Sermon: Sunday, 7th February, 2021 1 Thessalonians 2:17-20 to 3:1-10
We cannot see God, so how do we know that he is good and especially, that he is love? Well, there are several ways we see God’s love. Quintessentially, we see God’s love in the cross, as that’s where we see the love of Jesus, laying down his life for us, and where we see the love of the Father giving his one and only Son. What more could he give? We see the love of God in the Bible, as we read about Jesus, and the way he interacted with people, and how he came to seek and save the lost. God’s love has two special features: it is sacrificial, coming at great cost to himself; and it is gracious, in that we don’t deserve it in any way.
But there’s another way we can see the love of God, despite the fact he is invisible, and that’s through the church.
‘No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.’ (1 John 4:12)
This is something quite profound: if Christians love one another in the same gracious and sacrificial way God has loved us, then in a remarkable way we display the love of God to the world around us. Ecclesiology is the study of the church – a very important ‘ology’. And one of the basic things to realise about what God wants for his church is this: we must be plugged into a church family (no excuses) to such an extent that we are a visual aid to our communities, placarding to them the love of God. This should not surprise us, as out of the 50 ‘one another’ verses we have in the New Testament, 12 of them tell us that we must ‘love one another’. We’re told again and again. Are you an active participant in a church family, loving others in a gracious and sacrificial way?
What’s all this got to do with 1 Thessalonians? Well, in our section today (from chapter 2 verse 17) Paul seems to have been accused of having little love or care for the church in Thessalonica. It is implied that Paul has washed his hands of the people, and never had any intention of returning, or of investing into their lives. However, Paul defends himself, and as he does so, we are given a wonderful insight into what true Christians leaders ought to be like, and what healthy churches ought to look like.
1. Passionate love
The suggestion that Paul was now indifferent to the church in Thessalonica couldn’t have been further from the truth. As we look at the kind of language he uses, Paul gives us a window into his heart, and it is a heart beating with passionate love. Leaving them was such a wrench for Paul that he felt ‘orphaned’ by the separation. (see verse 17) Yes, they were out of sight, but they were not out of Paul’s mind. So much of the language he uses is familial, because that’s what the church is: a family. He addresses them as ‘brothers’. He’s already said how he behaved like a ‘father’ and a ‘mother’ amongst them.
In verse 17, Paul openly speaks of his ‘intense longing’ to see them. In fact, he’d tried many times to make a return trip, but Satan had thwarted his efforts. We’re not sure how Satan did this.
In a nutshell, Paul sees the church as a family knit together by deep bonds of love. How can we measure how much this ordinary church family in Thessalonica means to Paul? Well, he calls them his ‘joy and crown’, and even looks ahead to the return of Jesus, the 2nd Coming, underlining that these bonds of love will never be broken, but will go on into eternity. Paul is not focused on temporal things like how his stocks and shares are doing, but rather on the spiritual progress of the Christians in Thessalonica.
Clearly, this is a model for Christian leaders. We must be those who see our people as family, with real bonds of love for them. A good shepherd knows and loves his sheep. Of course, these bonds of love are not just between the leaders and those they serve, but they extend in every direction of the church family. We are to be a church which operates as a family, and that means commitment, sacrificial love, and connection, not just with those we have a natural affinity with, but with every single person.
This is a million miles away from church being just a building where you hear a service, and where you keep your distance from most people, after all, you’ve got enough hassles of your own. This morning we are reminded of the deep bonds of love in the Christian family, bonds which must be valued, nurtured and protected.
How do you see church? As a building? A place just to serve your own needs? Or, as a family where you want to help others, and rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. I can honestly say that when I see your love and care for others in our own church family, I rejoice in that. It’s such a precious thing. It’s crucial. It’s how the invisible God displays his love. Every year that goes by our world seems to become more impersonal, with people keeping themselves to themselves. Our homes are our castles. There is the rise of individualism. We are called, however, to be counter-cultural, and for churches to be places of meaningful community. We all must play our part in this.
2. Practical Love
The best gifts are those things that we really need. Not so much the novelty gifts which give us a laugh but end up in the bin after a few days. What do the church in Thessalonica really need? Well, they are a young church which is being persecuted and so they need encouragement to keep on going in the Christian walk. And they need instruction. They need to be reassured that the suffering they face is in fact normal, and that persecution is the lot of all true Christians, to some extent or another.
Love is much more than feelings; it must also be action. In 1 Thessalonians 3:2 we see that Paul sends Timothy to them. What a wonderful and precious gift. Paul could have tried to keep Timothy all to himself, to help him where he was, but with real gospel generosity, he sees beyond his own needs and context, and sees the need of another church. I loved hearing that Chalmers Church in Edinburgh have, over the years, sent families from their church to those in other areas, where there was gospel need. This is a wonderful thing, and very Pauline!
Paul is desperate to find out how the Thessalonians are doing spiritually, and wants to be a blessing to them. He is mindful that the evil one can use suffering to discourage and weaken believers, especially if they are not expecting it. Suffering is one of God’s key mechanisms for Christian growth. God shapes us on the anvil of suffering. He purifies us in the crucible of persecution, removing the dross and causing us to depend on him all the more. Many of us can testify that we have grown most in the faith during times of suffering.
‘Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.’ (Romans 5:3-4)
There’s the story of a Christian man who was walking along feeling quite discouraged and disillusioned about how hard his life was. He saw a stonemason hammering away at a stone and asked him what he was doing. The man was working on a cathedral and so he said: “I’m shaping this stone down here, so that it will fit up there!” The penny dropped for the Christian as he thought, that’s what God is doing for me; he’s shaping me down here, so that I am will fit ‘up there’.
Timothy is able to go in person and reassure Christians who are having a wobble. Some might have been mocked for their faith, lost their jobs, or been beaten up, and it’s easy for us at such times to think, is it really worth it? If I’m a child of God, why is it harder for me that for unbelievers? It makes no sense! Doesn’t God love us? Timothy reminds them (verse 3) that it is all part of God’s plan.
There’s a huge difference between sentimental love, which might see need, but in the end walks by on the other side, and true Christian love, agape, which is costly, undeserved and sacrificial. May the Lord help us to be a community of believers who express our love in action. If the bonds of love are deep, then the actions will follow. (1 John 3:18) How can you show love to others in our fellowship? Each one of us must figure this out for ourselves and consider what this might look like in our own context.
3. The priority of faith
• Why does Paul send Timothy? ‘To strengthen and encourage you in your faith…’ (Chapter 3:2) and ‘To find out about your faith…’ (Chapter 3:5)
• Why is Paul happy? Because Timothy brings good news about their faith! (Chapter 3:6) Paul is encouraged by their faith. (Chapter 3:7)
• What is Paul praying for night and day? Their faith.(Chapter 3:10)
It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it, that for Paul, as he thinks about the spiritual health of a church he’s homing in on love and he’s homing in on faith. If Christians, in the words of verse 8, are going to ‘stand firm’ in the hostile environment we live in, then we need to be thinking about our faith all the time.
How can we feed and nurture our faith in Christ? Imagine Paul receives a Christmas letter from a friend Alexandros in Thessalonica and reads about the news of the year – how the children are all doing well in the family trade as apprentice carpenters, and how they enjoyed a good holiday at their cousins’ home, and how business is going well, and how his wife is now helping to expand the business. That’s all well and good. But Paul really wants to know – ‘Brother Alexandros, is your faith in the Lord growing? And your love?’
Life in lockdown is tough and strange in many ways. As we muddle through it, whatever else we do, let’s prioritise things which feed and strengthen our faith. It’s not rocket science. Return to Christian fellowship, prayer and the Word again and again, so that we put down deep roots of truth in our lives, and then when the winds of persecution and suffering blow (and they will) we’ll be enabled to stand firm in the Lord.
‘… we work with you for your joy, because it is by faith you stand firm.’ (2 Corinthians 1:24)
How can we ensure that our faith in the Lord Jesus is a growing faith?
“Faith is not a leap in the dark or even a gushy feeling; it rests on the solid promises of God, and then acts on them. Acts of obedience to the words of God are acts of faith. Do you want more faith? Read, and then obey the Word of God, and watch your faith grow.” (Roger Carswell)
As a church family we are praying through the church directory once again, a few people each day. Each time, let’s pray that those we’re praying for would grow in faith and grow in love. Long to see these graces develop in one another, and in ourselves too.