1 Thessalonians 5:8-24
Intro to Cancel Culture
Have you heard of Cancel culture? This is old news for some of us and completely foreign to others. Maybe a good reminder that, as generations, we inhabit very different spaces in society and interact with our world in different ways.
Simply put, cancel culture is the idea of taking away support for an individual, their career, popularity and/or fame because of something they’ve said or done that’s considered unacceptable. […] To be “cancelled” is effectively to be boycotted, with the intent that the person will be ostracised and no longer benefit financially, personally or professionally from their elevated position.
Any number of famous people have been “cancelled” for various reasons: Ellen Degeneres for workplace behaviour behind the scenes of her show. Johnny Depp because details of his behaviour in his marriage came out during divorce proceedings. Author J.K. Rowling for comments about transgender people. And Justin Timberlake for how he treated Britney Spears almost twenty years ago. That’s just to name a few!
Now I don’t want to get into the behaviour of celebrities, whether it’s good or bad or even whether they deserve to be “cancelled”. Instead, what I want to focus on this morning is our human reaction to cancel culture, and to others. The British “Mr. Bean” actor Rowan Atkinson called cancel culture “the digital equivalent of the medieval mob roaming the streets looking for someone to burn.” It’s actively looking for people so that you can attack them in some way (and this is key!) for the purpose of feeling superior about yourself. Mr. Bean’s comments remind us also that this human reaction is nothing new. The desire to feel superior has simply found a new home on social media and has proliferated in all kinds of new ways online. But the sinful human desire to attack others in order to feel better about ourselves, or even taking pleasure in watching others squirm or suffer—this is nothing new.
We might think that it’s no big deal—putting others down in our minds and hearts or even gossiping a little—after all, they deserve it. Talking about others is just a part of living in society. But the heart with which we approach others is shown in what we think and say about them. If we approach others with malice and gossip, we show that our priority is to feel superior about ourselves. Malice is seeing the bad and saying the bad about someone else for the purpose of tearing them down. It’s what we call “bullying” to kids. Criticism can intend to be constructive and helpful; but malice never does. Yet Gossip is even worse! Gossip is seeing the bad and saying the bad about someone else in the presence of others for the purpose of tearing down that person. Gossip not only affects one person negatively, but weaponizes malice, so that it affecting someone’s reputation in a larger group, even in broader society.
Why am I getting into all this? Scripture has a lot to say about malice and gossip. Together, they’re directly mentioned 31 times in the Bible. That’s about the same number of mentions as sexual sin! But if you look at indirect references to malice and gossip; say, referencing their opposites, that number soars to almost two hundred. Why is this such a priority in the Bible? It all has to do with the Unity of the church—and unity is a big priority in scripture. It’s also why we’re ending our Unity series with “Encouragement and Edification”: Paul uses these two words in the passage that the Friendship Ministry read for us—these two are the opposites of malice and gossip.Paul says, “Encourage one another and build each other up!” (1 Thess 5:11)
Seeing the Good and Saying the Good (In the Presence of Others)
A seminary professor once shared the following definitions of encouragement and edification during a lecture: “Encouragement is seeing the good and saying the good. Edification is seeing the good and saying the good in the presence of others.” Encouragement builds up the other person; edification builds up the entire body of Christ.
In our world of so much evil, when it’s hard for us to see the good around us, it’s tempting in our sinful human way to see the bad and say the bad—even to see the bad and say the bad in the presence of others. But whatever the bad; this approach repays sin with sin: it shows our sinful hearts by trying to make ourselves superior.
You may have heard advice commonly given in marriage: when a husband and wife fight, or when you and your friend fight—if one wins, you both lose. Why? Because a married couple face problems together and can only win together when they both win. When one friend loses a vicious argument, both lose out because the relationship is lost. A congregation can only “win” together if we face problems together rather than facing off against one another. In a unit, when one part of the body suffers, we all suffer. (1 Cor 12:26) Likewise, when one is encouraged and edified, we are all built up together!
Pursuing the Good by Knowing Each Other
Paul concludes his letter to the Thessalonians saying,
12 Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. 13 Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. 14 And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. (1 Thess 5:12–14)
I want to focus for a moment on Paul’s words to “hold in highest regard in love those who work hard among you” and to “warn those who are idle and disruptive”. Paul knows what many of you have guessed: those whose hearts are devoted to God (not self) work hard among God’s people; they care deeply for others, and they even “admonish” those they love to follow Christ more fully. These people know that their life are not about them; it is hidden with God in Christ, so they not only see the good and say the good; the pursue the good!
So also these leaders—our leaders—are eager to encourage others and edify the church, because it is Christ who is built up—and he is the love of their life. In contrast, those who are “idle and disruptive” are the same who act in malice and who gossip; they show by their actions that their hearts are focused on themselves; not on God. We will never find unity focused on ourselves, because we do not have the ability to love others as they need to be loved. Only Christ and his love can do this! The love of Christ is not self-seeking, but neither is it generic. To our focus today on encouragement and edification, the love of Christ requires taking time to know one another. When we know one another, we begin to understand how to encourage one another and build each other up.
A Negative Example: Not Knowing
We are all unique! A child does not need the same kind of love that a parent does. What we receive as love depends on our ethnicity, our generation, our gender, and, most of all, our unique character as an individual. To see the good and say the good in a way that will be a blessing to the other person means we must know them well. As an example, a Christian (not from River Park) asked me a few months ago, “How are your kids settling into a new city after a year?” This person intended to be kind, of course. His heart was in the right place—but it was an awkward and painful interaction, because he had not taken the time to know me. Instead, he had assumed that I was like he is—married with several children.
A Beautiful Example: Friendship Ministry
By contrast, I’m convinced that one of the reasons we all love Friendship Ministry so much is that it’s clear to us that each participant in friendship ministry is unique. Each has different abilities, different needs, different gifts and passions and abilities. And Friendship Ministry is set up to acknowledge each individual person’s unique character. This is what allows them to be such a beautiful group—each member is encouraged to participate as he or she is able and the group’s activities and priorities are determined by its members’ needs, not by its leaders hopes! It could not succeed any other way. So these dedicated leaders intentionally get to know the group members: their gifts and needs; then they encourage and edify: they see the good and say the good to individuals and in the presence of the group! They don’t do this as a discipline or as extra work; they do this because they have taken the time to know the group members and have become captivated by love for those who are a part of the group!
New Wine and New Wineskins
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is asked a question by the disciples of John the Baptist: “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” (Matthew. 9:14) Jesus’ answer shows that their question is not about fasting in particular, but about fasting as one example of a broader mindset: “Why do you and your disciples do things differently than the established norm?” You might not be familiar with the question, but you’ve probably heard Jesus’ answer:
16 “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. 17 Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:16–17)
This is how Jesus explains his new and different way of ministry. It’s not that there is a problem with fasting in particular; it’s that the hearts behind the actions in his day were not focused on God but on self. The Pharisees corrupted good practices like fasting, because they practiced them with selfishness in their hearts—so the fruit of their fasting was self-praise, not glory to God. Jesus was not going to pour himself and his goodness into these broken wineskins; he was not going to attach himself to their tattered practices. Jesus was going to create a new thing; so that his goodness and the new way would be preserved.
Likewise, the fruit of Christianity in the West has been mixed: there has been generations of blessing and mission to the world; but also there has been constant splits and division, ever-increasingly fine theological distinctions that exclude more and more people. Our attempts to do good in the west have become twisted up with selfishness; not because of our western culture or our place in history—because this is always the way of human effort. Because of it, the church in the global West continues to decline, to shrivel and to tear. If we want unity with Christ and with one another, we will not find it doing things the same way that they have been done for the last two hundred years. Enter River Park’s new vision: Reaching Out, Drawing In, Creating Mosaic Community. We are trying to follow the new way of Jesus here! That is not a criticism of old clothes or old wineskins; it is simply a recognition that God is doing a new thing—and we are more committed to the vision of God than we are to our old clothes and old wineskins.
When we see the good and say the good, and when we pursue the good that is always Christ’s leading—then we are free from the endless task of trying to feel superior about ourselves. This is what sin does—it promises more than it can deliver and leaves us always exhausted, trying for a little more. Instead, when we see the good and say the good in others, we celebrate God at work in others individually and in our community. Then we are all built up! Pursuing the good is the mission of the church that remains: to see and celebrate God at work in his world. And God’s kingdom is growing, his church is bearing fruit around the world! This is what captivates our hearts and what unites us and builds us all up—when we see the good and say the good in the presence of others; and when we pursue the good—even as the goodness of God’s kingdom and church is gathered from around the world here in Calgary and at River Park Church—each of us as individuals with our unique abilities, gifts, challenges, and cultures.
And normally, I might end it there.
But with the war in Ukraine and with Lent beginning this week, I want to add just one more thing: what if we can’t see the good? Of course, we know in our minds and hearts that there is good out there. But there come moments in all of our individual lives and sometimes in our communal life together when we just can’t see it! As I’ve alluded to in this sermon, when we can’t see the good, our human, sinful temptation is malice and gossip—to instead focus on the bad, to weaponize the bad and use it against other people. But this is not God’s way.
Instead, God offers his people lament. Lament is seeing the bad, and holding the bad up to God in honest anger, pain, hope, and trust. Lament does not turn our malice and pain against others; lament is hones about heartbreak before God. Lament does not claim to be an objective view of reality; it does not try to gather all the facts. Lament offers our broken and beating hearts to God and asks him what He is going to do! We’re going to spend the next five weeks in lament, beginning next week looking at war and all kinds of conflict in our world. But between now and then, let’s close our time together hearing the apostle’s words one more time: (1 Thessalonians 5:16–24)
16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt 21 but test them all; hold on to what is good, 22 reject every kind of evil.
23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.
 https://www.goodto.com/entertainment/what-is-cancel-culture-607262 (Accessed Fri Feb 25, 2022)
 Malice is directly used 21 times; Gossip is directly used 10 times.
 Ron VandeGriend. Lecture. January 2013.