Sermon – October 19, 2014


Prayer of Illumination

Holy Spirit, illumine for us this Word, that the message of the gospel may come to us in power. Amen

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.

For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead– Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

What words come to mind when you think of the apostle Paul? Driven, opinionated, ardent, passionate, courageous, contradiction, misogynist. I asked some friends and colleagues of mine this same question; and, it appears when we think of Paul, very strong words come to mind. No one ever said the word compassionate; no one ever said the word lover. I submit to you, though, the apostle Paul was, indeed, a lover. He was a lover of God – both before and after he encountered – Jesus the Christ and he was a lover of the communities that came into being because of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and communion of the Holy Spirit.

This week in particular I was puzzled why I was so drawn to the Epistles for preaching, but I think it is because the epistles are all about community. The epistles are all about our life together with God in Christ. They are about how we live what we believe – or not.

In Philippians I was first reminded that those of us who were born into the faith cannot rest on our Christian pedigrees, but that every generation must stand fast in faith. Each and every generation must claim anew the resurrection power that brings life into lifeless circumstances. That resurrection power that shines light into dark places. Each and every generation must then live into that resurrection power and discover its own calling from God to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God.

I was then made aware in a new way that this community of faith that comes together to claim and live into that resurrection power is an intentional community. We are not a collection of individuals who missed the turn to Starbucks on Sunday morning and surprisingly ended up in this place. We are not participating in a social event, a civic club or a philanthropic organization. No, we are a community of faith that is bound together by God in Christ. We come together with a common purpose – and that purpose is all about God. We come together to worship God and to love and serve the Lord by loving and serving one another, and by loving and serving the neighborhood, the city, the country and the world in which we live.

And this community does just that – you Saints of Western Presbyterian Church. You only have to look at the back of your bulletin to see the many ways this community of faith loves and serves the Lord through its generous giving, not only financially but also in time and with talent.

I wonder what the apostle Paul would write in a letter to Western Presbyterian Church? What would he be grateful for?

Paul was, after all, a prolific letter writer. Each of his thirteen epistles is a letter to a community of faith. In reading Thessalonians, I am moved by the Apostle Paul’s love for the people of God in the church at Thessalonica. His caring and encouragement pours out of every word on the page.

There’s a lot we don’t know about this community of faith. The letter does, however, allow us to figure out a few things; for example, this is a community of Gentiles. Paul talked about them turning to God from idols. Worshiping idols was a common pagan practice – a practice thoroughly forbidden by Jewish law, so we can assume that this was a gentile community. We know that Thessalonica was a port city located on a major Roman highway, so the people of Thessalonica “would have been exposed to a wide variety of social and cultural influences.”[i] They most likely were a pretty cosmopolitan bunch. My guess is that except for the separation of almost two thousand years, we would have a lot in common with the community in Thessalonica.

What we do know for certain, and what is perfectly clear in this epistle, is that Paul was in love with this community; and, Paul was grateful to God for this community of faith. He was grateful for their love for him and for Timothy and Silvanus who brought the gospel to them. He was grateful to God “for their work of faith and labor of love and steadfast hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The apostle Paul was grateful that this was a fruitful community. In fact, they were so fruitful that they became an example to all believers in Macedonia and Achaia.[ii] Their hospitality and faithfulness were being talked about throughout the Christian world.

And so the apostle Paul wrote the congregation in Thessalonica a love letter commending them for their faithfulness to the gospel. He did that not only to commend them, but also to encourage and reinforce similar behavior in the future.[iii]

I wonder what the apostle Paul would write in a letter to Western Presbyterian Church? What would he commend? What behavior would he reinforce? What future would he encourage?

Would he commend this community of faith for the work done here – work that stems from faith – work that is the outcome of what we say we believe? Would Paul thank God because the congregation at Western Presbyterian Church is an active force and passionate voice for a just and compassionate society? Would Paul commend us for BEING a just and compassionate society? —

Would Paul commend us for our “labor of love?” Are we a living, walking, talking breathing labor of love? In other words, does this community embody the love, justice and compassion of Christ? Does this love manifest in the way we relate to one another? We are called to love one another and to behave in ways that are consistent with that love. Do we do that?

These are hard questions, really. And these are questions with which every generation of disciples must grapple. —

Would Paul commend the community at Western Presbyterian Church for its “steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ?” According to Beverly Gaventa who wrote the Interpretation commentary on First Thessalonians, this steadfastness of hope “is a very particular hope. It is the hope of Jesus’ return.”[iv]

I don’t know about you, but I really don’t spend a lot of time wondering about when Jesus will return. Perhaps some 19 hundred and fifty years after the writing of this Epistle, we might be commended for being steadfast in the hope – the expectation – that God will continue to work in and through this community so that Western Presbyterian Church will continue to bring the faith, love and hope that is ours to a world that so desperately needs them.

I wonder.

I wonder what the apostle Paul would write in a letter to Western Presbyterian Church.

[i] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1998), 10–23. [Electronic edition]

[ii] Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors. ©2008 Westminster John Knox Press. [Electronic edition]

[iii] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1998), 10–23. [Electronic edition]

[iv] Ibid.