On the Shoulders of Giants

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This past Tuesday, I received an annual letter from the development office at Princeton Theological Seminary. We alumni were asked to remember the wonderful privilege we had of learning from world-class scholars. The development officer said that we should be motivated to lift others to see the world from a new and different perspective because we alumni all had the opportunity to ride on the shoulders of giants.

As I studied today’s text, I realized that the Apostle Paul, too, stood on the shoulders of giants. When Paul tells us that he was a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee of Pharisees, who was quite advanced in his understanding of religion, it reminds us Paul had significant training provided by teachers in his religious tradition. He was brought up at the feet of Gamaliel,[1] a leader among the Sanhedrin, who was the grandson of the great Jewish rabbi Hillel. In many ways, Paul was the church’s most creative apostle, but he also inherited a great foundation from others.

When Paul went to Thessalonica, he had in mind the Greek tradition, in which he also had been schooled. Thessalonica was the chief seaport for Macedonia. And Macedonia had been the kingdom of Alexander the Great. Bible scholar William Barclay says that if you dig deep into Alexander’s life, you’ll understand that he was more than a military conqueror. He dreamed of a world united and enlightened by the culture of Greece. Barclay suggests that the apostle Paul took the thought of Alexander, and transformed it.[2] He retained Alexander’s dream of uniting the world. But it wouldn’t be done by military power and within the confines of Greek philosophy. Rather, unity would be achieved through Jesus in whom there was neither Jew nor Greek, barbarian or Scythian, slave or free.[3]

Paul was a powerful original thinker inspired by Jesus Christ, but for his writing and ministry, even he stood on the shoulders of giants.

Paul’s ministry with the Thessalonians began during what we call his second missionary journey, or tour. He was not able to return as quickly as he would have liked, and speaks in this letter about Satan repeatedly blocking his way.[4] He sent his protégé Timothy in his stead, who returned to Paul with good news about their growing faith and love. Apparently, it was that news that prompted the letter from which today’s text is taken. When we’re reading this letter, we are examining Paul’s earliest surviving letter.

The text we have heard today reflects Paul’s amazement about the power of Jesus Christ to transform lives. “We … constantly give thanks to God,” he says, “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.” Jesus Christ, whom Paul had met earlier in his life on the road to Damascus, had given him a job to do. And most places Paul went, he saw the gospel message lead people from spiritual bondage into freedom, from confusion to purpose, and from selfishness to compassion and service. He expresses a joyful gratitude for what God has done for and through these younger Christians he has watched mature in their relationship with God through Jesus Christ. They were not just learning a philosophy that would stagnate, but standing on his shoulders to see Jesus, walking in the path of Jesus, exercising a dynamic and living faith.

Today, many of us feel a similar joyful gratitude as this year’s confirmation class is received into membership. If we adults think a while about the Bible text and its relation to today’s events, then it’s possible to see ourselves in the position of Paul. We’ve stood on the shoulders of giants: our parents, teachers, and Christian friends who raised us, who gave us physical life and protection, spiritual nurture and support. In turn, we’re grateful to have had the opportunity to raise all of you on our shoulders, sometimes through direct teaching, but also through example, opportunities to interact in less formal ways, or simply through prayer.

Confirmands, you are now on the very brink of adulthood. Confirmation is a marker of that. You’re entering into membership at a time when many experts say that the Church in America is in crisis. Membership numbers are declining, for many reasons. In some quarters it’s popular to talk about the death of the Church. When I was about your age, my pastor told me that the Chinese character for crisis is composed of two other characters: the character representing “danger,” and the character representing “opportunity.” And both of those things are what crisis brings to the Church. The danger part has something to do with facts like the Church that once was seemingly supported by local government, business leaders, and societal expectations about attendance is largely passing out of existence. But the Church now has tremendous freedom to do and be what future generations feel God is calling it to do and be. And that is the opportunity.

This past week, a Presbyterian a bit older than you wrote this: “We are so DONE with whining about mainline (church) decline …. When Boomers and members of the WW2 generation give voice to that spirit of despair, they belittle the commitment we’ve made. What’s even worse is that their belly aching ignores what it is that makes us the Church…. I never saw the “glory days” of the 1950s. I never saw the packed pews or overflowing parking lots that others remember so fondly …. I grew up in an evangelical mega-church with contemporary worship … and no bureaucratic ties to a denomination that might hold the congregation back from following the Spirit’s lead. But when the time came for me to follow God’s call on my life, I came here. Did you get that? I’ll say it again: I. Chose. You.”

“Here’s why: There is depth here. This is a place where I can connect with something greater than myself. This is a place where I am forced to encounter the presence of Christ in the face of those who disagree with me. This is a place where I can be rooted in tradition, yet inspired to branch out in new directions. I’m rarely comfortable here. In fact, I feel like a fish out of water most of the time, but I stick around because YOU have convinced me, in your preaching and praying, in your singing and voting, and most of all in the Scriptures and Sacraments, that personal discomfort is the surest sign that Christ is at work in me, continually calling me toward new life and growth in faith. If that’s not worth sticking around for, I don’t know what is.”

“When it comes to reading statistical reports and fretting over what our future will look like, I want to re-direct our attention back to what matters most: to the Christ who comes to us, walking on the water, calling us to step out of the boat in faith, daring us to do the impossible. Let’s not tremble in fear at the wind and waves that threaten to overwhelm us, but fix our eyes instead upon the Author and Perfecter of our faith, the One who began this good work in us and will see it through to completion in God’s time.”[5]

The author of these words says, in his own forceful way, something similar to what I said this past week. The future of the church – here or anyplace you will live in the future – is not predetermined. What the Church can become, what it will be, is not predetermined. We can make a difference. You can make a difference.

For now, we’re just so delighted that you made it to this day, that you are claiming a relationship of trust in God through Jesus Christ, that you are committing yourselves to practice listening to and following Jesus. As Paul said to the Thessalonians, “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!” May God richly bless you in all the years ahead.

[1] Acts 22:3.

[2] William Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians: Revised Edition, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975, pp. 179-180.

[3] Colossians 3:11.

[4] 1 Thessalonians 2:18.

[5] J. Barrett Lee, “Why I Stay,” 4 June 2014, http://streetpastor.wordpress.com/2014/06/04/why-i-stay/


~ by JohnH1962 on June 8, 2014.

2 Responses to “On the Shoulders of Giants”

  1. Thanks for reading! I’m glad my post was helpful to a fellow preacher. Blessings to your Confirmands.

  2. Thank YOU for expressing so well your call and commitment!

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