sermon given on Sunday, October 15, 2017–continuing with the letters of Paul and asking the question: What does Paul’s letter tell today’s church?
Opening scripture: I Thessalonians 4:1, 11-12, NLT
. . . we urge you in the name of the Lord Jesus to live in a way that pleases God, as we have taught you. You live this way already, and we encourage you to do so even more. . . . 11 Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before. 12 Then people who are not believers will respect the way you live, and you will not need to depend on others.
Opening reflection: Just what do I do?
Only two more letters that Paul wrote to the early churches remain to review. The overarching question these past several weeks has been what message is in the letter for today’s church right here in our own community.
Each letter has followed a basic outline as any business letter we might write even today. There really is not a marked difference: the salutation, a brief familiar introduction, and then the business of the message—the reason Paul writes the letter. Once he is done with the business portion, he wraps up the letter with personal messages and reminders, even suggesting what he plans to do next.
By the time we read the two letters to the Thessalonian church, we know what to expect. But the first letter could be written to any individual in the church with whom Paul was concerned had strayed from the basic teaching. The instructions are very specific.
These opening verses seem very personal, especially if you include the reminder about sexual morality that is covered in the verses 2-10. As Paul greets his reader, so we greet each other with these opening verses. Do what Jesus taught you and you will be respected and not depend on others.
Sermon’s scripture connection: I Thessalonians 5:6-22, NLT
6 So be on your guard, not asleep like the others. Stay alert and be clearheaded. 7 Night is the time when people sleep and drinkers get drunk.8 But let us who live in the light be clearheaded, protected by the armor of faith and love, and wearing as our helmet the confidence of our salvation.
9 For God chose to save us through our Lord Jesus Christ, not to pour out his anger on us. 10 Christ died for us so that, whether we are dead or alive when he returns, we can live with him forever. 11 So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing.
12 Dear brothers and sisters, honor those who are your leaders in the Lord’s work. They work hard among you and give you spiritual guidance. 13 Show them great respect and wholehearted love because of their work. And live peacefully with each other.
14 Brothers and sisters, we urge you to warn those who are lazy. Encourage those who are timid. Take tender care of those who are weak. Be patient with everyone.
15 See that no one pays back evil for evil, but always try to do good to each other and to all people.
16 Always be joyful. 17 Never stop praying. 18 Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.
19 Do not stifle the Holy Spirit. 20 Do not scoff at prophecies, 21 but test everything that is said. Hold on to what is good. 22 Stay away from every kind of evil.
Reflection continues: Do all you can to live like Jesus.
All my life I have had books around me. Of course growing up before all the multimedia tools existed helped, and I learned early that if I had a book report to make I did not have to do chores until I finished it. Reading was fun and lead me to dream a great deal.
Remember those early book series, The Bobbsey Twins, Cherry Ames the Nurse, and my brother’s choice The Hardy Boys. We also had National Geographic, Look, Life, Farm Journal, Successful Farming, the Mexico Ledger and the Montgomery Standard. We had reading materials available in all kinds of forms. Reading let us go beyond the 160 acres of the farm or the boundaries of the Bellflower Elementary School and later Montgomery County R-II.
Reading Paul’s letters is somewhat like reading self-help books. The author identifies a problem, and then outlines the advice one should follow to rectify the problem. And yes, I have read my share of self-help books on a range of topics for a variety of reasons: co-dependency, dieting, teaching, organizing, time management, goal setting, and the list continues including assigned readings for pastors.
Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is a self-help manual. It is not overly wordy and not filled with a great deal of examples. This letter is to the point, and reading it one might wonder just what in the world the people really were doing. Hopefully the tabloids were not spreading the news and he was listening carefully to the church’s leaders.
By the time one reads through the introduction, Paul’s message becomes clear. Just what does one do to live as a Christian while they wait for Jesus to return? Even though Paul reminds them of the one commandment: love one another; he does acknowledge that they are following that rule. Yet the church apparently is struggling to know just how long the wait for Jesus’ return is.
Like reading self-help books, the final goal of such reading is not just one event or one moment in time, the advice is for a lifetime change regardless of where one is, how old one is, or whether there is a finite date attached to the timeline. Paul explains that there is no way for anybody to know when Jesus will return but we must do what Jesus taught us to do all the time.
Certainly today, over 2,000 years later than Paul’s ministry, we know that our perception of when Christ will return is impossible to define. We cannot continue to focus on the exact time Jesus is expected to return; rather we are to focus on doing all that we can do to live Christ-like lives.
Paul knew this and in the effort to help the Thessalonians live confidently and expectantly for Christ’s return whenever it might be, he lists the specific behaviors that each Christian should exhibit in verses 5:6-22. If these were listed in a self-help book today, they would be summarized in bullet format or might read like a table of contents for a more in-depth book (located on the bulletin’s cover and extemporaneously discuss each listing):
- Stay alert and be clearheaded (don’t get drunk).
- Encourage and build each other up.
- Honor leaders giving spiritual guidance.
- Show spiritual leaders respect and wholehearted love.
- Live peacefully with each other
- Warn those who are lazy.
- Encourage the timid.
- Take tender care of the weak.
- Be patient with everyone.
- Do not pay back evil with evil.
- Try to do good to each other and to all people.
- Always be joyful
- Never stop praying.
- Be thankful in all circumstances.
- Do not stifle the Holy Spirit.
- Do not scoff at prophecies, but test everything said.
- Hold on to what is good.
- Stay away from every kind of evil.
These behaviors are so clearly stated the Thessalonians did not have to question what Paul expected of them. The return date of Jesus Christ was not important, but living Christ-like was. By following these guidelines, the Christians are always ready for Christ’s return whether it is in broad daylight or in the middle of the night, whether this week or next week, or maybe in a year or two.
Just what do we do? Simply do all that we can to live Christ-like lives. We live like Christ individually and as a church. We read the self-help books Paul wrote to the earliest churches; we continue to read all the Bible’s books seeking for the wisdom of living as God asks us to live loving one another.
Waiting is tough, especially if the deadline is not evident and is completely unclear after two millenniums. We must live simply and lovingly doing all that we can to share God’s infinite love with all of creation. We must keep doing whatever we can to teach others about God’s grace and love. We must worship God together thanking him for his love, his grace, and the promise of salvation.
Just what do we do? We simply do what we can, all the time we can, so we can be filled with the joy of living never worrying about when Christ will return. And, as Paul said in his opening: (1:12) Then people who are not believers will respect the way you live, and you will not need to depend on others. (4:17). . . we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up. . . Then we will be with the Lord forever. 18So encourage each other. . .
Dear gracious, loving and patient Father,
When we ask just what we are to do,
You tell us through the words of scripture.
Today Paul’s words share your message
That is timeless, encouraging and practical.
May we turn to each other to strengthen
our skills to live as Christ lived.
May we join together to do good
And defend ourselves from evil.
Guide us and arm us with the Holy Spirit
So we may share the joy of living like Christ
Doing all we can to encourage others
And practice what Paul teaches in his letters.
May the drunken become clearheaded,
May the homeless be housed,
May the hungry be fed, and
May the weak be strong.
Through the words of the Scripture
And by the power of the Holy Spirit
Let us serve one another in love
Doing all that we can so we may meet Jesus. –Amen.
Reflection’s conclusion: And The Church must follow the advice, too.
I encourage each one of you to read the Bible as your own self-help book. Paul is guiding us as individuals, but he is also guiding us as The Church. The advice is not always pleasant and may cause us to wince as we honestly evaluate what we do against what Paul tells us to do.
Attending the New Wineskins conference provided me an opportunity to hear what today’s innovative spiritual leaders are doing. When John Wesley redefined The Church into what we know as Methodism, the change was tough to accept for many. Yet, Wesley’s theology and his methods continue to follow Paul’s advice.
We must do what God asks us to do, both individually and as one of his church’s congregations. Somehow we have to find the courage to live Christ-like lives right here, right now, in any way we can or we have to find a new way.
Closing scripture: I Thessalonians 5:23-24, 28, NLT
23 Now may the God of peace make you holy in every way, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again. 24 God will make this happen, for he who calls you is faithful. . . . 28 May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.