Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 18, 2020
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 Commentary
In this season that lies between the Canadian and American Thanksgiving Days, 2020, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson seems highly appropriate. After all, it’s not just that we’re “surrounded” by holidays on which we at least ostensibly give thanks.
It’s also that so many things threaten a spirit of thanksgiving right now. Our world continues to battle a global pandemic that has proven to be nearly as “clever” as it is persistent and deadly. We also struggle to identify racial injustice so that we may root it out and replace it with racial equality.
Americans are embroiled in the bitterest presidential election that I can remember. And while much of the North American media is so busy covering those issues that it pays little attention to anything else, famines, wars, rumors of wars and violent weather continue to shadow much of our world.
I don’t think that Paul would want us to ignore those harsh realities. But he would, I believe, urge us to be aware enough of what God is doing in order to remain thankful to God for so many of the blessings that crises sometimes threaten to overshadow.
I Thessalonians 1 especially invites us to be grateful for what God is doing in Christ’s Church. Paul’s description of the Thessalonian church for which he prays grace and peace, frankly, stuns us. It is, after all, probably only a few months old. The church’s members are new Christians whom God has newly converted from either Judaism or paganism. Persecution is also vigorously testing them. So we might expect the Thessalonian church to be wobbly and fragile in such a precarious situation.
Why, then, can Paul express such both great thanksgiving for and confidence in it? First, while various gods, idols, and the people who worship them live around the Thessalonian Christians, God the Father and Christ the Son live in them. “The church of the Thessalonians,” Paul notes in verse 1, is “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
By that he seems to mean that the relationship between the Thessalonian church and the Lord is close. God so closely links God’s children to himself that we might say that God and God’s people somehow share something of a common life. Christians who are in “God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” to put it another way, draw our very life from God.
However, Paul can also be confident in the Thessalonian church because the “faith,” “hope” and “love” he mentions in verse 3 that distinguish it. The Thessalonian Christians were, John Stott writes, according to verse 3, directing their faith to God, love towards each other and hope towards the future.
These virtues, as Jesus’ followers find them in us, are signs that God’s Spirit is doing the Spirit’s work. After all, they show that God is drawing us toward himself in faith, outward towards others in love and forward towards Christ’s return in hope.
Each of these virtues also, however, produces concrete actions, as Paul implies in verse 3. Faith in God, after all, produces, by the Holy Spirit, good works. God’s adopted children’s love for people that God’s Spirit produces also leads us to work for our neighbors’ well-being. And hope produces the kind of “endurance” about which Paul writes in verse 3.
However, Paul is also confident in the Thessalonian church because he realizes that she is a community that God has “chosen” and “loved.” The apostle knows, as he insists in verse 5, that God lovingly chose the Thessalonian Christians because he sees evidence of that election in their faith, hope and love that are unmistakable signs of God’s electing work.
Yet Paul centers his description of the Thessalonian church in God. Jesus’ followers sometimes assume our churches’ health and survival depends on our own ingenuity. We may suspect we need to have some kind of fresh vision for the church because otherwise we’ll wilt and die.
Paul, however, would be confident in 21st century Christians’ stability not because of something we can muster, but because he knows that God’s at work in us. While God’s dearly beloved people don’t quit dreaming dreams and praying, God is our hope for the future of our churches.
Yet in verses 5-10 Paul notes that the church is not only chosen and loved by God, rooted in God and working for God. It also receives and shares God’s gospel. The apostle reveals three stages of that gospel’s progress in Thessalonica. First, according to verse 5, the “gospel came” to the Thessalonians. Paul, Silas and Timothy brought the gospel to Thessalonica.
However, they didn’t bring that gospel “simply with words.” While God’s gospel doesn’t only come with words, it always comes with words. So whether Christians publicly preach or quietly witness, we always choose our words carefully.
Yet words are seldom enough to spread the gospel. Because people may misunderstand or ignore them, we also reinforce what we say. So God’s adopted sons and daughters share the gospel depending on what Paul also calls in verse 5 the Holy Spirit’s work. After all, we know the “power” it has and the deep “conviction” that it produces.
Yet people must also “receive” that gospel, through the work of the Holy Spirit. So Paul goes on to describe how the Thessalonians “welcomed” his message. They faithfully received it, first, “in spite of severe suffering.” While the gospel aroused hostility in Thessalonica, such opposition didn’t deter its Christians.
As a result, the Thessalonian Christians were able, secondly, to welcome the gospel not grudgingly, but with what Paul calls “joy given you by the Holy Spirit.” After all, wherever people, by God’s Spirit, receive the gospel with their faith, there is joy in both heaven and among its recipients.
As a result of their reception of the gospel, the Thessalonians became, thirdly, “imitators of” the apostles “and “of the Lord.” The Holy Spirit transformed the Thessalonian Christians so that they began to follow the example of both the apostles and Jesus Christ. After all, to “welcome” the gospel is to let God transform our words, actions and even thoughts.
Finally, the Thessalonian Christians who imitated Jesus Christ also became a kind of example for other Christians. They, by the power of the Holy Spirit, became what Paul calls in verse 7 “a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.” God’s gospel, after all, always has a profound affect on its faithful recipients.
However, the Thessalonian church didn’t just faithfully receive the gospel. It also shared that gospel with others. Thessalonian Christians let it be a loud noise that echoed throughout their whole known world. As a result, by God’s grace, the Thessalonian church’s faith in God became “known everywhere,” as Paul writes in verse 8.
Certainly the work of missionaries in letting the gospel ring out is vitally important. But those who proclaim 1 Thessalonians 1 also want to emphasize that churches’ support for missionaries doesn’t preclude our own work of letting the gospel “ring out.” Jesus’ followers also take the time and find the people with whom to share what Stott, to whom I owe many ideas for this Commentary, calls “holy gossip.”
Such witnessing doesn’t necessarily have to be particularly imaginative. By God’s grace and the power of the Spirit even simple sharing may have a dramatic affect on those with whom God’s adopted sons and daughters share it.
The missionaries’ witnessing certainly had a dramatic impact on the Thessalonian Christians. They first “turned … from idols to serve the living and true God.” Of course, not many of the people with whom 1 Thessalonians 1’s proclaimers and hearers share the gospel worship wooden or metallic Idols. Yet idols like ambition for money and power, as well as obsessions with things like work or social media still fill our world. They’re idols when they demand the allegiance God’s adopted children owe to God alone.
By God’s amazing grace, Spirit and gospel, however, God graciously transforms us so that we serve not those idols, but the living God. God frees God’s beloved people from slavery to sin, Satan and death and puts us into God’s loving and willing service.
However, this gospel also produces in Christians what Paul calls the willingness to “wait for God’s Son from heaven.” Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters patiently await the One whom God raised from the dead to rescue us from the “coming wrath.”
So this Sunday’s Epistolary reminds its proclaimers and hearers that the church that receives the gospel must also pass it on. This is what Stott calls God’s basic plan for world evangelization. We let the gospel we’ve received ring out throughout our world.
However, churches that pass on the gospel also live in ways consistent with it. People were convinced of the validity of the Thessalonians’ faith not just by what they had heard, but also by what they had seen in the Thessalonian Christians.
No church can spread the gospel with any credibility unless the gospel it spreads has visibly changed it. Churches want to look like what we talk about. After all, it’s not enough to just receive the gospel and pass it on, whether through missionaries or through testimonies. Jesus’ followers also model the gospel in the way we live, talk and even think.
Those who plan to proclaim I Thessalonians 1 this week might spend some time reflecting on how God is at work in their church in ways that echo God’s work in the church in Thessalonica. We might also let that work inspire us to be publicly thankful to God and our church. After all, those who hear us may, by the power of the Spirit, be more receptive to what we say if we, with Paul, let them know how thankful to God we are for them.
In her November 28, 2003 article entitled, “Gratitude Grows as Salutary Habit,” Jane Lampman writes about thanksgiving: “For many Americans, Thanksgiving is their favorite holiday. Gathering at the table with family and friends in memory-filled tradition. Plenty of soul-satisfying food. And, the special feeling that comes from sharing gratitude.
“‘Thanksgiving has always been a favorite: It’s a time for gratitude and a holiday we haven’t messed up!’ says Susan Kirby, a California mother of two. That feeling is garnering a lot more attention these days, and not just during the fourth week of November. A universal experience and a component of many religious traditions for centuries, gratitude is being recognized not simply as a desirable virtue, but also as an essential element to wholeness and well-being.
“As latecomers to the concept, scientists are now engaged in long-term research that has already confirmed a host of beneficial outcomes, from healthier, more satisfying lives to greater vitality and more generous outreach to help others. ‘We’re seeing how concrete the effects of a grateful focus are.’ says Robert Emmons, a leading psychologist in the field. And people from many cultures are seeking ways to make gratitude a more conscious daily altitude that shapes their experience…
“Gratitude research is part of the growing field of positive psychology, which focuses on the strengths of human beings. In simple terms, it’s an empirical test of counting one’s blessings. ‘We’re trying to find ways to measure the healing power of gratitude in people’s lives.’ says Dr. Emmons, a professor at the University of California, Davis. They’re also studying the causes of and impediments to gratitude and developing methods to help people cultivate it.
For example, ‘the simple act of keeping a gratitude journal on a regular basis seems to have so many different effects.’ says Emmons. ‘People feel closer to God, sleep better, feel more connected to others, and make more progress toward important personal goals.’ They also report fewer symptoms of illness and higher levels of energy than do those in control groups.”
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