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
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,
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
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
Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj