“Merely Christian” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 12/17/2017
Religious books are big business. In the United States, sales revenue has recently been around $500 million per year. About 50 million religious books are sold each year, both fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary. Perhaps you’ll find one waiting for you under your Christmas tree.
But with so many books to choose from, how do you know which ones have value? Which ones are bad, which ones are good and which ones are great? What would you say is the best Christian book of all time outside of the Bible?
Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship tried to figure this out a few years ago. Their Emerging Scholars Network had a “Best Christian Book of All Time Tournament,” and the final four turned out to be:
- The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
- The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
- Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.
- Confessions by Saint Augustine.
In the end, Confessions edged out Mere Christianity for the top spot, the “Best Christian Book of All Time.” But it is Lewis’ book that we want to look at now, as we move into today’s text.
Mere Christianity was published for the first time 65 years ago, in 1952. Oddly enough, it wasn’t even written as a book. During the darkest days of World War II, Lewis prepared four sets of radio talks on basic Christianity, and these evolved into the book Mere Christianity.
Since 1952, the book’s popularity has grown, and between 2001 and 2016, it sold 3.5 million copies in English alone. On top of this, the book has been translated into at least 36 languages.
For many Christians, Mere Christianity is their favorite religious book apart from the Bible. So why is Mere Christianity one of the best Christian books of all time?
According to church historian & C.S. Lewis scholar George Marsden, Lewis “was determined to present only the timeless truths of Christianity rather than the latest theological or cultural fashions.” The book is C.S. Lewis’ attempt to explain and defend “the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”
Timeless truths. Basic beliefs. Common convictions. – Mere Christianity.
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, the apostle Paul is trying to do the same. He is determined to present timeless truths, and to explain and defend the common ground of the Christian faith for Christians of the 1st century A.D. and beyond.
Paul is not interested in creating a distinctively Thessalonian Christian; instead, he wants to help people to be merely Christian. Paul knows that such Christians will be “sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 23).
So what are the timeless truths that Paul presents?
Paul begins with three imperatives: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, & give thanks in all circumstances” (vv. 16-18).
With our life situations we would understand this better if Paul said “rejoice often” … “pray regularly” … and “give thanks whenever good things happen.” But instead Paul says that we are to rejoice, pray & give thanks constantly, without regard to the difficulties of our lives.
Certainly life is not always easy. We are forced to confront many challenges, open ourselves up to pain and sorrow, and sometimes struggle to keep from being overwhelmed. Such is life in a broken, sin filled world.
We cannot often change life, but we can change our attitude toward life. We can choose to rejoice and give thanks. There is great power in rejoicing and giving thanks.
- It helps us to persevere.
- It lightens the burdens of those around us by giving them hope and encouragement.
- Rejoicing and giving thanks also glorifies and honors God. It is a powerful witness.
Life is better when we choose to live in the reality of God’s love and Grace—when we choose to praise rather than complain.
Paul takes this approach because he is focused much more on God and on Jesus than he is on himself. His eyes are on the culture of heaven, not on the ways of the world. Rejoicing, praying & giving thanks are important because they are “the will of God in Christ Jesus for you,” Paul says (v. 18).
For Paul, since there is nothing or no one more important than “God in Christ Jesus” and nothing more true than the facts that “God in Christ Jesus” has created us and redeemed us, then following the guidance “God in Christ Jesus” is at the very center of the Christian life.
In Mere Christianity, Lewis offers a similar perspective. He stands aside and points toward God rather than toward himself. Lewis doesn’t say “look at me,” but instead he says “look at that.”
Lewis guides us from unbelief to faith, pointing to “the time-tested beauty of God’s love in Jesus Christ.” Lewis points out that by opening ourselves to God’s love in Jesus, we are able to love one another.
By trusting God to be at work in every situation, we are able to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing & give thanks in all circumstances” (vv. 16-18). All of this comes from God, who instills in us the ability to love and pray and rejoice & give thanks.
Lewis says that “When you teach a child writing, you hold the child’s hand while the child forms the letters: that is, it forms the letters because you are forming them.” “The same is true for God — we love because God loves, and God holds our hand while we love.”
Being focused more on God and Jesus than on ourselves, and trusting God to work through us – that’s the first step in being “merely” Christian. It requires leaning more on divine power than on human power; leaning more on God than on ourselves.
“Give up yourself,” writes Lewis, “and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day … and you will find eternal life.” As Jesus himself said, “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).
The first timeless truth is: rejoice always, pray without ceasing, & give thanks in all circumstances
Another timeless truth concerns Christian behavior.
Paul says, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.” (vv. 19-22) A person who is “merely” Christian is open to the power of the Spirit of God, blowing where it will and doing the work of transformation. Lewis is clear that “becoming Christian isn’t an improvement but a transformation, like a horse becoming a Pegasus.”
In Leadership Journal Gordon MacDonald wrote an article on “How to spot a transformed Christian.” MacDonald points out that transformed people don’t look different from the general population, but they do have characteristics that are signs of inner changes. One of the most important is a passion for reconciliation & understanding. “Transformed Christians bring people together,” writes MacDonald. “They hate war, violence, contentiousness, division caused by race, economics, gender and ideology. They believe that being peaceable and making peace outplays all other efforts in a person’s lifetime.”
Remember this line from Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall?” Transformed Christians are good examples of the “something” that doesn’t love a wall. Instead, transformed Christians are stirred into action whenever they see “dividing walls that separate people, each of whom was made uniquely and loved by God.”
Transformed Christians “do not despise the words of prophets.” They listen to the words of the prophets; they work for peace, justice and reconciliation. Transformed Christians follow the apostle Paul in holding fast to what is good and abstaining from evil. Lewis says, “No person knows how bad he or she is till they have tried very hard to be good.”
Transformed Christians let the Spirit fill them and transform them. All of this is in preparation for “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 23).
This also prepares us this Advent Season as we continue to focus on the coming of Jesus. The arrival of Jesus at Christmas gives us a chance to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing & give thanks in all circumstances” (vv. 16-18).
The life of Jesus is one of love and his ministry shows us how to “hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil” (vv. 21-22).
Best of all, we don’t have to do this by our own power, because the God “who calls us is faithful, and will do this” (v. 24).
With the help of God, we can be “merely” Christian. Amen
@Rev. Tim Wolbrecht, December, 2017
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