This morning, we will begin one of the letters of Paul, his first letter to the church in Thessalonica. This letter is considered to be the very first letter that Paul ever wrote, as well as the first document of the New Testament, written even before the gospels themselves. Therefore, as we read this letter, we gain some understanding of what was happening very early on in the church. We find some of the joys of the church, as well as, some of the concerns. We discover just what motivated the early church, as well as, some of the obstacles that they encountered. As we learn from the early church, we are invited to consider the church in our day, to search out our own joys and concerns, motivations and obstacles. So, let us begin Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, the first chapter starting at the first verse...
I think that I have told this story before, but growing up, we were the first family on our street to get a microwave oven. It was the late 70's early 80's and my parents had decided to purchase a microwave oven, because they were both working at the boat stored that we owned, and coming home to spend an hour or so cooking dinner for six, after a long days work, was becoming impractical. I don’t think they quite trusted my brothers and sisters and I to do the cooking, so this microwave was going to make things easier by getting dinner ready quicker, and it did. We had never seen food get cooked so fast. It was so much fun, that we all played around with the microwave, developing our own techniques for cooking our favorite foods. For example, I was the expert at hotdogs. From the refrigerator and into my mouth in less than two minutes, and that was fully heated up, in a bun, and with the right condiments. My finger was like a speed dial when it came to punching in the numbers. Of course, this led to too much late night snacking, but that is another story. We were so excited about having a microwave, that we sort of began to boast about it to our neighbors. Guess what we did this morning, we cooked bacon in the microwave. Where did you cook your bacon? In a pan on the stove, that was so last year. Of course, over time, more microwaves began to appear, until they were no longer a rare thing, they became quite common, as we all know today. As matter of fact, several years ago, our microwave broke and so we went for a time without one. Well, when people would come to our house they would say, “You don’t have a microwave?” They are so common that it is the rare home that doesn’t have one today. Microwaves, have lost their uniqueness. We simply take it for granted that we have these machines in our homes, which if we stop and think about it, are quite remarkable, for what they can do. Of course, microwaves are not the only things that have become so common that we take them for granted. Many of the machines that we have are common, computers, televisions, cars. There are so many things that we have in our lives that we have simply come to expect to be there, that these things have lost their uniqueness. We no longer say, “wow, these things exist, or we have these things.” Commonality has render us thankless with regard to so many things, simply because they are no longer unique.
One of the things that has lost its uniqueness is the church. What I mean by that is that the fact there is such thing as the church is remarkable; yet, we no longer see that because churches are so common. Around here they are just about on every street corner. We take the existence of the church for granted, not just Montours church, but the whole church; and yet, the church really is unique. As people we get together in groups for a variety of reasons. We get together in families because we are born in relationships to each other. We get together with our neighbors because we live in the same geographical region. As parents we get together at PTA because our children go to the same school. As men and women each have clubs and organizations that we can belong to based upon some shared interests. Of course, we cannot forget, that some people get together simply to support a common cause. But, why do we get together as the church? Why do hundreds of millions of people get together each week in the church? Well, it is not about geography, or necessarily about family. It is not about gender or shared interests or even for a common cause. The church exists because of God. We get together each week because of God. God has called each of us to be part of his family called the church; and, therein lies the uniqueness of the church, therein lies our reason for giving thanks. That is what separates the church from any other group or organization to which we could belong. The fact is, the church exists because of God, who has called us through his son, Jesus. We think of the church as being so common, that we forget, that had God not called us, we would not be here together this morning. Had God not called us, there would be no church. This reality was not lost on Paul as he wrote to the Thessalonians. When Paul was writing to the Thessalonians, it had occurred to him that their very existence was unique. Keep in mind that just a few years before Paul wrote this letter, there was no such thing as the church. As a matter of fact, it was only a couple of years before this letter was written, that Christians were even called Christians. So, as Paul was writing, his first thought was to give thanks. Yet, what is interesting is that Paul doesn’t so much thank the Thessalonians, saying, thank you for all that you do, for being the church; he gives thanks to God, for the very fact that they are there to begin with. Paul is grateful to God for the fact that there is a church, because he knows that the church owes its very existence to God. And, what was true for the Thessalonians is true for us today. We owe our very existence, as the church, to God. The fact is, it was God who sent someone into our lives to share the good news of Jesus Christ with us. It might have been our parents or our friends, maybe a Sunday School teacher or a minister that shared the faith with us. Then when the faith was shared with us, it was God who opened our hearts and minds to recognize Christ as our Lord and Savior. Then, it was God who placed us within the community of fellow believers with whom we could worship together, fellowship together, and share together, the various aspects of the church’s ministry. We are here, right now, because God has called us, and placed us within his family called the church. So, while the church has been around for so long, and while the church may exist in so many different places, literally on every street corner, it is the fact that we are here because of God that the church is not common, instead it is unique, and as we recognize this fact, of why and how we even came to be here in the first place, then we find our hearts filled with gratitude to God. Of course, it is only because we are part of the church that we can even begin to comprehend how blessed we are, and how different it is to be part of the church, than to not be part of the church. At the time that Paul was writing to the Thessalonians, because the church was so new, other people began to take notice of this new group of people. The church began to stick out as being different from the rest of society. These church people worshiped a different God than the rest of the people, as a matter of fact, the church worshiped a God who could not be seen. They did not bow down to an idol made of stone or wood. The church worshiped a God who was living and present to them in a whole new way, than what the people had come to expect. These church people worshiped a God who, through his Son, died, and then was raised back to life. These church people were waiting for this Son to return from heaven. So different were these church people, that their faith in this God, became known throughout the region. So, people, both inside and outside the church knew that there was something different about these church people. Because of the way in which they lived their lives those inside the church could be distinguished from those outside the church. For example, church people stopped offering up incense to Caesar. In every town occupied by Roman rule, there would be a statue of Caesar. And, as you walked by, you were obligated to take a pinch of incense and offer it up to Caesar. The church people stopped doing that, and so they were seen as being different. They also stopped attending social gatherings, because often times these gatherings, including birthday parties were connected to the worship of some pagan god. So, in order to avoid worshiping the pagan god, the church people simply stopped attending parties. Many in the church stopped eating meat from the market, because often this meat was first offered as a sacrifice to some god. Therefore, in order not to sacrifice to some other god, the church people stopped eating meat from the market. All these things that they did marked them as being different. Other things that I have been reading about during that time is the fact that the church people often cared for the sick and needy, seeking healing for them, which was relatively unheard of at the time. Also, unheard of was the fact that woman were made part of the church fellowship. Being part of the church meant being different; it was unique to those outside of the church. Thus for the Thessalonians their actions were a witness to their faith simply because they acted in a way that was different from the rest of society. Yet, what was true in Paul’s day is not necessarily true today. Actions alone do not distinguish church people from non-church people. Many of the things that used to distinguish church people from non-church people, simply do not matter within our society. We do not worry about idols, and pinches of incense any more. We do not consider where our meat comes from or whether or not our social festivities are connected to some other god. As far as doing nice things for others or living an ethically good life, there are just as many non-church people doing nice things for others and living ethically good lives as there are church people. We know that being part of the church is unique and different, and we are grateful because we know that we are part of God’s family. We know that our faith is secure in God, and that we have hope in Jesus Christ in spite of the circumstance of our day. We know that when we do good for others, it is because we are motivated by the love of Christ in our lives, or that when we seek to live ethically good lives, it is because of our faith in God. Yet, those outside the church do not see it, and most likely will not see the difference simply by our actions.
When I first starting studying this letter to prepare for today’s message, my first thought was to talk about how we are failing to show others our faith through our actions. So, that I was going to talk about all the things that we need to do in order to witness to our faiths. Yet, while there is a place to consider our actions and how others will perceive them, the fact is actions alone will not witness to our faith. People outside the church, because they will not see our lives as being that much different from their own, will not understand what’s so unique about being part of the church, or for that matter, being a follower of Jesus Christ. We know what is special and unique about being a follower of Jesus, but those outside the church will not know unless we tell them. People will not know to look to Jesus simply by looking at how we live our lives. We have to tell them about Jesus in order to point them in his direction. Now, do not get me wrong, how we live our lives is important, because as we tell people about Jesus they will look at our lives to see if we live what we believe. But, people will not know what we believe simply by looking at how we live. They have to be told about Jesus. Just as we should not take the existence of the church for granted, so also we should not take it for granted that people will come to faith just by looking at our lives. We have to tell them about Jesus, and what Jesus means to us, in order to point them his way.
We are truly blessed to be part of the church. For, the simple reason that if it wasn’t for God, we would not be here. So, being part of the church, really is unique and different from anything else in the world, and so we have reason to be grateful in our hearts to God for making us to be part of his church. Yet, while we know that it is a blessing to be part of the church, those outside the church do not see, and will not see it, until we tell them about it, because actions alone are not enough. Our actions will verify our words, but by themselves they are not enough. We actually have to talk to people about Jesus. So that our faith in God will become known to others. Thanks be to God for his church, thanks be to God that we can tell others about Jesus.
Pastor Jim's past sermons:
Revealing the Unique
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Links to past sermons can be found at the bottom of this page.