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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

“Faith, Love, and Hope”

Twentyfirst Sunday After Pentecost


Paul, Silas and Timothy,


To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:


Grace and peace to you.


We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.


For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction.

1 Thessalonians 1:1-5a


Today’s Epistle lesson comes from the letter sent to the church in Thessalonica by Paul (with Silas and Timothy). Thessalonica is located in what was then called Macedonia, and today is Northern Greece, on the Aegean Sea.


It's really remarkable to read Paul’s portrayal of the Thessalonian church when he writes: “We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers loved by God, that He has chosen you.” (1 Thes. 1:2-4a)


This picture of the Thessalonian church is remarkable because the church is only a few months old! Its members are newborn Christians, freshly converted from Judaism or paganism. Their Christian convictions have been newly acquired. Their Christian moral standards have been recently adopted. And they are being sorely tested by persecution. In fact, “Paul had been forced to leave Thessalonica as a result of persecution. Even then persecution continued from the Jews of Thessalonica who followed Paul to Berea and stirred up antagonism there.” (Acts 17:10-13) You would expect this church to be a very wobbly one, in a very precarious condition. But no! Paul is confident about it, because he knows it is God’s church, and because he has confidence in God!


He outlines the reasons for his thanksgiving and his confidence in three ways – three definitions of a strong, healthy church – three characteristics that every church should have, including our church! Let’s look at what Paul thanks God for in this Thessalonian church.


The church is a community which lives in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The Greek word for church is Ekklesia, which means “an assembly.” In those days it was used for different kinds of assemblies – both religious and secular. As Chrysostom, an early church father wrote, “There were many assemblies, both Jewish and Grecian.” So, what was distinctive about the Ekklesia to which Paul was writing? It’s this: it is “in” the Father and the Son. What kind of relationship does that mean? Two New Testament metaphors explain it, the first developed by Jesus and the second by Paul. Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) And Paul put the same concept in a different picture, with Christ as the head and we, the church, the body: feet and eyes, ears and hands, and so on. In both cases, the relationship in mind is a vital, organic union which makes possible the sharing of a common life. That’s what it means to be “in” the Father and the Son.


In later letters Paul’s description of the church would be the other way around, like “the church of God in Corinth.” Why did he write to the Church of the Thessalonians in God? Maybe because he knew that the young and persecuted church had to feel some insecurity, and he wanted to remind them that in the midst of their trials, their security was in God. It’s from the Father and the Son, through the Holy Spirit, that every church derives its life, strength, and stability. The church is a community which lives in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.


The church is also a community which is distinguished by faith, love, and hope. Paul gives thanks for the Thessalonians’ “work produced by faith.” Maybe you tend to think of faith as an intellectual exercise – as something we do with our mind. We don’t often refer to faith as work. Here the word “work” would mean our profession, our occupation, our vocation.


A number of years ago Elton Trueblood wrote a book titled “Your Other Vocation.” His thesis is that our primary vocation is being a Christian! How we make our living is our other vocation. When someone asks me what my vocation is, I’m inclined to say that I’m a Lutheran minister. Instead, my response should be that I’m a follower of Jesus. I’ll bet our congregation would be transformed if we all began to grasp the idea that our real vocation is Christian discipleship, and our other vocation is how we make our living!


Of course, there’s always the danger that we make following Jesus mostly a matter of doing church work. Richard Halverson, former Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, said we have to make a clear distinction between “church work” and “the work of the church.”


This doesn’t mean that only those things that are considered “religious” should be on the church’s program, but it does mean that everything we do should have a relationship to our faith in Christ, and to serving the needs of people.


And that same principle should also be at work in our personal lives and in our family lives. Faith seen as vocation becomes the basis for genuine stewardship of all that we are, and all that we have. Faith as vocation means that Jesus Himself is decisive in all areas of our lives. What would happen if we applied “the work produced by faith” – faith as our primary vocation – to the areas of life that affect us the most: family life, work, and money?


The late Vince Lombardi was one of the greatest football coaches of all time. I read that he opened his training camps for the Green Bay Packers with a rousing speech that concluded: “Remember at all times God, your family, and the Green Bay Packers – and always in that order!” It’s a wise person who develops that perspective.


From the “work of faith,” Paul next gives thanks for the Thessalonians’ “labor of love.” Just as we wrongly tend to think of faith as only an intellectual matter, so we tend to regard love primarily as a matter of feeling. But the word Paul uses here, Kopou, means work as toil and hard labor – the kind of labor that produces fatigue and even exhaustion. This becomes clear when we understand the full meaning of the word Paul uses for love: Agape. Paul intentionally uses Agape because it defines a quality of love and life that’s more a matter of acting than of feeling.


The love of which Paul speaks here may or may not be related to emotional responses. It’s a love that’s intentional. It’s a love that a person chooses to do. It’s love that acts whether or not it feels like acting. Agape love must always be defined in terms of action, and not just feelings. And the action must always be what one thinks is in the best interests of the other person. That’s the labor prompted by love!


The third thing that Paul is thankful for in the church of the Thessalonians is their “endurance inspired by hope.” Hope – that’s another Bible word that we may easily misunderstand. We say we hope for something we want, and maybe expect – or for something we want very much. Ask someone if they’ll go to Heaven when they die and they’re apt to say, “I hope so.” In other words, “I sure want to.” But that’s not the biblical definition of hope! Hope is something on which we can trust and rely.


Paul begins his first letter to Timothy, “Paul, an Apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior, and of Christ Jesus our hope.” Jesus is our hope, an absolute certainty, not just a wish! Then he wrote to Titus, “We wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” (Titus 2:13) We don’t just wish Jesus will return; we don’t just want Him to; His second coming is an absolute certainty!


Many people put their hope in financial security. But financial security doesn’t produce genuine hope. Jesus said, “Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on Earth… but store up for yourselves treasures in Heaven… For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:19-23)


Substitute “hope” for “heart” in that last sentence, and you have a good definition of hope. Hope is where your heart is!


So, how do we find hope in the midst of all the realities that surround us? The New Testament sets forth a claim that is either stupendous or preposterous, and that is that hope is found in Jesus Himself and Jesus alone! As Paul reminded the Corinthians, this claim “is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (I Cor. 1:18)


This hope in Jesus is rooted in reality. In the Christian life we are not dealing merely with ideas, theories, theology, or doctrine. We are dealing with a person – Jesus Himself!


Paul gives thanks that the church of the Thessalonians is a community which lives in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. And Paul thanks God that they are a community which is distinguished by faith, love, and hope. And thirdly he thanks God that they are a community which is loved and chosen by God. (vs. 4)


Think of that! He chose us because He loves us, and He loves us because… He loves us! He doesn’t love us because we’re lovable, but only because He is love! And with that mystery, I guess we have to be content.


So, this is Paul’s threefold description of what every church should be like – including ours. It is a community loved and chosen by God; rooted in God and drawing its life from Him; and exhibiting this life of God in a faith which works, a love which labors, and a hope which endures.


What stands out in Paul’s vision of the church is its God-centeredness. He doesn’t think of it as a human institution, but as a divine society. No wonder he could be confident in its stability! May God help us to be that kind of strong, healthy church!


Amen.

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