I Thessalonians 1:1-10
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
9 June 2019
Today we come to a letter written by the apostle Paul, which most scholars believe is Paul’s very first letter written to a congregation he founded. Which makes this the oldest text in the New Testament. Hear now, these words of grace and peace:
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Heavenly Parent 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 Parent 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 God 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 God’s Son from heaven, whom God raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
For the Word of God in scripture,
For the Word of God among us,
For the Word of God within us,
Thanks be to God.
When I was only a college student, I received one of the great gifts of my life—a library. The pastor emeritus of my home church, the Rev. Dr. Weldon Marcum, had lived with Alzheimer’s for some years at that point. According to his wife Elizabeth, Dr. Marcum told her he wanted to pass along his pastoral library to me. So, on two occasions when I was home from college, I drove over to the Marcum’s house and boxed up his library and took it home with me.
I have built my own library over the decades, of course, but the core of mine is this collection of books from a mid-twentieth century small town pastor. And one source I continue to use on a regular basis are the little red commentaries on the New Testament by the Scottish theologian William Barclay. Barclay’s commentaries have been guides to biblical study and preaching for decades of Christian ministers.
The inside front cover of the commentary on First Thessalonians is signed by Dr. Marcum, who had a lovely signature, and dated April 1960, when he apparently bought the book.
In his introduction to First Thessalonians, Barclay sets the context for this letter. Thessalonica had for six hundred years been a great city, and its population at Paul’s time was 200,000. It was a free city, as Barclay writes, “that is to say it had never suffered the indignity of having Roman troops quartered within it. It had its own popular assembly and its own magistrates.” Plus, its main street was the major road that connected the West with the East. This was a wealthy, prosperous, cosmopolitan city.
Barclay continues by pointing out that Thessalonica is in Macedonia, in a territory “saturated with memories of Alexander [the Great].” Thessalonica itself is named for Alexander’s half-sister, for instance.
Why should the memory of Alexander matter for understanding Paul’s first letter to a Christian church? Barclay reminds us that Alexander “was almost the first universalist. . . . He dreamed of one world dominated and enlightened by the culture of Greece.” Barclay continues, “Alexander declared that he had been sent by God ‘to unite, to pacify, and to reconcile the whole world.’”
Paul, the apostle of Jesus Christ, was developing precisely the same sort of vision. The Christian church was to be God’s universal agent, reconciling the world through the formation of a better humanity and a new social order.
Barclay concludes, “If Christianity was settled in Thessalonica it was bound to spread East along the Egnatian Road until all Asia was conquered, and West until it stormed even the city of Rome. The coming of Christianity to Thessalonica was a crucial day in the making of Christianity into a world religion.”
And at the time of this letter, that vision seems to be working out. People everywhere have been hearing about the church in Thessalonica and their joyful example of Christian faith. They are now worthy of imitation by others.
Presuming that we too would like to be a congregation known far and wide for our vital Christian faith, what is it that the Thessalonians did so well that we might learn from them?
Notice in verse three—“your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Faith, hope, and love will become an important triadic formulation for the apostle Paul, and that formulation appears here first in his commendation of the Thessalonian Christians.
But notice that faith, love, and hope are connected to work, labor, and steadfastness. The Thessalonians embody these virtues and ideals in their daily actions.
Because of this, and some other hints, scholar Victor Paul Furnish suggests that the congregation’s members are mostly artisans and that maybe this early Christian church was located in an artisan’s workshop. Paul was himself an artisan, a tentmaker. So he would have found affinity with those like himself.
The core revelation is, as Furnish writes, “faith, love, and hope [are] constitutive of the believer’s new existence, and thus of the church’s life.” To live lives of faithful work, loving labor, and steadfast hope is what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be a church.
Furnish explains the relationship, “As the community’s trusting response to the reality of God’s electing love, faith provides an opening in the world for that love’s transforming power, and for the hope it nurtures.”
So, if we are to be like the Thessalonians, this is how we too should live.
But notice something else from Paul’s letter. The Thessalonians have not done this alone—they have been empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Today is Pentecost, the third most important day in the Christian calendar, the day on which we celebrate both the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birthday of the church. For the two are intimately connected—the Spirit makes the church, as the power that enables us to live the lives to which we are called.
At its simplest, we believe, as Victor Paul Furnish writes, that the Holy Spirit is our “present, vital relationship” with God. The Holy Spirit is God’s “empowering activity” that enables us to live as if all of God’s plans for humanity and history have already come true.
The Holy Spirit is not just some individual gift we receive; the Spirit is given to and embodied in a community of people. Nathan Eddy writes that this “is central to the cooperative way God works in the world.” And David Burrell adds, “What distinguishes a ‘living and true God’ from idols is precisely this new life that forges community freighted with expectation.”
What we celebrate today, then, is God’s vital presence in us, together, which empowers us to live lives of faithful work, loving labor, and steadfast hope, which will reconcile the world through the formation of a better humanity and a new social order. This is our mission as a church.
And let’s take this one step further. In his commentary David Burrell makes this interesting statement: “They will have to come to know this God through coming to know and appreciate one another: formation of the community becomes the new revelation.”
We did not live in first century Palestine. We did not walk along the shores of Galilee or the streets of Jerusalem with Jesus. We can read the stories of those who did, but we were not there.
How, then, do we experience a vital, personal revelation of God in Christ? It is through one another. We come to know who God is through our loving communion with other human beings. This is also one of the profound implications of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the truth of Pentecost. What we need is here, in each other, in the ways we encourage one another to live lives of faithful work, loving labor, and steadfast hope.
So, may it be said of us, “We always give thanks to God for you who have become examples to all.”