Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24A
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Starting today, I’m preaching a five-part series on the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians. We choose our scriptures for Sunday mornings using something called the Revised Common Lectionary. It’s a cycle of assigned readings that repeat every three years, and we share it with lots of other Christian churches, including Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, the Disciples of Christ, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics. On a typical Sunday, the lectionary gives us four readings: one from the Old Testament, one from the Psalms, one from the New Testament Letters, and one from the Gospels.
When I’m going through, trying to decide which of those four texts I’m going to preach on on any given Sunday, I often go back and see which texts I preached on three years ago, or six years ago, or nine years ago. I want to make sure I’m not repeating myself too often. When I was choosing the texts for October and November, I realized that I have never, ever preached a sermon on a text from First or Second Thessalonians. And thinking back, I know that I’ve never taught a Sunday school class on the Letters to the Thessalonians. And I’ve never taken a course on the Letters to the Thessalonians. It’s high time to rectify that deficiency! So for the next few weeks we will be exploring First Thessalonians together.
Scholars are pretty sure that 1 Thessalonians is the oldest book in the New Testament. It’s almost certainly the first of Paul’s letters that has survived. It was probably written in 51 CE, about two decades after Jesus was crucified, died, and was raised. For comparison, the oldest of the gospels, Mark, wasn’t written until 20 years later in about 70 CE. Matthew and Luke were written around 80 CE, and John probably wasn’t written until around 90 CE, about sixty years after Jesus’s death and resurrection. So here in Thessalonians, we get the earliest account of the early Christian movement.
The letter opens, as all letters of the time do, with the names of the authors. In this case it’s Paul, along with two of his mission partners, Silvanus (or Silas) and Timothy. The three of them had been involved in founding the Christian community in Thessalonike. Now, having moved on to other mission fields, they are writing to check in on their fledgeling church in the first city of Macedonia, a city of great economic and military importance. Then they address the recipients as “the church of the Thessalonians” and offer a standard greeting: “Grace and peace to all of you.”
The next part of any ancient letter is called the thanksgiving. It’s when the sender praises the recipients. It’s often just a couple of sentences, some standard niceties. But this letter is different. Paul and his compatriots heap praise on the Thessalonians. They go way over the top. It is effusive. When Paul writes to the Galatians, he is ticked off; he skips the thanksgiving altogether. But in this letter to the Thessalonians, Paul just cannot stop complimenting the little church he started among them. It seems that, as Paul travels around from town to town, he doesn’t have to tell people about the church in Thessalonike, because word about them has already spread. The Thessalonians are so publicly faithful that, as Paul enters a new town, the people there tell him about their story. “The news about your faithfulness to God has spread so that we don’t even need to mention it. People tell us about what sort of welcome we had from you and how you turned to God from idols.”
This morning I want to focus on the very first line of the thanksgiving. Paul writes, “We always thank God for all of you when we mention you constantly in our prayers. This is because we remember your work that comes from faith, your effort that comes from love, and your perseverance that comes from hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father.” Your work that comes from faith. Your effort that comes from love. Your perseverance that comes from hope.
Faith, love, and hope. We’ve heard Paul talk about them before. At just about every wedding we hear the words from 1 Corinthians 13: “Now faith, hope, and love abide—these three—and the greatest of these is love.” Paul actually wrote those words a few years later than the words we read today. In this earlier letter, he talks about faith, love, and hope.
But he doesn’t talk about faith, love, and hope alone. He pairs each of these with another word. And the pairings are very interesting, and not necessarily what we would expect. Work that comes from faith. Effort that comes from love. Perseverance that comes from hope. And it’s these three pairings I want to explore today.
First, work that comes from faith. Those of you who are really familiar with Protestant Reformation theology will notice that it’s strange to see Paul linking faith and works in this way. Protestant orthodoxy says that humans are justified by faith apart from any works of the law. In other words, you can’t do anything to get yourself into heaven; it is only faith that can do that. Faith and works are often thought of as being in opposition to each other. One or the other must be the grounds for salvation, and the other must be inferior. Protestant reformers said that faith was more important than works, that faith was the only thing necessary for salvation, and they used a reading of Paul as their justification for that assertion.
Here though, we see a somewhat more nuanced approach. Faith and works have a constructive relationship to each other. You’ll notice that faith is still primary, at least in this translation. Faith comes first, but works come out of faith.
It fact, we might say that work is the inevitable consequence of faith. If we have faith, if we truly believe in God’s grace for us and for all people, if we experience that forgiving and sanctifying grace, if we encounter God’s love, then we will inevitably be called to respond. God’s Spirit working in us to offer us forgiveness and salvation is the same Spirit that works in us to live out the ideals of God’s Kingdom, to, as John Wesley is supposed to have said, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”
Paul sees faith working in the Thessalonian church in that way, faith that leads to doing the work of God. And faith can work in us in the same way. Our faith leads us to look out for our neighbors, to check with those who are isolated or alone, to care for those who are ill or hurting, to stand with those who are marginalized or oppressed, to do something as simple as wearing a mask when you are in public so that you can contribute to the health of yourself, your loved ones, your community, your state, your nation, and in fact the whole world.
We give thanks to God because we remember your work that comes from faith.
The second pairing: your effort that comes from love. That’s a bit of a strange one, too, isn’t it? Love—Effort. The Greek work, κόπος, can also mean labor, trouble, suffering, work, fatigue, exertion. Certainly not words that one would expect to find printed in a Hallmark Valentine’s Day card. Sweetheart, my love for you is so labored and fatiguing. It takes so much effort to love you. My feelings for you are so troubling. That doesn’t sound right, does it?
Of course, that may be because I’ve got the order turned the wrong way around. Maybe it’s not about effort that leads to love, but rather love that leads to effort. If we love someone, then we will expend energy on them. I have a clear memory of being at a friend’s house when we were in high school. My friend and his two brothers were getting chewed out by their father for putting off doing something for their mother on her birthday. “Love is a verb,” he told them. You have to do it. You have to show it. Effort that comes from love.
But it may not only go in that direction. Perhaps effort can also lead to love. Sometimes enduring something together, sharing a common suffering, can strengthen the bonds of love. Think about those you love the most. Are they also people you’ve been through the most with? Or consider the birth of a child. Which comes first? The labor or the love? Perhaps sometimes it is hard to tell.
The love we share with God is also run through with labor and with suffering. More even than any human, God has been with us through all of our troubles, through all of our disappointments, through all of our toil. And it is God’s love for us that makes our labor possible. But the most remarkable is God’s effort on our part, God’s willingness to take on human form, to experience our toil and strain, and to give all, to the very uttermost, even life itself, for our sake.
We give thanks to God because we remember your effort that comes from love.
And the final pairing: your perseverance that comes from hope. I don’t know how you’re feeling, but perseverance is an idea that feels pretty familiar to me right now. Perseverance, endurance, steadfastness, standing firm. I think we’re on a first-name basis with all of those right now. What has it been? Seven, eight months of a global pandemic that has literally changed the ways that we do everything; has virtually kept us prisoner in our own homes, our own towns; has kept us away from our friends and families; has deprived us of human connections; has taken our jobs in many cases; has taken our lives. 38,947 cases and 620 deaths in Oregon. 8.1 million cases and 220,000 deaths in the United States. 40 million cases and 1.1 million deaths worldwide. And here we are trying to persevere. But that’s not all. An election season that has lasted basically an entire four years. Did you know that after the 2016 election, but before the inauguration in January 2017, President-Elect Trump had 9 separate re-election rallies? And on election night in 2016, people were already speculating about who the 2020 Democratic candidate would be. And now we are 16 days away from this election—Melissa and I have already voted, make sure you vote—16 days away, and we are all trying to persevere. We have persevered through fire and through smoke. And there are all of those others things—illness, grief, unemployment, hunger, abuse, discrimination, oppression, injustice—and we are all trying to persevere. We are all trying to overcome.
And the only way—the only way to overcome those forces is with the power of hope. We move forward because we have hope. We stay with the struggle because we have hope. We press on because we have hope. We persevere because we have hope. Hope for the future. Hope for a new world. Hope for God’s justice and God’s peace. The power of hope can change the world; it has the changed the world; it does change the world.
We give thanks to God because we remember your perseverance that comes from hope.
Paul, Silas, and Timothy write to the church in Thessalonike to encourage them, to praise them for their effort, to buoy them up. “We always thank God for all of you when we mention you constantly in our prayers, because we remember your work that comes from faith, your effort that comes from love, and your perseverance that comes from hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father.”
Amen and amen.