Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28
Preacher: Emily Hayes
So, this week we finish our reading of 1 Thessalonians. I will begin with another quick summary to remind us of what we have covered.
1 Thessalonians is a letter written by Paul, Timothy and Silas to the church of Thessalonica around 50CE. Scholars believe it was Paul’s first letter, and thus the oldest writings of the New Testament.
Despite this significance it is certainly not as well known or beloved as many of the other Pauline letters. Perhaps because unlike Paul’s many other letters, it has not entered into the many contentious issues of the modern church. So I think it has been good to spend some time getting to know it.
We began with the opening prayer of thanks for the Thessalonians. This opening is pastoral, warm and positive and sets the tone for the rest of the letter.
In chapter 2 the focus moves to Paul and his coworkers and their leadership which we reflected on in our second week. The leadership that is modelled challenges church leaders seeking wealth and influence. It also subverts some of the popular notions about Paul as being particularly hierarchical and patriarchal. Rather they say, “we did not come with a pretext for greed, seeking praise but we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.”
In chapter 4 which we read last week Paul, Timothy and Silas seem to be addressing a question that was raised by the church about what happens to those who die before Jesus has returned. It is a question that echoes across the ages.
The response is predominantly pastoral. Despite the way it was used in the 19th century in the creation of the doctrine of the rapture the purpose of this letter is not to give a detailed timeline of end-time events, rather it is an assurance to the Thessalonians of resurrection and reunion.
NT Wright, who is arguably the most well known critic of the rapture says,
“When Jesus comes back, it’s not to snatch people away from earth but rather to transform earth with the life of Heaven and to transform us as well. He doesn’t come back to take us away, but to heal the world and to heal and transform his people.”
The core message of this passage is hope. Rather than grieving, “as those without hope” Paul present a vison which enables us to stand up to anxiety and fear mongering in our world.. It calls us be part of bringing God’s new creation to birth even in the midst of the present age.
I actually spoke on this text in the prison as well at St Philip’s chapel this past week. I gave a much abbreviated version of last weeks sermon and it seemed to hit a chord with people there. One woman in the prison approached me after and she said, you spoke about hope but what is hope.
As if often the case the people in the prison deeply challenge me to not be flippant but to think deeply about what I am saying.
And so we spoke about Jesus crucifixion, about the excruciating pain and suffering Jesus experienced on the cross and when he died and was separated from his Father. But then he rose again. And when he rose he overcame all the suffering that was afflicted upon him and he defeated death so that we all might rise. That we all might know that the worst things that happen in our lives are not the last things. That there will come a time when things will be better.
I asked her if she had ever seen a tree that had died but then noticed from that tree new life emerging. And she said yes. And I said it was kind of like that. And she said you know I was in hospital recently and prayed to God that he would speak to me but he didn’t. But today he finally he has.
I told her this was exactly what Shanon had prayed would happen, as we waited outside to be let through.
But now to chapter 5 and Paul, Timothy’s and Silas’s closing remarks. In the NRSV this part is titled final exhortations, greetings and benediction.
At the beginning of this series I mentioned I do not preach on Paul much due to some Paul baggage I have particularly around women. But also, despite his message of justification by faith, he can come across as self-righteous, moralistic and overly critical and zealous.
In popular culture today Christians and the Christian life are often portrayed like this as well. Occasionally, this might be true but the life Paul and the others are encouraging in these final exhortations, nor in Thessalonians as a whole, is nothing like that. Rather I think it is a compelling, powerful, purposeful, generous and freeing way of life.
To see this clearly I made a list of all the exhortations that Paul makes in this chapter and across the letters to the Thessalonians on how they might live. This is the list:
- Lead a life worthy of the God who calls you.
- Do not seek loveless and cheap sex. Appreciate and give dignity to your body. Do not abuse your body or exploit the body of others as is common among those who know nothing of God.
- Take control of your desires so that they do not control you.
- Love one another.
- Aspire to live quietly and avoid gossip.
- Keep awake and sober.
- Practise faith, love and hope.
- Encourage one another and build each other up.
- Respect those who labour among you.
- Be at peace among each other.
- If you are able work, so that you are dependent on no one.
- Motivate everyone to do their bit. Admonish those who bring others down.
- Encourage the exhausted.
- Reach out to those who need help.
- Be patient with each person, attentive to what they need.
- Do not repay evil for evil but seek to do good to one another and to all people.
- Rejoice always.
- Pray without ceasing.
- Give thanks in all circumstances.
- Do not supress the Spirit or stifle the words of the prophets. But don’t be gullible. Check out everything and keep only what is good. Throw out anything tainted with evil.
- Do not be quickly shaken, alarmed or deceived. But stand firm and hold fast to the traditions you were taught.
Today is the last Sunday of the church year.
Next Sunday we start our year again with the beginning of Advent. As said this last Sunday is Christ the King Sunday. It is a week to reflect on the meaning of Christ’s reign over the Church, the world, and our lives. To ask ourselves what kind of king is Jesus? How do we honour Him? What does it look like to live and thrive in his Kingdom?
I think perhaps it looks like this. People living together peacefully, loving each other, respecting each other and helping those who need it. There is forgiveness and rejoicing and praying. There is nothing particularly shiny or pompous or majestic about it. Nothing that we usually associate with royalty. Rather we honour Jesus as King by living ordinary, quiet, simple lives in extraordinary ways.
I have seen a lot of this here this year and so on this last day of the year I hope you will come along to Christmas Party to celebrate the year we have shared.
But for now let us sing, Servant King, a song reflecting on what kind of King Jesus is.