A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A – Pent 22 – 1Thessalonians 1:1-10
Imagine you are living in Thessalonica in the 40’s – not the 1940’s, the 0040’s. You live in a Greek city that’s about 400 km north of Athens on a major trade route. You are a Gentile – meaning that you are not Jewish. Into your city strolls a guy named Paul – and he starts telling stories about some guy named Jesus – a Jew from a backwater little town – who some are calling the Messiah. Of course, you don’t care much about messiahs because you’re not Jewish – so Paul tells you the story of Jesus’ life – what he taught – how he connected with God – how he inspired and drew many followers – how he was killed by the Romans – and, get this, how he was resurrected from the dead by God. Somehow. Incredible! And Paul tells you that although he himself wasn’t there, he knows it’s true because he himself has had an experience of the risen Christ, and it transformed his life.
Remember – this is the only person you’ve ever heard this story from. You don’t have a New Testament to read – it hasn’t even been started yet. And you aren’t Jewish so you don’t have the Hebrew Scriptures either. There’s no network of established churches to follow – just a few small communities of people who have also heard Paul’s story. Paul has nothing else to offer. He’s not a miracle worker, he’s not on a book tour, he’s not selling anything, he has no YouTube videos to reference, he has no sacred relics to display. Nothing.
Well, not nothing. He’s got something amazingly awesome. He’s got Jesus. But that’s all there is at this point. There’s just Jesus. Jesus as a spiritual wisdom person. Jesus as a prophetic teacher. Jesus as the absolute, utter embodiment of the loving-kindness of God. Just Jesus. And ‘just Jesus’ was apparently enough. Jesus was the entirety of the message. Jesus was the word – and the word is…love. In the 0040s, the entire movement was built on one thing – Jesus.
Now, imagine you are there, with nothing more than Paul’s testimony – and you are convicted enough to form a church. You meet in homes, because you can’t meet in public, because that would be anti-Roman and your city doesn’t want that. No Bible, no models, no history – just the passion and truth of one believer to draw on.
You’re one of the first ever churches, and you’ve got nothing but Jesus. You are literally a Jesusy Church! And then, just as you’re getting started, Paul leaves to share his story again – to plant another new church. And you get on with the business of trying to grow in Christ-likeness – to be Jesusy like the guy Paul introduced you to.
Fast forward to a few years later – around the year 50. Paul has sent a letter to address you, to encourage you, to teach you, and to nurture your Jesusy church. Your community gathers in someone’s home, to hear the letter that your old friend Paul has written. What do you want it to say? What do you hope he’s heard about you? You feel a bit like a kid yearning for a word of affirmation from your parents, or a teacher, or a coach. You hope that you’ve been doing ok – because you’ve learned the hard way that being Jesusy is serious business, and anything this important had better be done right. If it’s worth risking everything for, we’d better be doing it right. And so you listen…
This first letter to the Thessalonians is actually the earliest piece of Christian writing that has survived. It’s included in the canon of scripture because it doesn’t just apply to that small group of followers that received it in about the year 50 – it resonates for us today too.
If the Bible was arranged chronologically according to the dates each part was written, this letter would be the very first thing in the New Testament. What would it say about Christianity if it was placed first? Would our perception of the texts change? Matthew, written around 25-30 years after this, is currently the first book of the New Testament – and it opens with a long genealogy setting Jesus’ place in Jewish history – “an account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of…” – it’s important stuff, but not exactly riveting. And Matthew isn’t even the oldest of the 4 gospels – Mark is – but even Mark begins with quotes from the Hebrew Bible.
But if 1st Thessalonians was first, our written introduction to the Christian faith would be what those followers heard in that house:
“Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.” – From the leadership to the church; we wish you grace and peace.
It goes on (1 Thess 1:2-3) – “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 labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Just listen to the words used in those first 3 verses – grace, peace, thanks, prayer, faith, love, hope. This is the oldest piece of writing in the New Testament – the earliest letter we have from Paul to the early church – and look at the words it begins with – grace, peace, thanks, prayer, faith, love, hope. It’s the whole Christian deal in 7 words. God bestows grace and peace, we give thanks through prayer, and live lives of faith, love, and hope.
But faith, love, and hope aren’t just pleasant things to have. Notice the verbs in verse 3. It’s the work of faith, the labour of love, their steadfastness of hope. Wouldn’t it be great if our Holy Scripture began with these words – and with the understanding that to live the Christian life requires work and labour and steadfastness? – that faith, love, and hope are gifts from God to be sure, but that they also require cultivation on our part – that we are partners with God. Maybe if our Bible began with that more people would tune the church in – and maybe if all our churches followed those words we’d have a much more Jesusy bunch of churches! If only…
But then again, the Thessalonians didn’t have that kind of Bible. They didn’t have any scripture at all. For them, it was all about the message Paul brought – and more than that – it was Paul himself. In important ways, Paul was the message. Think about it – If Paul hadn’t been Jesusy, his message would have fallen flat. For them, the truth of the Jesus story was embodied in a person. And as they embraced the story of Jesus, and embraced the Word of Jesus, its power and truth became part of them – became embodied in them. Right from the start, Christianity was about the people, and they were a Jesusy people.
In many churches, the reason people say they come is because of the people.
Ok, this is a very warm and friendly place – and that’s very good – but there are nice people just about everywhere, so why do you come here?
“I’ve always been a United Church person” is a common reply. Ok, why?
What makes us a United Church?
What’s different or unique about us?
What makes us different from a service club?
What makes us unique compared to any other organization you might belong to?
What makes our community different than the community you can find at a Timmy’s, or an ice rink?
What makes this not just another social club? I think you know the answer – I think you feel it, and try your best to live it out – but we just don’t seem to like to say it for some reason?!
The answer is Jesus! The reason is Jesus. The point is Jesus.
If we’re not here for Jesus, why bother?
If we’re not here to get closer to God, to equip ourselves to walk in Jesus’ Way, to be empowered through experiencing the Holy Spirit, to be more Jesusy, why bother??
Don’t come here for the nice people – there are nice people everywhere.
Don’t come for the coffee – there’s a coffee shop on every corner.
Don’t come for the music – you can get that on recordings.
Don’t come to see the dancing monkey – there are far more entertaining people out there than me.
Come for God. Come for Jesus.
Say it like a southern preacher if you like – “I come for Ja-eeez-us-a!”.
Yes, indeed, come to be energized by the Holy Spirit – and then go and be Jesusy.
Folks, let me say it straight – nice people are important – but they can’t transform your life – only the Holy Spirit can. Come for Jesus.
Turns out, the church is about people – but not nice and friendly people. The church is about passionate, Spirit-filled, transformed, Jesusy people.
1 Thessalonians 1:4: “For we know, kindred in Christ, 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…”
God has chosen you! (Yes, God chooses everybody, but you’ve tuned in and received it) – and Paul says that we know that because the message comes not in word only, but in power and in the Holy Spirit, and with full conviction.
God’s Word isn’t just in a book – it comes in power and Spirit with full conviction.
(1:6-8) “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, (in other words, you became Jesusy) 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 the Lord 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.”
Followers of Jesus receive the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, and despite persecution – despite struggles or challenges, despite tight budgets, and fewer folks in pews, generally, and all that stuff that gives us such angst) – despite all that stuff they strive to become imitators of Christ – to grow in Christ-likeness – and they become examples to others. That’s Jesusy!
Those Thessalonians became such examples that their faith was known throughout the neighbouring provinces. That tiny little church had a big reputation. Their lives spoke the story so much that they didn’t need words. Like Saint Francis of Assisi famously said “Preach the Gospel daily – use words if necessary.”
Those who receive the word with power and the Holy Spirit are transformed into imitators of Christ, and become Jesusy examples to the whole world.
Yes, church is definitely about the people! – the beautifully, faithfully, wonderfully caring, compassionate and loving Jesusy people!
Remember the old song? – “And they’ll know we are Christians by our Jesusy-ness”?
It’s not our Bibles. It’s not our buildings. It’s our love – our example – our transformed lives – our Jesusy-ness!
Are you feeling Jesusy? I hope so! You certainly act it!
Why should someone come to this church? – to join us in striving to be as Jesusy as we can!!! – to be part of a group of people who have received the word of God (LOVE) with power and the Holy Spirit –
Jesusy people who live passionately, transformed by the love of God.
Jesusy people who work in faith, labour in love, and are steadfast in hope.
Jesusy people who are examples regardless of their struggles.
Jesusy people who pray with thankfulness.
Jesusy people who know God’s grace and peace in the very depths of their hearts.
Jesusy people just like you.
God bless this Jesusy church!