Our church family
Sermon: Sunday, 7th March, 2021 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28
We’ve not been able to meet together in church for over two months now, due of course to the pandemic. I hope you are longing to come back to church. You should be. Why? Because church is about family. So, if you’re not missing attending church, and if you are not missing the people in the church, then something is wrong. There’s something you are not grasping about the nature of the church. When we do return, and I hope that’s not too long, I’d like us to come back with a clear understanding that our church is a family, and that this has huge implications about our attitude to one another.
Why is the church a family? We all know that the church is not a building. We’re the only Free Church in Fife which has its own building. Dunfermline and St Andrews do not – but they are still churches, of course. The church is not a club that we pop into when we feel like it. Nor is the church a place where the focus is on what you get out of it, or how it makes you feel, because it’s not all about you.
The church is not something less important than our own blood families. Rather, the church is made up of people – men and women and boys and girls – who have been united to Jesus. When we become Christians, God adopts us into his family. But that means that other Christians are our spiritual brothers and sisters in Christ, and this is a massive privilege, but also carries massive responsibility. There are several New Testament images which outline both our union with Jesus Christ and the union we have with one another which flows out of that.
For example, the vine and branches. In John chapter 15, Jesus says, ‘I am the vine and you are the branches.’ We receive our spiritual life and vitality from Jesus himself. We’re attached to him by faith. However, this also means that we are all joined together to one another because we are integrally joined to the vine.
Then there’s the picture of the church as a temple in Ephesians chapter 2. Jesus is the cornerstone, and we are all stones; we are all connected to Jesus and to one another.
And there’s the picture of the body: one body and many parts (1 Corinthians chapter 12). Jesus is the head of the body, an we are all interdependent. All these biblical images of the church speak with one voice, reminding us that if we are Christians then we are united to Jesus and that means we’re united to one another. And that means our behaviour and attitudes toward one another is crucial.
What we are not: we’re not isolated individuals who turn up to church every week and then we have very little to do with one another for the rest of the week. That is not how it should be. But be honest, if that’s how things have been for you, then this time we’ve had away from one another, tough as it has been, might be the perfect opportunity for you to reflect, and to return to church with a new attitude – a new attitude to attending church and toward your spiritual family members.
So, here’s a challenge – have you grasped just how much we need to invest in one another’s lives? This takes time and effort. This cannot be done at tea and coffee on a Sunday morning.
Let’s get back to 1 Thessalonians 5. Paul has been reminding us over these last few weeks that we ought to be living in the light of Jesus’ return, and this means living holy, Christ-like lives. In this section, verses 12-28, there are over 20 exhortations given by Paul, and I want to look at them through the lens of ‘Christian family’. So, we’ll be looking at ‘family leaders’, ‘family love’, and then ‘family worship’. Remember, the church in Thessalonica is a young church, and needs to come to terms with how the family of God works best.
1. Family leaders
Just as our human families have and need to have leadership, so it is in the church. God has given the church elders to lead and guide and serve the church. What should they be doing in the church? In verse 12, Paul describes the role of the elder in three ways. They are to be those who ‘work hard’ in the church; this phrase ‘work hard’ conjures up a picture of someone engaging in difficult and exhausting labour. Elders are those who work hard, as their circumstances permit. However, we must never think that the leaders do all the work, and the rest of the church family are to be passive. Remember Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:11-12; ‘So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service…’
Next, it says that elders are ‘over you in the Lord’. This probably speaks both of the God-given authority elders have to lead, but also of their duty to protect and care for those in the family. Just as Jesus was the king who did not come to be served but to serve, likewise elders must have this same attitude.
Paul also tells us that elders must ‘admonish’ those in their care when necessary. This is not always an easy thing to do, as it involves confronting things which are wrong in the lives of others, so must be done lovingly and with tact. But it must be done. If there are doctrinal or moral errors being made, then elders must speak the truth in love. Parents must admonish their children, and if they don’t then the children will become spoiled.
In his commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Gene Green makes an interesting remark about admonishing: ‘While personal correction has almost become anathema in the church today, ancient opinion was that correction by others was profitable for a person’s wellbeing.’ Do you agree with him, that most people won’t tolerate being corrected? We should expect our leaders to admonish us, when we start to go off the rails. Do you expect that?
Paul also teaches us what the church family’s attitude should be towards their leaders: ‘Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.’ (verse 13) A healthy church is one where the leaders are respected and deeply loved, because of their work. Is this our attitude to our leaders? When there’s love flowing in both directions, from leaders to congregation and congregation to leaders, then peace reigns in the church.
2. Family love
In verse 14, Paul has three groups of people in mind; the idle, the timid and the weak. When we see such people in the church, whose responsibility is it to bring warning, encouragement and help? Actually, it is yours. And it is mine. Paul is speaking to the whole of the church family in this verse. This is striking, and a much-needed teaching in a day when we’re often far too sensitive, individualistic, and busy to even notice the needs of others around us. But we have to notice. Which means we have to know one another in a meaningful way, and that shallow relationships are the mark of an unhealthy church. Are you willing to get to know others more deeply?
You might see something and be tempted to think, I’ll just leave that to the elders, or you might even walk on by on the other side. ‘… so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.’ (Romans 12:5) We belong to one another! Do you really believe that? Do you live it out? This teaching might mean we need to rethink how we view our church family, because Paul is telling us we all have a duty to care for one another.
If someone is being idle, perhaps you can warn them (in love) from your own experience, and from God’s Word. If someone is timid and in need of encouragement, perhaps because of their current circumstances, or through the death of a loved one, what a boost you could give them if you come alongside them, and empathise and listen and care, and remind them of God’s character and promises. And when you see people who are weak in the faith, who are going through a season of doubting, or who are confused, will you help them, even if this takes quite a lot of effort?
When I was learning Greek, our teacher was great, because some grasped the language quickly and others really struggled, but as a teacher it was so evident that he helped the weak, in a patient and gracious way. That’s how we should be in the church.
What Paul is describing here is a real, earthy Christian community, where people get beyond the small talk and aren’t hiding behind masks, as if they are ok all the time. We’re not ok. I love how Paul expects our attitude to the church family to be much more about what we can give than what we receive: ‘Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.’ (Verse 15)
This is practical stuff. We’re thinking carefully, what can I do to be a blessing to others in my church family. And then we go and do it. And the whole church family is blessed. We need one another. There will be times when you will be weak and will need the help of others. That what families are for.
3. Family Worship
Of course, here I’m not thinking about our daily worship in the home, though I truly hope we do that. Verses 16-18 employ plural verbs, and so we are thinking again of what the church ought to be doing together, corporately. ‘Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.’ (Verses 16-18)
When we gather to worship, we all have our own unique burdens and problems, to varying degrees. And yet, we can still rejoice (verse 16), not in what’s wrong, not in our ill health or work stress, but in God. So, Paul and Silas (Acts 16) are beaten and in prison but are still able to rejoice in the Lord. Each week, we gather and rejoice that although we are sinners, God in Christ has forgiven us, and that is wonderful.
We must pray together as a church (verse 17). Again, this verb is corporate, applying to all of us. Prayer expresses our ongoing dependence upon the Lord, and that we’re not relying on our own steam. Whatever we are doing as a church, it must be done prayerfully. And if we’re not used to praying out loud, then start to learn.
Many of you have come right out of your comfort zones with technology, venturing out into the world of zoom and facebook and break-out rooms, and other new things. Well done. I mean that. Technology can be scary, and frustrating, especially when it doesn’t work. Some of us need to come out of our comfort zones in the area of prayer. We all need to start somewhere, which might be praying at first with one or two other people, learning to pray out loud, and taking it from there.
Verse 18: ‘Give thanks in all circumstances.’ Note, it does not say give thanks ‘about’ all circumstances, but in them. Are we a church with a thankful spirit? It’s fashionable at the moment to keep a thankfulness diary or journal and to end the day with some positive thinking, focusing on 3 things that day you are thankful for. Those who aren’t Christians recognise how helpful this can be. But we are those who recognise that what James 1:17 says is true: ‘Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.’ Perhaps at our prayer meetings, we need to spend more time just thanking God specifically for his goodness towards us.
No church is a perfect church. But the Lord wants us to strive towards being this kind of community, this kind of loving family. This blueprint is not only for this embryonic church in Thessalonica; it is for us today. We might feel downhearted and think, I can’t be open with others, or I can’t love others in that way. But we must believe that when the Lord commands us to live like this, he will enable us to do it, and be with us as we prayerfully depend upon him: ‘May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.’ (Verses 23-24)
Our resources do not lie in us, but in God. Our grip on him might be weak; his grip on us is strong.