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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

I Thessalonians 1:1-11
May 5, 2013 - Sixth Sunday of Easter

         They ran towards the explosion instead of away from it. While most of the crowd at the Boston Marathon finish line scrambled to get away from the scene of the blast, a few people ran towards the center to help the injured, including doctors like pediatrician Natalie Savas and Indian-American surgeon Vivek Shah. Victims and families are giving thanks for those men and women who risked themselves to give aid.

         What’s it take to be people for whom others give thanks? In our text from the beginning of I Thessalonians, after greeting them, Paul gives thanks to God for the Christians in Thessalonica. What merits that sort of appreciation? For what qualitites in those people was Paul grateful?

         He spells it out in verse 3, saying he remembers before God “your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Faith, love and hope. We usually put that triad in the order found at the end of I Corinthians 13, faith, hope and love. Paul repeats it near the end of I Thessalonians chapter 5, verse 8. Those three marks of Christian life repeat again and again in the New Testament. They are essential traits of those who follow Jesus.

         The old fashioned term for faith, hope and love is “virtues.” These three are the particularly Christian virtues, and my plan for the next couple of months is for us to study them, along with the classical Greek quartet which Christians also adopted: justice, prudence, temperance and courage. Those four are usually called the “cardinal” virtues.

         Virtue is a way of talking about character. Focusing on character helps us understand why a person would run towards danger to help someone instead of away from it. We won’t understand if we focus, like our culture often does, on choice. We’re often told to teach children and ourselves to make good choices. That’s not bad. But a person of good character doesn’t make a lot of choices. Doctors Savas and Shah didn’t stop to make a decision to help the marathon victims. They just did it.

         Our culture tries to do moral education in terms of choices, of choosing values. Business ethics and medical ethics committees sit down to “clarify values.” But that just puts the most important things in human life on a par with what’s for supper. We don’t get to choose what is valuable. In verse 4, Paul says “we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you.” What’s valued is God’s choice, not ours.

         That’s how faith, hope and love came to be the character of the Thessalonians. They didn’t choose those virtues. God chose them. God chooses to love us and it’s in response to His love and grace that we learn to be people who are loveable.

         Christian virtues are holy habits. Faith, hope and love are not just states of mind or emotions. They are constant and regular habits of behavior that define who we are. We think it’s an insult to call someone a “creature of habit,” as though he or she were just an animal guided by instinct. But faith, hope and love are spiritual habits which root our character in everything that is true and good.

         We feel better about a word like “skill,” but a skill is just the habit of doing a particular thing well all the time. And habits and skills are the sort of thing which, as they saying goes, are “caught, not taught.” You don’t learn them by lectures or books or even by sermons. You learn them by watching someone else.

         That’s why in verse 5 Paul turns to the process by which God actually brought faith, hope and love to the Thessalonians. He says, “our message of the gospel came to you not in word only”—Paul and Silvanus and Timothy did not just preach to them—“but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” And here’s the key part: “just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.”

         The faith of the Thessalonians, and their love and hope, did not come just from hearing and believing a message. They did that, yes. It was essential, yes. But they also saw “what kind of persons” the apostles were, how they lived and behaved.

         I like to tie flies for fishing. I’m not very good at it because I don’t spend enough time at it. I have several books about fly-tying. I got a great new one last fall. I can read those words and look at the pictures and learn a bit. But the way I learn the most about the skill of tying flies is doing what Chris Potter and I did last month. We went to a fly-fishing festival at the Campbell Center downtown and walked around a room where a dozen different skilled fly-tiers were at work, talking and answering questions about how they do what they do. Watching one of them for a half hour was worth six books.

         Caught, not taught. We learn to be people of faith by living among other people of faith, watching and sharing and learning together. That’s why verse 6 goes on, “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord.” You learn to tie flies or drive a nail or change a diaper or bake a cake by observing and imitating someone who can already do it well. Christian faith and life is just like that.

         Paul wants to be clear, “you became imitators of us and of the Lord.” Ultimately we learn Christian virtues by becoming Christlike, by imitating Jesus. But God also gives us people like He gave the Thessalonians, people who have already learned something about being like Jesus. We learn by watching and imitating them. They may be parents or Sunday School teachers or just Christian friends, but we learn faith, hope and love by watching those virtues demonstrated in the lives of people around us.

         That’s one of the big reasons we get together every week. I’m a lousy fly-tier because I only sit down to tie a few times a year. Until last month I hadn’t watched anyone else tie for several years. But if you really want to learn and develop a skill, you practice and observe how it’s done all the time. We accomplish that by getting together in worship and small groups and one-on-one to talk and share and learn from each other how to be like Jesus.

         The rest of verse 6 tells how the Thessalonians’ faith worked out for them when they imitated the apostles, “in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.” There is a lively, skilled faith, to be able to be joyful in the Holy Spirit in spite of troubles and suffering.

         I’d say for myself that my faith still needs some work in that area. My typical reaction to struggles and setbacks is to gripe. My first response is not always joy in the Word and in the Gospel message, which tells me Christ is greater than my troubles. I’m still working on learning from some of you and from other Christians and some of the great saints of history the sort of faith which greets every circumstance with joy in the Lord.

         So we’re here together to learn the virtue of faith by observation, by watching and imitating those whose faith is deep and constant. And as we do that, the result is what it was for the Thessalonians in verse 7, “so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.”

         See what happened? Paul and his fellow apostles imitated Jesus. The Thessalonians imitated them. And then others started imitating the Thessalonians. Jesus was the original example. Then the apostles became examples. Then the Thessalonians themselves became examples. So much so that Paul can say in verse 8 that “in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.”

         That’s God’s plan for passing on the virtue of faith. You and I learn it by example. Then we are examples for those around us. Faith is not just about your own beliefs and life. It’s about passing on that essential virtue to others around you. It may be a child in Sunday School class or children’s church, it may be another believer here, it may be a person in your home or at your school or next to you in a cubicle, but someone needs your example, needs to see your faith lived out in “power and in the Holy Spirit and in full conviction.”

         There are lots of definitions of faith, but try this one based on the next verse, verse 9. Paul talks about what the people around Thessalonica were reporting about them. First was the kind of welcome they gave the apostles. They listened to their teaching, heard the Good News, believed it. That’s how we normally understand faith, as believing. But then Paul says “how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God.” Faith is also a life turned toward God.

         If you are wondering this morning if you have faith, or how healthy your faith might be, then ask yourself this, “Am I turned toward God?” Or is my life aimed in all sorts of other directions? Most of us don’t have actual wood or metal idols set up in our homes, but we may have all kinds of substitutes for the “true and living God” set up in our hearts and in the ways we spend our time and money and energy.

         My hope and prayer this morning is that you will find someone to imitate, an example for your own faith. I’ve been reading about St. Francis of Assisi, whose deepest desire was to be like Jesus in humility and service. Francis’s example inspired many followers. But just as the Franciscan movement was taking off, with hundreds, maybe thousands of men and women joining up to live simple lives of service like Francis, he resigned. He quit as the leader of the movement and put someone else in charge so that he could be still more like Jesus, more humble, more wiling to put others before himself.

         Don’t worry, I’m not going to resign until we have hundreds here. But Francis’s example challenges my understandings of leadership. His whole life was turned toward God and away from idols such as power and authority. Some of you are also examples for me in the way you turn your lives toward the Lord. That’s faith, turning toward God and away from everything else that distracts us.

         May the Lord, may the Holy Spirit, give you your own models of faith. Watch them, talk with them, learn from them. Then God will make you an example of faith for someone else.

         And together then we will do what Paul says in verse 10, “wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.” But that’s hope, which is the next virtue on the list. Faith leads to hope, and we’ll talk about that next week.

         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated May 5, 2013