Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.
2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 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. 6 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, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 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. 9 For the people of those regions[b] 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, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming. (I Thessalonians 1:1-10 NRSV)
They had no good reason to believe in Jesus Christ. They had every reason to continue worshiping the gods of Caesar.
Thessaloníki was a prosperous, cosmopolitan port city. As the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia, it was a seat of politics and a center for worship of various gods. Most important was the worship of Caesar and his family. As long as you bent a knee to Caesar, you could worship any of the other idols available in this large metropolis.
Yet, a small group of people found new life in the gospel of Jesus Christ. If Jesus is savior, than Caesar isn’t. If Jesus is all powerful, than Caesar takes a back seat. That will get you into lots of trouble with, well, Caesar.
And think of the neighbors. “Those Joneses next store? They’re worshiping that Jewish guy, Jesus of Nazareth. That’s one weird religion: they drink his blood and eat his body. They’re cannibals!”
Yet, they turned to this Jesus of Nazareth and found freedom. Freedom from idol worship, social constructs, even fear. In Christ, they found a peace that no Roman Emperor could provide.
This fledgling congregation had no thick, dense theological libraries, no New Testament scriptures, no seminaries, no Ministers of Word and Sacrament. All they had was Paul’s words. The Word.
So, when Paul speaks of them with a grateful heart, he does it with a knowledge that this small congregation is doing something extraordinary, and they’re doing a pretty good job of it. He speaks of their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Thess 1:3b)
Work of Faith. Labor of Love. Paul uses the words, “labor” and “work” in referring to their faith and love. Faith is trust. It’s the foundation upon which everything else is built. A strong foundation takes labor and effort. Whenever they entered the market place or their neighbor’s home, they knew they were different. They faced criticism and ostracism and persecution. They would need to work daily at their faith in order to stand up to the society of their day.
Is it any different today? Being a Christian in a post-modern world brings criticism. I have had any number of lovely conversations that go awry when I’m asked that one question I dread the most: “What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a pastor.” And everything changes. The comments run from, Oh, that’s nice (and they really don’t believe it’s nice at all.) Or, they fear I’m going to attempt to “save them” and they launch into a long description of their faith. Or they simply shut down.
Being a Christian and holding onto Christian values is difficult. Speaking peace is for sissies; love is an overused, empty word. Our affluent society finds more strength in hate-filled words and speech. God’s provision has been lost in money, insurance, and credit cards. Christians find it easier to stay under the radar.
Paul and Silvanus and Timothy worked their faith by being a model for the Thessalonian Christians to follow. They walked their talk. When we model our value system, what does it look like?
A couple showed up in my office about a year ago and plopped a heavy brown bag on my desk. “Every evening we take our loose change and put it in a jar. As Christmas comes near, we find someone to give it to. The thing is, we do this anonymously. We need you to deliver this for us.”
A recent visitor approached me after worship with a question. “What kind of food ministries does this congregation support?” I shared with her that we helped support two community projects and that we also had a food cupboard at the church. She reached in her purse and handed me a check. “Please use this for the food cupboard.”
I have a friend who refuses to listen to bigotry from anyone. For the past thirty years, she has worked out ways of responding to hate-filled words. The few friends she’s lost count as nothing. We know her as a woman of courage who stands for what she believes.
Those moments when we’re being watched and we don’t realize it, what do people see? I hope friends and strangers see a person of faith revealing that faith in love. I hope they see someone who stands for Christ’s truth not with angry words but intentional action based in love and peace.
This kind of faith and love will get you a lot: a heart that breaks every time you see social injustice; a reputation for being a person of your word and criticism when you do it; a renewed sense of understanding that this isn’t what God intends: the world outside our front door doesn’t always mimic the kingdom.
This kind of faith revealed in loved does something else. It inspires us with a strength that neither Caesar nor the next door neighbors can touch. It moves us ever closer to God, seeking out God’s kingdom and working to make our corner of the world a little bit better because we were there.
That’s Christian faith at its best. That’s why people get out of bed on Sunday morning and get themselves to church. They know that in community with others, they learn and grow and gain strength for the week ahead. At our best, we are inclusive and loving and filled with joy, seeking to share that with anyone who crosses our path.
We do that because out of our work of faith and labor of love comes hope. Steadfast hope. Hope that knows that this isn’t the end, but the beginning. Hope based in a faith that follows the ultimate model of faith and love: Jesus of Nazareth who was faithful even to death and was raised by the Father, reminding us that death isn’t the end and has no hold on us.
“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13:12-13 NRSV)
All glory and honor be to God.