Abound in Love
First Thessalonians 3
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
15 October 2023
Let me begin today with a quote from the contemporary philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah. Appiah is currently the President of the American Academy of Letters. He has written extensively about the ways in which we are shaped by our various identity categories and also about how we learn to live together despite those differences, as part of a cosmopolitan world.
And it makes sense that these are among Appiah’s concerns. He embodies the history of the modern age and the complex ways our identities interact. Appiah is a married gay man living in New York, who became a United States citizen in 1997. He grew up in Kumasi, Ghana and was educated in Britain, taking his degrees from Cambridge University. On his father’s side he is descended from Osei Tutu, the pre-colonial emperor of Ghana. Ghanaian royalty on one side, and British statesmen on the other. His mother’s father was the Chancellor of the Exchequer. His great-grandfather was the leader of the Labor Party. His mother’s side is also descended from John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of Massachusetts.
So, like I said Appiah embodies in his very person the issues of identity and cosmopolitanism. Here’s the quote:
Each person you know about and can affect is someone to whom you have responsibilities: to say this is just to affirm the very idea of morality. The challenge, then, is to take minds and hearts formed over the long millennia of living in local troops and equip them with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become.
Appiah argues that identity categories are important ways we interact with the world, helping us to find belonging and meaning. We can’t simply do away with them and find some homogeneous, universal humanity. Which would also be boring, even if we could.
Nor does he think we have complete freedom when it comes to identity. Our identities make sense within communities, within social groups. Their meaning shaped by the collective, not just by us.
He’s also aware of the ways that identities can become unhealthy and pull us apart into competing groups. Which simply will not work in the 21st century world. We all live too interconnected and integrated with one another. One of the moral imperatives of our time is to foster cosmopolitanism—being citizens of the world.
So, the challenge is to find meaning and purpose in our identity groups, while also learning how to live in friendship and intimacy across all those categories in our pluralistic, multi-cultural age.
Reading Appiah wrestling with and providing ethical advice for this very contemporary set of issues, I can’t also help but draw a connection to the apostle Paul in the first century, wrestling with the same sorts of topics. As I’ve pointed out the last few weeks, Paul was trying to foster multi-cultural communities that overcame various barriers of ethnicity and culture in order to model a new and better way of being human, all as part of God’s global mission to rescue the world.
Paul traveled through the cities of the Roman empire, setting up little gatherings of people. Through preaching, prayer, and service, he would inspire Jews and Gentiles, slaves and freepersons, women and men, to join up in this new Jesus movement. And these groups would start to assemble together. They called themselves by the Greek word ecclesia, which was the same word used to describe the local government assemblies of the Roman Empire. In this way, they were an alternative to the politics of the day.
They also became alternative families to one another, as many converts would have been excluded by their families of origin. These new Christian gatherings became places where people met their significant other, raised their children, and celebrated their life events. They were forming a new, alternative social life.
And Paul was nurturing all of that. Through his preaching, prayer, and pastoral care. We find evidence of his pastoring in the stories told, but especially in the letters he wrote back to the churches he had founded. He sometimes wrote in anger, sometimes in joy, always in love, with the intention of directing and shaping these nascent assemblies.
One of the more fascinating books on Paul is Our Mother Saint Paul by Beverly Roberts Gaventa. She draws attention to how often Paul uses maternal imagery to highlight his role pastoring congregations. He uses images of birthing pangs and giving birth, of nursing an infant, of motherly nurture and care.
Gaventa also notices that Paul’s use of these metaphors often seems to confuse us for a moment, in order to draw our imaginations in new directions.
Here, in First Thessalonians, we get an example of Paul’s leadership and care for this congregation, including his deep and abiding affection for them.
First Thessalonians is probably the first of Paul’s letters to churches that we have passed down to us in the New Testament. I read one scholar who said that the moment this letter was read in public to the church the first time is the beginning of the New Testament.
The scholar Victor Paul Furnish writes in his commentary that the letter “reflects the apostle’s eagerness to affirm and deepen the bonds of friendship.” In doing so, Paul expands their hope, encourages their faith, and calls for them to let love inform everything that they do. The love that they have for one another should overflow in ministry to others. In this way, they form harmonious community, and bear witness to the world of this new way of being human shaped by Jesus and the Spirit. Now is the time for abounding in love, in order to carry out the work God has given to the congregation.
This love they are to abound isn’t just warm feelings of regard, however. N. T. Wright, the Bible scholar and Anglican bishop, writes:
he doesn’t mean that he hopes that, as they already have warm fuzzy feelings about one another, those feelings will become yet warmer and fuzzier. He means that as they are already exploring practical ways of supporting one another as though they were part of a single family or business . . . they should work out in practical terms how to do so more and more.
What will bear witness to the world isn’t their warm regard, but their effective measures for supporting and caring for each other.
And as you read Paul’s letters, you discover how often he gets very practical, as these congregations struggle with financial concerns, outside challenges, the burdens of effectively caring for each other, finding qualified leaders, what they should and shouldn’t do in worship, and more. It becomes very apparent that most of the challenges the church faces now have their antecedents in the early church too.
And all of this was in service to the mission to create a worldwide network of congregations who abolished ethnic divisions and found unity despite their differences. Which also remains our challenge in the 21st century.
Paul is nurturing these small, local congregations because he believes they have significant, global, even cosmic work to do on behalf of God’s mission. And that’s why we keep at it too. Here in the third decade of this century, congregations are facing all sorts of issues. From very practical ones like the rising costs of goods and services or the shortage of clergy confronting most denominations. And there are the big issues our entire culture is facing that also impact the church, such as climate change, natural disasters, polarized politics, changing gender norms, reckoning with our racial past, and more. Plus, more and more people are electing not to attend or participate in churches. Some because they’ve lost or changed beliefs, but many because they let go of the habit, a trend hastened by the pandemic lockdowns. We live in an age of growing secularization, but also growing non-participation in various social groups, not just churches. The lack of involvement has played a role, along with other factors, in the growing epidemic of loneliness and the rise in mental health needs. All concerns the church must deal with as well.
But we keep at it because we believe even our congregation has significant work to do on behalf of God’s mission.
At the close of his book on Paul, N. T. Wright declares, “I believe that part of the task of the church in our own day is to pioneer a way through postmodernity and out the other side . . . into a new world, a new culture . . . [and] Paul has a vital role to play in that task.”
Wright then enumerates three aspects of how the church can lead in the 21st century. First, is “the reconstruction of the self.” He writes that the proud, self-reliant self of modernity has given way to a “mass of floating signifiers.” All those competing and intersecting identity categories. All that push from globalism to rise above them at the same time. All of which is also connected to the epidemic of loneliness and deaths of despair.
Wright argues that Paul, and the church, have a path forward. He writes, “there is a way through, not to a reconstruction of an arrogant modernist Self, but to a new way of being human, a way that is rooted, through baptism, in the Messiah, or more particularly in the love of the one God revealed in him.” Wright summarizes the point as “I am loved, therefore I am.”
And this Christian love remains central to the other two aspects Wright enumerates of ways the church can lead humanity in the 21st century. The second affects the way we know things. The Enlightenment imagined one, universal, objective truth available to all, and postmodernity revealed that to be a fiction. What we’ve been left with is alternative facts and post-truth, where knowledge becomes a power-play. Instead, Wright says, “the basic Christian mode of knowing is love.” He continues, “In love, the person who is loving is simultaneously affirming the Otherness of that which is loved and their own deep involvement wit that Other.” By giving of our attention, in a way that respects and acknowledges the dignity and integrity of the other. Or as my favorite poet Wendell Berry says, “It all turns on affection.”
Finally, the church has a great story. A good story. An inspiring, encouraging story. And it’s not a story about power but is a story about love. The greatest love is revealed in the sacrifice of Christ, that disrupts the power-plays of the empire. Every attempt to construct a world order contrary to love stands exposed as weak and wrong in the shadow of the cross and the dawn of Easter.
These are only quick hints at the larger, significant task of the church, that Paul was nurturing in his own day, and that we are called to in ours. More can be said about each of these. And, I think in this congregation, is being said multiple times every week in our programs and ministries and worship. As we engage the big questions and concerns and seek helpful, practical tools for living well and flourishing.
Paul invites us to abound in love for one another so that the entire world might see that there is a new and better way of being human. His task as an apostle is to create the communities that will do that. His work as a pastor is to nurture them towards those ends.
- T. Wright closes his book on Paul by saying that Paul invites and encourages us “to stand as ourselves new creatures, called, justified and glorified, from which we go to the dangerous and exhilarating task of being, knowing, and telling.” For the world needs what we nurture. Let us take courage, and abound in love.