2 Thessalonians 1:1–4 (NRSV)
1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3 We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. 4 Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.
2 Thessalonians 1:11–12 (NRSV)
11 To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
One of the greatest questions of many in the church as we approach scripture is, “how does this apply today?” We read about the things that happened 2000 years ago, people were healed of diseases that even today we struggle with curing using the most advanced medical technology, people were able to communicate with people in languages that we not their native tongue even when they had no training in the use of that language. Things like this are not happening around us today. Well at times we hear about it, but it is not normative and we live in a culture that likes to have prescriptions and procedures for everything. So when we read much of scripture and our experience of life does not always seem to reflect. The stresses around us seem great. We have faith, we believe scripture, and the world seems to disregard all we hold dear. How exactly do react?
Throughout history people of faith have reacted in various ways. Some have taken up arms to fight, some withdrew to the wilderness seemingly disengaging the world, and some simply fell away. But there has always been a portion that of the faithful that have done something quite different, they did not join the world or retreat from the world; instead they engaged the world with the Gospel.
This is where this letter to the Thessalonians meets us and all the disciples throughout history. Like most letters, Paul begins with a focus on God. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” It is very important to consider this greeting because of the history that Paul has with this city. Many scholars actually believe that this is the first letter written by Paul to be included in scripture. This may sound odd to us because the title we know it as is second Thessalonians, and our logic says that the number two means that it comes after one. But many believe that the numbering system on the letters dealt with length and not time so since 2 Thessalonians is shorter it got second place even though it could have been the very first letter that Paul wrote. This matters because Paul did not leave this city in ideal circumstances. When Paul visited this Macedonian city he did not approach the Gentiles but he went to the Jewish synagogue to teach. While there many believed along with several of the God fearing Gentiles. But several from the community did not appreciate what was being taught and they incited a riot to rid their city of this trouble making teacher. Why would they, Jewish teachers from diaspora be that offended by the Gospel, especially when it was being presented by one of the greatest young Pharisees of their time? The gospel, the good news of Christ frees people from various forms of bondage, it inspires people to become who they were created to be as God knit them together in their mother’s womb, it sees all people as equal because we are all created in the image of God (Male and female). If we are to look at the testimony of Luke as he wrote about the Acts of the Apostles we see in the seventeenth chapter something interesting mentioned about who believed; Jews, God fearing gentiles, and not a few of the leading women (meaning several or many women believed). For those wishing to control and maintain domination over people the gospel poses a great threat, if one does not have to seek the approval of the synagogue rulers then the influence of those rulers diminish as the influence of Christ increases. And as the influence of those that reflect Christ increase they displace the synagogue ruler’s position within the community, and included in these are people who would never have influence under the Mosaic Law: Gentiles and Women.
These rulers of the synagogue were upset, power structures were threatened by this traveling preacher so what do they do, they go to the civil rulers and say that Paul is promoting a king above the emperor. They involved the government to overcome a religious dispute. Which brings us to the first expression people of faith resort to when they feel their belief system is threatened, they use violence. When Jesus was asked about his kingdom during his trial, they asked him directly what it was. Jesus’ answer was that his kingdom is not of this world. When those of faith attempt to use civil governments to promote aberrance to religious ideologies there are consequences, and usually the community of faithful are the ones that are hit with the responsibility when people push back. We cannot control and force morality, we cannot force a relationship, force may give an illusion of peace but once the force is removed people resort back to old ways, because force cannot change the heart.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. When Paul tells them this statement he is telling them first off that he does not hold a grudge against them and that the division that his forceful removal from the area might have cause is not going to stand. Grace and peace to you Paul says because in the kingdom of God there is no division between people and there is grace for all. When we withhold or neglect a relationship, when we neglect working toward peace and promote divisiveness this also distracts from the community of faith. This is the greatest argument against the monastic movements of ancient times, they would withdraw to the desert to focus on their faith, but while they were withdrawn to the isolated place they would not return to minister to the needs of others. I say this even though I have great respect for the monastic traditions, their discipline speaks to me, but I recognize the weakness within.
Paul then praises the people of the Thessalonian church, saying that their faith has increased abundantly, through their afflictions. To the point that they speak positively about it when they speak about faith in other communities. This is a great testimony of this city, they are facing the same sort of persecution that Paul himself had faced, and this was reported back to him by Silas and Timothy when they again met up with Paul in Athens after he had been driven out of the area surrounding Thessalonica. Paul left in a hurry because the people were trying to kill him, and the two apprentice disciples stayed to continue to encourage those that had turned toward Christ. When they had finally returned to Paul’s side they sent wrote this letter to continue to encourage the church. Their faith had grown. When Paul speaks of faith in these letters it is a faith that goes beyond belief, it is a belief that saturates the entire body and influences every action. It is where they have entrusted every aspect of life to God, with the assurance that God the Father would bring glory and expand the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Then Paul, speaks of love. This is Christian love, they type of love that reflects the love that God has for his creation. The type of love that cares for other, even when they are not deserving of the love, or are not easy to even like. Paul says that everyone has a love for another that truly reflect the love of Christ. The term everyone is one that is very important in this passage, because it speaks of an oneness that is only found in God, it can also mean unanimous or all of them are participating in this activity. Through the stresses and fears of persecution these people continue and completely love other with the very love that Christ showed them.
Let that soak in for a moment. These people: Jews, God fearing Gentiles, and women, are growing in their faith and are completely living out the love of Christ within their community. While they are doing this they are being attracted by both the religious and the secular leaders. Even while these people are falsely accusing them of various crimes, primarily lack of patriotism, the followers of Jesus continue to love. Yes I mentioned that a lack of patriotism is a crime that these people were guilty of, because patriotism was a religion in this Macedonian city. This city was one that was very religious but of all their expressions of faith the most important was their temple devoted to Caesar worship. When we hear the stories in the Revelation of Jesus that John received while he was exiled to the Island, we hear a lot about the mark of the beast and how those that do not take the mark will not be able to participate in trade. The people of Thessalonica were experiencing this first hand. It was part of the community to pay respect to the emperor and eventually as the church grew laws were enacted that you had to present proof that you had participated. The reason this was so important to the city is because this was a free city, meaning they were allowed to rule themselves without direct oversight by the emperor. Their city was not occupied by soldiers and their governmental leaders were locally appointed and not commissioned by Rome. So when they were charged with a lack of patriotism people of that city were greatly offended, if word got back to Rome that this city was honoring a different lord than Caesar this could change their lifestyles.
Your faith has abundantly grown and you all express the love of Christ to others even when those you minister to are willing to prosecute you. The kingdom of God is not of this world, yet it is expressed in the world. Even though these people were facing great affliction they continued to selflessly love and encourage others to reflect the same type of selflessness. Though Paul was only there for a short time, they quickly grabbed hold of Christ and the hope found within His life and they lived it out in every way possible. Which brings us back to today. How does this passage truly apply to us?
The last couple of verses that we consider today Paul speaks of his prayer for them. He says, “We always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you and you in him.” This should be our prayer for each other as well. God calls us to a life with him, a life where we walk saturated in his glory just as our first parents did before the fall. Unfortunately our first parents sinned, they allowed something to distract them from their relationship with God and they drove a wedge down the center of that relationship. Being made in the image of God was not enough, they wanted to be equal with God, and they wanted control that was not theirs to have. God had set them up as stewards over all of creation but that was not good enough, they wanted to have full knowledge so they could make decisions outside of God’s direction. That is the totality of sin. Lifting ourselves to being a god over our own lives. Sin is not a singular transgression but a lifestyle of turning from God. Where repentance is a lifestyle of returning to God. Paul prays that the people of Thessalonica will continue to live in that lifestyle of repentance. That everything they do will be saturated in the power of God, that every relationship is approach out of the love that God has for his creatures and that was exemplified to us through the life of Christ. This is where we meet with those first century brothers and sisters.
We have a choice to make every day of our lives: we can either live a life of sin which is a life of rejection of God where we seek to rule ourselves and others, or a life of repentance and reconciliation where we seek that God will rule our hearts. Our world does not understand the life of repentance because so the life of sin has so saturated our hearts, we only know force and retreat. We live by these codes especially in a culture where looking out for number one is dominated. But there is another way.
Last night I watched a movie, Sticks and stones. It was a made for TV Movie, and a made for Canadian TV movie at that. You see Albert wanted to watch hockey so I searched my streaming channels for hockey movies that I hoped would distract him long enough for me to do some work. Unfortunately I ended up watching this movie instead. This movie spoke about the strained relationship between the US and Canada early in this Century when the USA invaded Iraq. A peewee hockey team from the United States was invited to play in a hockey tournament in Canada and were met by protestors who surrounded their bus, threw drinks on them at a hockey game, and booed the American anthem when it was sang. When it came time to play their own game even the game officials made these kids feel the scorn of the nation by penalizing them for every infraction to the point that eventually the team walked out. Well one boy who from Canada observed the acts of his nation and was heartbroken. He took it upon himself to try to restore peace. His father told him that it was not his job and the boy answered if I don’t do it who will? The story revolved around the idea that peace can only occur when one side makes the effort to lay down the weapons and to seek reconciliation. How did he rebuild this in the movie? He influenced his province to sponsor a friendship tournament inviting the offended team back to Canada to play, but to do so he had to personally go to America and build friendships with those who saw him as an enemy.
Yes it is only a movie, but it moved me. The ways of the world would have demanded something different, but God’s kingdom is not of this world. God came from heaven and made friends with us. Showing us a different lifestyle and that lifestyle of worship, prayer and service to other changes everything. It requires us to entrust our lives to God, to relinquish the control we thought we might have, and allow God to lead us where he calls. It requires us to lay down our own ideas and instead encourage someone else. As Jesus said, they will know that you are my disciples by your love for one another.” Do we love? Do we protect the reputation of other? Do we reflect Christ or do we reflect the ways of the world?