunfire, people running frantically, wounds, blood, and death. I realized that the bonds soldiers form in order to fight, to defend each other against a common enemy, is one model of belonging. The problem with this sort of belonging is that it requires us to deny the humanity of anyone outside our group. Right now, we can see the tragic impact of this type of belonging in the acts of Hamas militants and the Israeli government. In the way of Jesus, in concert with all the great spiritual paths, we find another vision of what it means to belong. Self-emptying generosity enables connection and kinship with all creation. It calls us to participate in a culture of mutual care that ripples outward, overcoming all our “us and them” dynamics. And it keeps us accountable to using resources and power with humanity and justice.
Paul acknowledges all the ways in which we humans can and do go wrong as we seek belonging. Impure motives, trickery, flattery, and greed are all things that sour our efforts to establish genuine care and connection. And yet, Paul dwells in the possibility that God can be present in our efforts to form community. “We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.”Human community can be filled with divine presence and power. When we gather, listen, speak, and act as First Church, we are capable, with the help of the Spirit, of loving each other and the world with a strength and depth that transcends our frail and fragile human capacities.
As New Testament professor, Jane Lancaster Patterson, puts it: “The Gospel of Christ is not a set of ideas about Jesus or about God, but rather a set of embodied commitments to be a Word of God in one’s own context, however difficult.” May it be so. Amen.
 “The Great Reversal” by Diana Butler Bass