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26 Oct 2008

“You became imitators of us and of the Lord, receiving the word in great affliction, with joy from the Holy Spirit.”  (1 Thess. 1:6)                    In the name …

This past Monday the Bible study group went to Smith College to hear the Rev. Peter Gomes.  Rev. Gomes was named by Time Magazine as one of America’s best preachers, and it was easy to see why.  He spoke for just over an hour.  He had no props, no videos, no music.  These young people beside me here probably can’t process this image.  It’s too foreign for them in their age of instant-messaging, two-minute music clips and homework all being done simultaneously.  But that’s all it was, just one man talking, and he was talking about just one thing:  The Bible.  Now some of the rest of you, maybe many of you, are also starting to join these young people because you also may find it hard to imagine how it’s possible to not be bored by a Bible-talk after some 70 minutes.  But that one hour sitting in church listening to one man talk about the Bible was completely enjoyable, and I think part of the reason was that he was completely enjoyable.  He has a wonderful speaker’s voice, a very elegant Harvard-type voice.  His message was intelligent and heart-felt.  He was just plain-old funny, as well.  But I think what motivated so much of what he said and how he said it, and what motivated the response of his audience in turn, was that he expressed the Bible as the “good news.” 

Rev. Gomes credits the Queen Mother of England as the inspiration for his latest book, which was also the basis of his talk at Smith. One Sunday he found himself worshipping along with the Royal Family, and even more exceptionally, he found himself invited to a small gathering afterwards with them.  The Queen Mother began a conversation with Rev. Gomes saying about the sermon:  “I do like a bit of good news on Sunday, don’t you?”  “Good news” comes from the original Greek word in the Bible “evangelion,” from which we derive the verb “evangelize,” which means to spread the “good news.”  “Good news” is also the translation of the Old English word “gospel,” which literally means, the “good news” that is Christ, from Christ and about Christ.

The “good news” as gospel is not limited to the first four books of the New Testament.  The gospel, the “good news,” is more along the lines of what Paul says to us this morning:  “You became imitators of us and of the Lord, receiving the word in great affliction, with joy from the Holy Spirit.”  I have to admit that if I read that line quickly so that my mind reads what it expects rather than what the “good news” actually says, I hear the words:  “Receiving the word in great affection, with joy from the Holy Spirit.”  Affection and joy go together; they’re compatible.  Affliction and joy, on the other hand, don’t seem to match.  But affliction and joy are the actual words of Paul.  It’s not what we expect, but so often that’s exactly what makes it the “good news.” These aren’t just our thoughts; these are God’s thoughts. 

But Paul doesn’t limit the gospel to words and emotions.  He says, “You became imitators of us and of the Lord.”  Paul had come to Thessalonica from the city of Philippi where he was grabbed and beaten by a mob, the magistrates of the town ordered him stripped and struck with rods, after which he was thrown in prison, and shackled at the feet to a stake in the ground.  Just days after this experience, he comes to the Thessalonians and he speaks about his affliction, but at the same moment he speaks with joy.  The “good news” is so much more than words.  Paul, who would still have had the bruises on his body from the beatings and the shackles, convinces the Thessalonians to accept the “good news” because he preaches with joy even in his great affliction.  Paul’s joy convinces those who hear him of the power of the “good news” and the presence of God in it.  It authenticates the words being preached.  In turn, the Thessalonians imitate Paul, and the gospel moves forward one person at a time.  The “good news” is carried forward in spite of any affliction because the joy is greater.

The “good news” isn’t about obligations, commandments and hell-fire because those kinds of things can corral people into doing what they have to do and nothing more.  Frightened people are not inspired people nor inspiring people.  The “good news” inspires and motivates people no matter how much affliction is thrown at them to push them the other way:  no matter how bad the economy becomes, no matter whether your candidate wins next Tuesday or not, no matter how sick the body is, no matter how much has to be done today and tomorrow and every single day – in each instance the joy is greater.  Rev. Gomes mentioned several times that as much as he enjoyed his life devoted to the Bible, it was not easy.  He preaches at Harvard on a weekly basis.  That has to be intimidating.  What do you say 52 times a year to move and shake the movers-and-shakers? It can’t be easy. Rev. Gomes says that he often sees the passive stares of his congregation looking back at him, and he’s one of American’s best preachers.  That made me think to myself:  “Thank God.  It’s not just me.”  And yet he still has the joy of the “good news” after a lifetime of struggling to share it with others.

The “good news” got its name even after the Passion and crucifixion of Jesus, even after the beating and imprisonment of Paul.  The “good news” isn’t dependent on what’s outside of our control that tries to impose itself on us.  The “good news” is up to us.  Can we accept it with joy or will we try and tame it as an obligation?  Will we express it in all that we do or will it be held at arms length only to be approached when absolutely necessary?  Faith can’t be imposed.  Faith has to be embraced and embracing.  May the “good news” then grab us all with God’s joy, and for this we pray in Jesus’ name.  Amen.  (+)


Fr. Randy Calvo


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