This summer I have been sharing with as many as will listen on the great prayer of Paul for the church found in 1 Thessalonians 5:23. Many in our tradition will recognize this verse as a classic “holiness text.” In fact, it is the only verse in the Bible that actually refers to “entire sanctification,” using that very terminology. This verse, however, is not really a teaching on sanctification or encouragement to seek sanctification (directly). It expresses Paul’s longing for the church everywhere, a longing he lifts to God.
This is a great prayer. Paul prays that God would possess his people entirely, that his people would be his in ways absolute and without qualification; that his people would be all about whatever he plans and purposes for his world; that nothing about them would thwart his intentions for the ministry arena he calls them to serve.
I think Paul’s prayer is that we would be a people for God’s possession. This is a phrase that Peter uses in 1 Peter 2:9. He describes the church as “ … a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1Pe 2:9 NRS). The phrase “God’s own people” is more literally, “a people for possession.” It suggests that these people are owned by God, set apart for and completely at the disposal of God. For a church, a people, on their way to such “possession,” here are some questions to ask in the company of one another and in conversation together with God:
¢ Does the community know we are there? Would they miss us if suddenly we weren’t? How long before they noticed?
¢ What kind of press has the church had as church lately?
¢ Are we known for joy and hope even, especially, in hard times?
¢ Are we known for God’s standards of morality & righteousness? If so, well and good, but are we known for God’s standards by the seriousness with which we take them, insist on them, hold ourselves accountable to them, and by how we restore our own when they violate them?
¢ Or are we just trying to tell everyone else how to live?
¢ Does the church engage in finding people—lost but cherished missing so far as God the Father is concerned?
¢ Is the essential flow outward toward people in need of what only their God provides?
¢ When people visit do they detect God, something they can’t explain which though weird still intrigues and draws them?
¢ When we’re together do we sense Someone?
¢ Is there joy and hope in the air?
¢ Do we make a place that convinces you we are not alone? That God is real, present, taking us somewhere?
¢ When we work on the budget, making hard decisions, is the atmosphere sweet or tense?
¢ Are there subjects or events we shouldn’t bring up?
¢ Can we be real here?
¢ Is it OK not to be perfect & not OK to be unforgiving?
¢ Can we laugh together, at ourselves?
¢ Can we cry together? Do we? And do we cry and anguish over the things Jesus cried over?
¢ As you pray for the church’s sanctification ask, what’s really happening with us and between us, through us as church?
¢ Does it trace back to the presence and power of the God who created all things out of nothing and raises the dead?