Dr. Philip W. McLarty
The First Letter to the Thessalonians is the first letter of the New Testament Paul wrote. He wrote it around 52 A.D. He’d come to Thessalonica from Philippi, where he and Silas had been put in jail. He only stayed in Thessalonica for three weeks, but he left a lasting impression; so much so, that when he sent Timothy back to see how they were doing, Timothy reported that they were standing fast in the faith. His preaching had taken hold.
And this is the part that intrigues me: How much could Paul have taught the Thessalonians in only three weeks? That’s barely enough time to skim the surface. The answer lies in the last verse of the passage for today: “…we were well pleased to impart to you, not the Good News of God only, but also our own souls …”
And this is the thought I’d like to explore with you this morning: There’s more to the Christian faith than a set of doctrines. What’s important is how we put it into practice so as to teach others by example.
Clarence Jordan, who inspired the musical, Cotton Patch Gospel, related this thought to the Third Commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” He said,
“That’s not something you do with your lips (by uttering a profanity),
but with your life.
You take the name of the Lord in vain
when you accept the name of Jesus Christ
but don’t do anything with it.”
(The Substance of Faith and Other Cotton Patch Sermons, paraphrased)
And so, the point is the gospel of Jesus Christ is more than words; it’s relationships and interactions – living the faith in covenant and community with each other. The Good News is, as others see Christ in us and feel his presence, they can’t help but be touched by his grace and love. We become living sermons – sermons you see, rather than sermons you hear.
I can think of a better example of this than what just happened a few moments ago. David and Linda Giedroc brought their daughter, Sophie, to be baptized. Did you hear the vow they took? Dr. Leslie asked,
Do you promise, by God’s help,
to provide a Christian home for this child
and to bring her up in the faith of the Gospel and the fellowship of the Church?”
And they answered, “We do.”
I don’t have to tell you, Sophie will learn far more about what it means to be a child of God and a disciple of Jesus Christ by the way they care for her – and by how they interact with each other – than by all the sermons and Sunday School lessons she’ll ever hear.
That’s not to say Bible stories are not important. They are. So is theological discussion, as she gets older. But, fundamentally, what she needs – what we all need – in order to understand the message of God’s grace and love and forgiveness is the experience of being accepted and loved and forgiven unconditionally. Dorothy Law Nolte said it best:
Due to copyright restrictions, I am linking to a page that has the text of Dorothy Law Nolte’s poem, “Children Learn What They Live,” instead of including the full text here. Go to:
But, before we move on, David and Linda were not the only ones to take a vow this morning. Hildur asked you,
“As a congregation of God’s people,
do you promise to play your part in the Christian upbringing of this child
by providing instruction in the Gospel of God’s love,
the example of Christian faith and character,
and the strong support of the family of God in fellowship, prayer and service?”
And you said, “We do.”
Mark my word: Sophie will grow in the knowledge of God’s love more so by what she sees in you and by her experiences as a member of this family of faith than by what we tell her or give her to read.
Paul said, “We were well pleased to impart to you, not the Good News of God only, but also our own souls, because you had become very dear to us.” In much the same way, our strongest, most effective witness of faith is not what we say, but what we do – by the way we work and play and worship together as brothers and sisters in Christ.
We’re called to be living sermons – sermons you see – as we live out our faith in relationship with God and each other, day by day.
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Looking back over the many ways you’ve grown in your own faith and understanding, who are some of the “living sermons” you’ve known?
I think first of Dr. Fred Gealy, one of my favorite seminary professors. Dr. Gealy was eighty years old when I first met him, but he was as spry as a teenager. He lived every day to the fullest and had a special sensitivity to the world around him. He didn’t miss a thing. One semester I took his course on the Gospel of John in Greek. I’m sure I tried his patience. Another semester we studied the hymns together, just the two of us. He’d written the Companion to the Hymnal of the United Methodist Church. I’d say he had a pretty good grasp of the subject.
But what I remember most about Dr. Gealy is not what he said, but who he was and the fact that, without saying a word to anyone, he’d slip away from the campus every day around noon to rush home and prepare lunch for his wife, who was bedridden with arthritis. He taught me what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ mostly by example.
Then there’s Pete Smith, the director of Faith Mission in Wichita Falls. Pete never went to seminary, but he preached a sermon almost every day I worked at the mission. As far as I know, he never went to college, but he had a Ph.D. in the school of rescue ministry. As for me, I’d get so provoked with the homeless men and indigent families we served – I’d start calling them deadbeats and bums – and ole Pete would just smile and say, “Yep, they can really try your patience” – while, all along, he’d be serving up another plate of spaghetti and meat balls or signing in another guest for the night.
If we ever had a serious theological discussion, I can’t remember it. But I’ll never forget how Pete interacted with the poorest of the poor and not once stood in judgment of them. Instead, he saw each one as a child of God. Like Dr. Gealy, he taught me what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ not by what he said, but by how he lived out his faith each day.
And then there’s Jack Walker, one of my elders in Odessa. Jack had the face of a bulldog and, at times, a disposition to go with it. But inside he was a teddy bear. He was one of the kindest, gentlest, most thoughtful individuals I’ve ever known. He kept a list of older women, all widowed, whom he checked on routinely. Some were members of our church. Others were clients he’d sold insurance to. Others were neighbors and friends of his wife, Ann. He called on them all practically every week to see how they were doing and if they needed any help. To this day, when I think of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, I think of Jack Walker.
Well, I could go on, but you get the point: The gospel of Jesus Christ is more than words; it’s relationships and interactions – living the faith in covenant and community with each other – being honest and real and vulnerable to each other – so that, as others see Christ in us and feel his presence, they’re touched by his grace and love. We become living sermons – sermons you see, rather than sermons you hear.
Of course, this is nothing new. Edgar Guest put this in a poem years ago. It goes like this:
“I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day;
I’d rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way.
The eye’s a better pupil and more willing than the ear,
Fine counsel is confusing, but example’s always clear;
And the best of all the preachers are the men who live their creeds,
For to see good put in action is what everybody needs.
I soon can learn to do it if you’ll let me see it done;
I can watch your hands in action, but your tongue too fast may run.
And the lecture you deliver may be very wise and true,
But I’d rather get my lessons by observing what you do;
For I might misunderstand you and the high advice you give,
But there’s no misunderstanding how you act and how you live.
When I see a deed of kindness, I am eager to be kind.
When a weaker brother stumbles and a strong man stays behind
Just to see if he can help him, then the wish grows strong in me
To become as big and thoughtful as I know that friend to be.
And all travelers can witness that the best of guides today
Is not the one who tells them, but the one who shows the way.
One good man teaches many, men believe what they behold;
One deed of kindness noticed is worth forty that are told.
Who stands with men of honor learns to hold his honor dear,
For right living speaks a language which to every one is clear.
Though an able speaker charms me with his eloquence, I say,
I’d rather see a sermon than to hear one, any day.”
(Sermons We See by Edgar Guest)
Let us pray: Dear God, so fill us with your grace and love that we may live the faith to the fullest each day trusting that, as we do, others, by our example, will be drawn closer to you. Amen.
Copyright 2005, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.