Today we start a series of New Testament readings from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, which was written to a group of people who had only been Christians for a very short time – perhaps only months. Paul and Silas arrived in the city of Thessalonica in about 50 A.D.; they came there from Philippi, where they’d been thrown in jail because of their missionary activity. But they were stubborn, so they set right about spreading the gospel again. They found a Jewish synagogue, and for three successive Sabbath days they went there and shared the good news of Jesus with both Jews and Gentiles; they pointed to the Old Testament texts that suggested that the Messiah had to die and rise again, and they said, “It’s talking about Jesus of Nazareth; he’s the Messiah”.
Some people believed them – a few Jews, and many, many more Greeks – and so a little church was formed. But the Jewish leaders got jealous and formed a mob; they tried to find Paul and Silas, and when they couldn’t, they found Jason, who had been hosting them, and they took him and a few other Christians before the city council. ‘These guys are breaking the emperor’s laws!’ they said; ‘They’re saying there’s another king, called Jesus!’ So the other Christians quickly sent Paul and Silas away for safety, and the young church had to face a time of persecution without the help of their founding missionaries.
We know that Paul was worried about his new converts and he tried to get news about how they were doing. Eventually he took the risk of sending his young assistant Timothy back to see how they were doing. When Timothy returned, Paul was overjoyed to find that all was well, although the new church did have a few questions they wanted to ask him. So right away, Paul sat down to write them a letter, one of the first letters he ever wrote, and that’s the letter we read from this morning.
It can be hard for us to connect with this letter, for two reasons. First, the people Paul was writing to had a definite ‘darkness to light’ conversion experience. Most of them had been worshipers of idols, but when they heard the message Paul preached, they left their false gods behind and turned to the one true God who had been revealed to them in Jesus. They would have agreed with John Newton’s words: ‘I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see’. But many of us haven’t had this sort of experience. We’re followers of Jesus, but we came to it much more gradually; perhaps we’d even say we’ve been following him our whole life long.
Secondly, their church was very different from ours. Paul uses the Greek word ‘ekklesia’, which we translate ‘church’, but which actually meant a gathering, or even a town hall meeting. Their church had only been in existence for a very short time – probably less than a month – when Paul had to leave it behind. There were probably only a few of them, and I expect they met in the round in someone’s living room. They had no organization, no priests, no access to any written scriptures, no liturgies or anything like that. All they had was faith in the one true God, commitment to his Son Jesus Christ, a real experience of the Holy Spirit, and a shared memory of the things Paul had taught them by word and example. And you know what? That was enough; the whole world, Paul said – slight exaggeration, perhaps – was telling the story of their conversion.
What can we learn from them today? I suggest two things. First, we can learn what a Christian conversion might look like, and second, we can learn what Christian growth looks like.
First, what does a Christian conversion look like? The classic description of Christian conversion is the one I already quoted: ‘I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see’. John Newton, who wrote these words, had been a godless sailor and slave trader, but he had a gradual conversion experience which started when he went through a horrendous storm at sea, and eventually he came to faith in Christ and commitment to him. He would have identified strongly with the metaphor Jesus used of a ‘new birth’; that would have been a good way of describing what he had experienced.
For many of us in our church today, perhaps, our experience was not so clear cut. Some of us have had moments of epiphany when it seems like our eyes have been opened to new truth about Jesus. Some of us can identify decisive moments in our Christian journey, others perhaps can’t. So does the story of the Thessalonians have anything to say to us? Yes, it does.
Try to imagine what their conversion was like. Their city was full of temples to the Greek and Roman gods – Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, Ares and the rest. Every civic event would begin with a sacrifice to the gods. Almost all the meat sold in the marketplaces would have come from animals that had been offered in sacrifice in the temples. The trade guilds held their meetings in the temples and started with worship of the gods. Even farmers planting fields went to the temples to pray that the gods would grant them fertility; not to have done that would have been as nonsensical to them as refusing to buy crop insurance would be to farmers today.
To them all this worship of idols seemed good and right and true. To be asked leave all this behind would be as if a preacher today told us we had to give up our cars, computers, and cell phones. Most of us would have a hard time imagining how we were going to live our lives without those things.
So what happened to these Thessalonians? Look with me at verses 9-10:
For the people of those regions report about us the 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 his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
This was their conversion story: they turned away from false gods, and put their faith in a true and living God who had been revealed to them in Jesus.
Now you may not think it, but today we are surrounded by false gods. All of them are calling to us, demanding that we trust them, give them our loyalty, and make sacrifices to them. There’s the false god of money and possessions, which often demands that we sacrifice our time and our relationships so that we can have all that it offers. Closely related to it is another false god called ‘success’. A third false god is called ‘nationalism’, and sometimes it asks us to sacrifice our lives and the lives of our enemies to its thirst for blood.
For some of us, the desire to be liked and respected by others is a kind of false god. Maybe we feel insecure inside; maybe we’re not sure who we really are. But if we can just get others to like us and approve of us, we think that ache inside will go away. So we bend ourselves into pretzel shapes, sacrificing our true selves as we try to be what others want us to be. But it never works. False gods never can deliver on their promises, because they aren’t real.
We Christians believe that there is one true God, who one who created the universe and everything in it. But we also believe that he came to live among us as one of us in Jesus. We believe that Jesus is our most accurate picture of what the one true God is like. So conversion is a process of turning from false gods to the one true God, and giving our allegiance to his anointed king, Jesus the Messiah.
The Thessalonians made that decision at their conversion, but they probably had to keep on making it. Every day when they walked through the marketplace the voices of the false gods would be calling them back. And it’s the same for us today. Think of the false god of materialism. It has its priests – the advertisers who spend their lives trying to make us discontented so we’ll buy more stuff. “If you just buy this”, they say, “You’ll be happy; you’ll finally find what you’re looking for”. And so you and I need a daily process of conversion – turning away from the lies the false gods tell us, and turning back to Jesus and the Father he has revealed to us.
What are my favourite false gods? What are yours? John Newton’s friend William Cowper wrote a hymn about them once; one of the verses goes like this:
The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne
And worship only thee.
So this passage shows us first of all what conversion looks like: a continual process of turning away from the lies of false gods, and putting our trust in God our Creator, the God Jesus has revealed to us. Secondly, it shows us what Christian growth looks like. Look at verses 2-3 with me:
We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul’s first hearers were probably largely illiterate, and Paul knew that he’d probably be moving on pretty quickly to start new churches in different cities. We can see in some places in his letters that he was pretty good at developing little summaries to help new Christians remember the important things about their Christian faith, and one of those summaries was this little triad of ‘faith, hope, and love’. We’re probably most familiar with it from 1 Corinthians 13:13: ‘And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love’. We find it here in a different order: ‘your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’. These new Christians were like newly-planted trees; they needed to grow, but grow in what? In these three cardinal virtues: faith, love, and hope.
First comes faith. To Paul, this means believing the promises of God and trusting the God who made the promises. Paul liked to tell the story of old Abraham in the book of Genesis; he was a wrinkled old man and his wife was long past child bearing age, but God promised him descendents, and Abraham believed him, and God credited it to him as righteousness. But this faith wasn’t just a feeling ; God commanded Abraham to leave his home in Haran and go to the land of Canaan, and Abraham obeyed and went.
Likewise in the New Testament, we can think of Jesus walking on the water, holding out his hand to Peter and saying ‘Come’. The feeling of faith wasn’t enough; Peter had to take the step out of the boat, risking a soaking! Or we think of the four men who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus; it says ‘Jesus saw their faith’, but what he actually saw was the action that their faith prompted.
True faith always leads to action; it leads to a changed life. A few months ago my cardiologist said to me, “Mr. Chesterton, you can get off these blood pressure and cholesterol pills in a couple of years if you want; it’s all to do with getting serious about diet and exercise”. I believed her, too, but belief wasn’t enough; I had to put into practice the things that she said. Those changes were the evidence of my faith in her. And I guess that when it came to the Thessalonians, the evidence of their faith was that they didn’t go to idol temples to offer sacrifices any more.
What is the evidence of my faith in Jesus? What’s the evidence of your faith in Jesus? If we were on trial for our faith, would there be enough evidence to convict us? And how can we grow in our ‘work of faith’? What’s the cutting edge, for you and for me?
Faith comes first, but the next thing Paul mentions is love. Faith is directed toward God and Christ, but love is directed toward others. The Greek word for love that Paul uses is ‘agapé’, so he’s not talking about feeling love for someone; he’s talking about a way of life in which we do what’s best for others, whether we like them or not, whether we feel like it or not. It’s what Jesus is doing when he washes his disciples’ feet, or when he gives his life on the cross for us.
It’s an active virtue; Paul talks about our ‘labour of love’. In the early church, it sometimes meant sharing their possessions with each other, rich members helping poor members so that all were equal. This is the love that brings neighbours together to build barns for each other; it takes people into hospitals and jails to visit the sick and the prisoners. It took Mother Teresa to the streets of Calcutta to care for lepers; it takes other people to work in AIDS clinics or to cook meals for church members who are sick. All of this is serving others in the name of Christ.
In his first letter John says, ‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’ (1 John 3:18). People today are tired of empty words; they want to see actions. What is our labour of love? What’s mine, and what’s yours? What are we doing to actively love others? How can we grow in this?
Faith is directed toward God and Christ; love is directed toward other people. Hope is the third thing, and it’s directed toward the future. In the Creed we say, ‘Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead’, and in the Lord’s Prayer we pray, ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven’. In other words, we know that there’s still something lacking in our experience of God’s plan in our lives; even though we know and follow Jesus, there is still a lot of evil in the world, and in us as well. Those early Thessalonian Christians experienced that; they’d only been followers of Jesus for a few weeks, and they were being persecuted already! What kept them going through that? Paul pointed to their ‘steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’.
Studies of concentration camp inmates have shown that those who can hang onto their hope have a better chance of survival. We Christians are called to be people of stubborn hope, because we believe that if it’s true that God raised Jesus from the dead, then nothing is too hard for him. We believe his promise of a better future, so when the present looks dark, we can still have joy in him. And so we don’t give up on people, because we know that God hasn’t finished with them yet.
Is this you? Is this me? Are we people of stubborn hope? And how can we grow more steadfast in our hope?
Let’s go around this one last time. First, the false gods are all around us, and they are tempting us all the time. Some of their lies are frankly incredible; I think of the cult of celebrity, which is nonsense when you think of how many celebrities are in rehab, or are jumping from relationship to relationship; why on earth do we want to be like them? And so our Christian life is a constant process of naming their lies for what they are, and then turning once again to the one true God who Jesus has revealed to us. What is your favourite idol? What is mine? How can we be steadfast in turning away from them and turning to Christ? How can we help one another to do this?
Second, our Christian life is about growing in faith, love, and hope: the faith that changes our lives, the love that shows itself in hard work to help others, and the stubborn hope that keeps us serving God and loving people, because we believe in God’s future. Which of these three characteristics are we strongest in? Which do we need to work on? How can our brothers and sisters in Christ pray for us and help us grow in faith, hope, and love? Let’s take a moment of silence to think about those questions, and then we’ll pray.