Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in Abba God and the Savior Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Creator your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Savior Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that God has chosen you, 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. And you became imitators of us and of the Christ, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of Christ 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. For the people of those regions 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, and to wait for the Only Begotten Child from heaven, whom God raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
Part of the reason Paul's letters to the early churches, known to us as the Eipstles, has stood the test of time and are still relevant to us as moderns, is because he addresses so many topics and issues of what it means and how to live in community with one another. Understand that this thing called Christianity was a new model of church for the first century. Before the early church, Jews worshiped in the temple- they went to service, they came home. They had rules to follow, and when someone broke a rule, all they had to do as to look at the law, find out what to do to fix their transgression, do it, and be back on the right road, and continued to go back to service, and back to home. The Jews lived out their faith in various ways according to the law, in other words, lived by that list of do's and don't's.
The Jesus entered the world, bringing a message of radical love and welcome, of looking at the law in a different way- in the way it had been intended by God- that's what it means when Jesus said he came to fulfill the law- he came as a perfect example of how to live out God's law. (I'm hoping you understand that-take questions) . Jesus was the embodiment of the law- so when you read the scriptures and you looked at everything God had said to do or not do, and wondered about what God really meant by that, all you need to do is look at the life of Jesus- he was God's law played out in real time.
Jesus never told the people not to be Jewish- he never told the people to leave the temple and start a church. He just wanted to help people see that within the law they already had, there were keys to salvation, which, to the Jews, meant having a rich full life in community with one another- that we are to be continually working toward making sure everyone and everything is cared for, nurtured and loved. That is salvation to the Jews, and was what Paul meant by salvation every time he talked to or wrote to the early church. (take questions)
Now, you just heard me say that Jesus never told people to leave the Jewish faith- and neither did Paul. Jesus was Jewish. Paul was Jewish. The reason we have a new movement called Chrstianity cropping up, was because this idea meant looking at faith and the law in a different way. The law became less about a list of dos and donts and more of a way of being, a way of loving, and way of reaching out to people who would have never been included in a life of faith, because they were not Jewish. Jesus preached that everyone was loved- everyone was included, everyone was welcome. Because of that, people who began acting in the ways of Jesus, and claiming him to be the messiah, or anointed one, were getting thrown out of the temple. And as they did, they needed places to worship, and people to worship with- they would come together in small groups, meeting in people's homes, and if you were attending one of these churches, you were always learning what it meant to follow Jesus' teachings- how to live out your faith, as Jesus did- caring for everyone like your own family.
This is really important to keep in mind whenever you are reading Paul, as sometimes we miss the fact that the newness of what he is talking about, and his focus so much on encouragement, or correction, or even when he gets angry at the church for missing the point, all of this is really about how to stay together in these small groups; despite arguments on ideology, or theology, or even how these communities stay strong in their faith in a world that is so counter to Christian beliefs. How do you focus on giving your money and time and talents to your home church, when the rest of the world is amassing stuff, bigger homes, clothes, entertainment... the temptations of ancient Rome were much like they are today in America. People were after bigger, better, faster... and with so many things and so many ways and Gods to worship, how can a community stick together against all of this, and still live out the teachings of Jesus?
This letter from Paul to the church at Thessolonica has such a positive beginning! After his greetings in the name of Abba (which means?) God and of course our Savior Jesus Christ, he has nothing but good things to say to this community of faith. "He has heard news from Timothy (3:6) who has reported that all is well with this new community of faith. They have apparently been subject to adversity and have held firm. They also seem to have stayed with Paul's approach to the gospel and not wavered. The words, "you know", occur frequently in the letter. The effect Paul seems to be trying to produce is to underline and reinforce what they know (or should know if any of them doubt!). So Paul is wanting to consolidate what seems to be a stable community."
SO now lets take all of that... and since the letters of Paul are so relevant to us today, let's apply them to our time, the modern christian church. We too need encouragement- we need affirmation of what we have done and how we have stayed strong in the face of adversity. We need reminders of what the Christian message truly is- and how we can experience true salvation- communion with one another and with all of creation.
As one of the communities of faith Paul may have been writing to, let me on his behalf, tell you how proud I am of this church. (And while generally I use the word 'us" to describe this church, let me step back into the role of observer for a few moments, and tell you what I have seen and experienced.
You have not missed the message of radical welcome and inclusion- you have looked inward to find out if we are living out the teachings and ways of Jesus, and over the past 5 and a half years have made some major changes in order to follow where you felt God was leading you. You pulled yourself out of a denominational region that did not affirm all of God's people equally. And you joined instead with a group of churches who value your church's freedom to include everyone, no matter what. You looked the law of your church, your by-laws, and reinterpreted them to permit more people to participate in the workings of the community. You restructured your governance system to look and function more organically, in order to allow people to more easily follow the call of Christ. You have recently joined with another group of committed, progressive, justice oriented churches where you can deepen and amplify your support for those on the margins.
You've adopted a commitment against racial injustice, fought for marriage equality, and have often been the lone voice of welcome in an area where other churches have not caught up with God's radical love and diversity. Your embrace of addiction recovery, passion for feeding the hungry, and outreach to those beyond our walls is a witness to the whole community, and I talk about your strength of character and conviction wherever I go.
Along the journey, though it would have been easy to succumb to problems and discord, you have held fast to the promise of God. you have not stopped sharing the good news and even now, are planning and seeking God's direction for what will come next.
I say all of this to you this morning because though we may not be a perfect church, we need to stop once in a while and look at who we are and celebrate what God is doing in and through this community of faith. Are we perfect? Far from it. We are still human beings, flawed, jealous, greedy, crazy, but we are all of those things together.
If there was one area that I could give you encouragement, and many of you do this already, its to get together with one another outside of church. Hang out with each other. Invite each other to dinner- go see a movie- learn about each other's families, and work, and life and the quirks of each others personality- in and out of church. Play together. Because its through the building of those kind of deep relationships, that when times do get tough, you can lean on the faith of your friends- when ministry needs to be done, or an issue needs to be addressed, or a fight for justice needs to be waged, you can lean on the faith of your friends. It's why Jesus started with not just one or 2 apostles, but 12 people he could build a ministry with, build a life with. And make no mistake, those disciples had families, and friends and neighbors- all of them part of this giant community that became "church"
Amen First Baptist. You are on the right road- you are faithful, and genuine, and passionate for Christ. May God bless all of us on the journey ahead.